The word “Discipleship” has been around for centuries and over the course of that time it’s definition has proven to be mysterious to some and difficult to implement for many. Robert Foster writes, “In the ancient Hellenistic world a disciple was a pupil or learner of a great teacher… In the traditional sense, a disciple went to a great teacher to learn to play the flute or paint by imitating the great teacher’s own practice. However, in terms of philosophy, disciples learned the art of their teacher’s life and teaching.”((Robert L. Foster, “Discipleship in the New Testament,” Society of Biblical Literature Teaching the Bible, n.d.: https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/tbv2i7_fosterdiscipleship.pdf)) As a follower of Christ one seeks to imitate the life and teaching of Christ, akin to where the term discipleship originated. If you have spent any time in the local church on staff or as a lay person you’re probably familiar with this term. But why is discipleship so important to the Church?
I would venture to say that discipleship is not only important for the Church but it is one of the major objectives in the establishment of the Church. We recognize this establishment in scripture as ‘The Great Commission,” where Jesus told his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” The word “disciple” appears 261 times in the New Testament.((Ibid.)) As we can see, disciple-making is a priority of the Christian faith originating in Jesus’ ministry, continuing on in the early church and into the present day; but it seems that over time the art of disciple-making has been lost.
Here is the dilemma: the gap between our current understanding of disciple-making and that which is present in the Bible is growing, and today’s church leaders are recognizing this in their own ministries.
In the article, titled, “New Research on the State of Discipleship” Barna states, “Christian adults believe their churches are doing well when it comes to discipleship: 52 percent of those who have attended church in the past six months say their church “definitely does a good job helping people grow spiritually” and another 40 percent say it “probably” does so.((“New Research on the State of Discipleship,” Barna Group, December 1, 2015: https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/.)) Additionally, 67 percent of Christians who have attended church in the past six months and consider spiritual growth important say their church places “a lot” of emphasis on spiritual growth; another 27 percent say their church gives “some” emphasis. Church leaders, conversely, tend to believe the opposite is true. Only 1 percent say “today’s churches are doing very well at discipling new and young believers.” A sizable majority, 60 percent, feels that churches are discipling “not too well.” Looking at their own church, only 8 percent say they are doing “very well” and 56 percent “somewhat well at discipling new and young believers.” Thus, they observed that “pastors give their own church higher marks than churches overall, but few believe churches – their own or in general – are excelling in discipleship.”((Ibid))
Church leaders recognize that there is an issue in the North American model of discipleship today. Let’s identify three of these issues so we can then understand how to address them and move forward.
Firstly, many churches are quick to substitute or confuse events for disciple-making. To be clear, I am not against church events. I think they’re a great method for bringing the body together, however, just because a church has creative services and events for the purpose of evangelism, does not mean they are making disciples. Discipleship is a slow process that does not happen overnight. We cannot treat this process like we treat events: setup, tear down, and onto the next one.
We must be careful that we are not compromising the quality of discipleship for the quantity of eye catching events.
Secondly, discipleship can be messy when it requires us to walk with those who differ from ourselves. Whether it be a different social class, ethnic background, or mindset, true discipleship tears down these barriers. Furthermore, as the Holy Spirit leads in the process of disciple-making, these fleshly tendencies are replaced with unity in Christ and growth in the Word.
Lastly, the consumerist mindset of the North American church can make it difficult for church leaders to disciple. As the Barna research showed, most congregants felt they were being discipled effectively while most church leaders felt that this process was not successful in their church. This tells us that there is a disconnect in what congregants feel they need spiritually and what their leadership feels they need. For most congregants, hearing a Sunday morning message is the equivalent of being discipled. However, becoming like Christ requires much more than 45 minutes a week. While these are real obstacles that we face in the process of discipleship, we should not be discouraged. If we lean on the power of the Holy Spirit these obstacles can be overcome; we can turn the statistics around and make known God’s name to the ends of the earth.