What do you think of when you hear the word Christian? How about the word disciple? Do you immediately conjure up images of Bible characters on a flannel graph or a Bible story book? Do you think of impatient Peter, or maybe the beloved John? What does it mean to be a disciple or to be discipled? Do you consider yourself a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that
Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or as a pattern of the good life, but as the Son of God. He alone matters. Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship. (1)
Discipleship is at the very core of New Testament Christianity, yet its fulfillment within the context of the local church has failed in the twenty-first century. Why? Many churches simply ignore it. It’s laborious. It’s time consuming. It’s takes energy, strategy, and sacrifice. Therefore many ministries just aren’t committed to making disciples. I can’t tell you how many churches I have visited and pastors I have spoken with, that have no strategy for making disciples. Even if there is a program, it receives only a minimal amount of energy. I believe there are three primary reasons for this lack of intentional disciple making.
- Misunderstood Principles of Discipleship- In his book, The Disciple Making Church, Bill Hull relates a story that reveals this misunderstanding. He states, “At one of my seminars, a pastor seated in the third row raised his hand. ‘I like your emphasis on discipling,’ he commented when I called on him. ‘But it isn’t for everyone. I think you are right that Jesus modeled discipling principles, but I don’t see it in Acts and the Epistles. After all, the word disciple is not used after Acts 21. The apostles must have realized the church was different. It’s not practical to apply disciple making to the whole church—not everyone is interested in such things.’ Because he had encountered difficulties, he voiced the objections of his congregation and other frustrated colleagues. (2) The truth is, disciple making is for every church. Biblical discipleship is at the very heart of the local church ministry. There must be a renewed passion for biblical discipleship that must begin with the leadership of local churches recapturing the heart of Christ to win, baptize, and make disciples of believers.
- Misappropriated Emphasis Regarding Discipleship- In the last two decades, there has been a fundamental transformation that has taken place in many, if not most churches as it relates to their purpose for existence. Churches that once were Christ-centered are now church-centered. Another way to say it is that many churches were once outwardly focused are now inwardly focused. Church is more about what you come to experience, rather than laboring in the harvest field sowing the seed of the Gospel. They have placed a disproportionate emphasis on worship, fellowship, and even evangelism, to the exclusion of discipleship. The first and foremost priority of any church is the declaration and promulgation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. That is Christ’s command to every New Testament church and every believer. But, it is the final part of Christ’s command that has all but disappeared from the ministry of local churches—the making of disciples. If a church wishes to be balanced in its fulfillment of the Great Commission, there must be a process in place which will facilitate the continued process of teaching the Word of God. And in most churches, that process cannot be carried out, because that process does not exist.
- A Misguided Value Placed Upon Discipleship- If we are ever going to see a resurgence of disciple making in the twenty-first century church, it will require an enormous shift in our value of making disciples. We must no longer view discipleship as the select agenda of a few fringe fanatics, but as normal, biblical, New Testament Christianity. It must not be viewed as an optional “ministry”, but as a vital, integral part of our responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission.
So…does your church have an intentional, strategy for making disciples? If not, why not? If we truly desire to see the product of the Gospel in people’s lives, we must be willing to invest the time and energy it requires. It is only when churches return to scriptural principles concerning discipleship, strike a proper balance with discipleship in the bigger picture of ministry, and rediscover the great value of discipleship that churches will, once again, begin to see this vital part of the Great Commission fulfilled.
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1959.
- Hull, Bill. The Disciple Making Church. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Publishing Group. 1990.