Six years ago one of America’s most influential churches, Willow Creek Community Church, conducted a ministry self-assessment to determine which of its programs were producing disciples of Jesus. Willow’s leadership works from a business model, treating church-goers as customers. They believed that participation in church programs would make attenders into disciples of Jesus. But they discovered that rather than making growing, reproducing disciples, the programs mostly recycled church consumers.
Sadly, the picture is much the same in most evangelical and fundamentalist churches. A recent survey of American church-goers by Lifeway Research confirmed what previous studies have found: fewer than 20% of Christians evangelize the lost. Even fewer are personally and regularly training other disciples. Maybe saddest of all, our children are receiving the impression that this is normal Christianity because they have so few models who are making disciples of Jesus.
Discipling as a department of the church?
Either intentionally or incidentally, most churches follow a business oriented model. Discipleship has become one of several departments to be managed. “Missions” is treated as a program by which evangelism is subcontracted to people called “missionaries,” or to a few within the church who are assumed to be gifted in evangelism. Training is relegated mostly to a few assumed to be gifted in teaching.
Treating disciple-making as a department in the church tends to suck the passion out of disciple life. Even more importantly, it undervalues the present work of the Holy Spirit by substituting what we can do in place of His supernatural power. Our understanding of disciple life needs to shift to thinking about . . .
Disciple-making as a life cycle.
Consider this: every one of us who are followers of Jesus today came to Him because twelve men trained by Him carried out His mission. That mission was to make disciples (Matthew 28:19). That’s Jesus’ mission for every one of His followers. That’s why church exists. Based on that command, anchored in passages such as Mark 3:13-15 and Luke 10:1-12, and modeled by second-generation disciples such as Philip and Stephen in Acts 6-8, disciple-making can be thought of as a life cycle, beginning with . . .
Birth–Being introduced to new life in Jesus.
The new birth is the essential change that begins disciple life. But it is not the destination. As a friend of mine has observed, even heaven is not the destination. Experiential relationship with the living God is the destination! The Bible norm is that Jesus’ followers introduce others to Him by evangelizing, which should lead to . . .
Growth–-receiving the instruction, the resources and the model for loving, serving and ministering as Jesus does.
Francis Chan has pointed out, “For a person to be truly discipled and growing in his faith, he needs more than one person discipling him.” That is why we need a higher view of church and a deeper understanding of fellowship. Disciple-making thrives in community.
In John 15, Jesus taught us that only as His word abides in us will we experience growth. So disciple life also requires personal, thoughtful and vigorous engagement with Scripture in order to thrive. Everything else we do as disciples flows from how we read Scripture.
This is the critical step where the cycle most often breaks down. Often I hear people speak of how good this or that Bible teacher is. I think they mean that the teacher is skilled at noticing and communicating insights and truths that other people miss. We all appreciate that. But by itself, that kind of teaching is little more than information transferral, and usually does not make disciples who make more disciples. I suggest that a good teacher is one who equips other disciples to do what he is doing, including teaching them how to dig the rich treasure from Scripture, so that they can do the same for other disciples.
Reproduction— . . . all of which they in turn do for others.
This cycle is continued with more evangelism and teaching, but not just any kind. The essence of disciple-making, the passion that drives it, is to show others that Jesus is the treasure. Cultivating zeal for Jesus as the treasure does not happen because we talk about it. It takes place when we move the focus away from programs. Instead we must give personal, vigorous attention to the words of God, and the properly value the present supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.
If maintaining church programs is the focus, then the mission becomes optional—an option that the majority of church-goers do not choose. It is easier to merely be in an assembly that “supports missions” than to engage our neighbor with the Gospel. Offering “a few encouraging words” on Sunday morning becomes a convenient substitute for doing the hard work of investing our lives to teach others.
Jesus is still busy making disciples. His work will go forward with or without us. But He has made us His own so that we will join in what He is doing. This is our opportunity.