Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship--Part 1

I was recently asked to take part in a Commission my denomination is putting together on Christian Education and Discipleship. I am very excited to be a part of this for several reasons, but primarily because discipleship is at the heart of my calling. God called me and constructed me to be a discipler and teacher, and now I have an opportunity to mix with others of the same mindset from across the country and hopefully combine some of my ideas with theirs. It promises to be a terrific learning and growing experience.

But what I want to do here, partly in preparation for our meetings, is to spend some time brainstorming on Christian Discipleship. I hope to create a small online think tank on the issue for at least a while as we share our ideas, experiences, and hopes for the growth and maturity of the Church. Feel free to share any thoughts on where you agree, disagree, or have something to add.

To get us started, here are some of my initial thoughts on the issue in general.

First: a focus on discipleship is sorely needed in the evangelical church. The statistics on what young people believe about the facts of Scripture and theology are deeply depressing, and the overall impact of the evangelical church in the culture at large is arguably minimal.

Second: nominal Christianity is rampant and dulling our senses to our need. Because most people in our culture (if the polls are to be believed) have a vague sense that they believe in God, their understanding of their need to know Christ intimately is nearly nil. The problem is not much less in our churches.

Third: discipleship is not for the spiritually gifted. It is a fundamental expectation of each and every Christ-follower. The early church was careful to pass along correct doctrine, catechize its new and young members, and expected all to be a follower of Christ in word and deed.

Fourth: discipleship is not just a destination, but also a journey. We cannot accomplish discipleship in a 6-week course. We also cannot look at discipleship as something that “happened” at some point in our life. Both the destination and the journey are crucial. We cannot remove the targets of relationship with Christ and knowledge of God, and we need to whet appetites for the lifelong journey that is following Christ.

Fifth: discipleship requires biblical literacy. I, along with some others I have read recently, am convinced that a great deal of the nominalism, and hence ineffectiveness, in the Church today can be traced back in large part to biblical illiteracy. We simply cannot actually answer the question: What would Jesus do?

Sixth: discipleship will be greatly aided with the resurgence of the spiritual disciplines in the evangelical world. The disciplines are not about rote activity or vain repetition—they are about putting our hearts, minds, and bodies in a place where they can be touched and used by God.

What else?


Rich Tatum said...

Good words, Phil. I've written quite a bit (for me, anyhow) on the A/G's statistics and our need for better discipleship over at my weblog. I'm delighted we've started up this Commission on Discipleshp and I hope this fares better than our Decade of Harvest (wrong emphasis: Church Growth) and Vision for Transformation (wrong focus: Process) campaigns have been.

Good disciples results in healthy converts. We've dropped the ball on discipleship in our Fellowship, from the pulpit on down. And I believe discipleship absolutely begins with the individual, and it's one of the things that really can't be done as a grass-roots movement. Discipleship is an inherently top-down process: a mentor is required. And the leading mentor in church is obviously the pastor.

What happens if our leadership hasn't been discipled? What happens if they're not actively doing things from the pulpit and in their daily walk to produce disciples?

I think one clear area of reform in our movement is a return to expository preaching, effective preaching, and sound preaching of the Word. Pastors do more than just deliver a word on Sunday, they are modelling to the church how to pick up the spoon and feed themselves. Preaching that consists largely of "feel-good" positive content and topical springboards don't create disciples. They create a church body that agrees with you and may follow you but aren't necessarily learning how to read the scriptures for themselves.

We need to repent of charismatic-driven leadership and fancy talk. We need to return to clearly preaching the Word and calling people to repentance and the Lordship of Christ. We need our minds transformed by the Word so that we can be the living sacrifices that God can use to build his church. We need to stop relying on simple altar calls and the easily repeated Lord's prayer as the measure of salvation and instead expect that a conversion decision is an abdication of one's personal interests in service to Jesus.

We must go and make disciples.

I think when this happens, we'll see real church growth, not transfer growth.

SOrry to rant, but this has been heavily on my mind lately, since Crabtree's chapel sermon at the A/G HQ.



Tim Van Tongeren said...


Good stuff!

You said, "Preaching that consists largely of "feel-good" positive content and topical springboards don't create disciples. ... I think when this happens, we'll see real church growth, not transfer growth."

I agree with what your saying. It seems like happy topics would draw a larger crowd, but the impact is not as deep. This group could grow quickly because the "cost" of acceptance is lower. A deeper study would draw a smaller crowd but have a greater impact on those attending. This group might have slower growth, but the growth is more deeply rooted.

It seems to me that one obstacle to overcome in this paradigm shift is the current tendency to measure success by filled seats.

But then to give equal time to the other side of the coin: perhaps the shallow impact on a large crowd and the deep impact on a smaller crowd could be accomplished with different channels in the same congergation? Perhaps each approach accomplishes different goals?

Phil Steiger said...

I think there are some great thoughts here already. I am also a staunch proponent of discipleship being a 'top down' reality in the church. I was discussing this with a fellow minister in town the other night and we agreed that in the mid to long run, a church will only produce what is modeled behind the pulpits and in the leadership. I am not sure we can depend entirely upon more programs without stressing the need for discipleship in our ministers.

Tim has some thought-provoking things to say as well. If we commit ourselves to discipleship, will it naturally result in less immediate emphasis on 'church growth'?

Rich Tatum said...

Hi Tim, and Phil.

Unfortunately, I am saddened whenever I talk to a district official or well-networked pastor about this issue. When the topic of discipleship comes up, pastors simply aren't interested. To them, the task is preaching, administering, and putting out fires. Pastors simply don't "do" discipleship. that's for the C.E. and small group crowd.

It would be interesting to check with ten random senior pastors and poll them, "Who are you actively mentoring, right now, and how many have you mentored and discipled in this church?"


Nathan said...

As a former youth pastor, I know first hand the difficulty of imparting sound theological & biblical knowledge to kids. But part of that problem is generational - there aren't anywhere near enough adults who are either willing or even spiritually capable of discipling a small group of adolescents. In many ways they're all in the exact same place spiritually, so I think correcting the errors our youth has to include a strong push to correct the errors of our adults. But there, of course, is the rub - if there aren't enough adults to lead kids, then they're probably aren't enough adults to lead other adults. It's got to start top-down, with the pastors growing a small group of people and then sending them out to start discipling other small groups, who in turn will do the same. Its going to take a long-term view - years, not months - and a commitment to building a solid foundation and not chasing after the latest fads.

In mentioning the practice of the early church, I think you raise another closely related issue - the church is supposed to be countercultural. Its supposed to be different than the surrounding world and we've lost that. Many churches are badly conformed and have lost any voice or authority to speak to the lost in these generations because the church is no different than any other organization. So a discussion of discipleship has to take place in a broader context of renewal within the church.

Amanda said...

Great post! I found it through this week's Christian Carnival.

A few weeks ago I posted on a recent survey done about religion in America and those numbers just baffled me. You are absolutely right that we need to be discipling the beleivers in the church--if we don't, there can be no growth and everything will become (or remain) stagnant.

One thing that God has been pressing upon me recently is James 1:22-24. We need to be doers of the word, and not just hearers. It seems to have become socially acceptable to go to church once a week and then live like everyone else the other 6.5 days. If those of us who have a clear understand of what Jesus would have us be would stand up and do what we are supposed to...then maybe, just maybe, our lights would shine and Jesus would be reflected into the darkness of this world.

I applaud your heart for discipleship and look forward to reading more of what you have say.

Phil Steiger said...

Thank you all for your input, I am taking a lot of what you all have said an opeining a new post on a couple of these issues specifically. You all really are helping me do some of my own formulation on this issue!

Sirrod said...

I'm of the opinion that our entire concept of "discipleship" is out of whack from the model presented in Scripture.

It is not a post-evangelism process. Our "converts" are weak because they are not "converts" at all.

I would be interested in your reaction to this article:

Re-Evaluating Discipleship