Discipleship is a broad word and is used to speak of a variety of things in the church. However, in its simplest form, it is probably best understood as merely speaking of spiritual growth. Of course we grow in lots of ways, in lots of settings, and in lots of different dynamics. I think discipleship happens, at least in part, in a worship service in the sense that the church is (hopefully) putting their best Bible teachers in front of their whole community and helping them know and understand the Bible. By the same token discipleship happens in small groups as well in some important ways. Community, interaction, application, etc…all are far more achievable in a setting of fewer people where discussion and interaction can occur. I think that most church-going Christians in America get these two dynamics, regardless of how faithful they are to them.
Most of our church paradigms have a place for these two dimensions of discipleship. But the third dimension or dynamic, the one that not only finds itself the most neglected, but is unlikely to really ever cross the mind of most Christians at all, is that of personal discipleship of another believer. We may get the first two, but the thought of personal responsibility for the spiritual life and development of another Christian is something that may never even cross the radar screen for an overwhelming majority of American believers. I think all three dynamics are essential to healthy discipleship within a church and in the life of individual believers.
How to implement such a strategy in a local church that has absolutely no feel for this is, to be perfectly honest, something I not only wrestle with regularly but also have yet to feel like I’ve figured out (not that these things are formulaic and one day you just get it completely, there’s always a learning and growth process to it). Nevertheless, I feel confident that the pursuit of it is critical and has enormous benefits for local churches. I offer a few here:
One, we have got do something about the exalted status of local church staff and the byproduct of the idea of professional Christians who do everything for the church. Unfortunately church leaders and pastor’s feed this, whether they realize it or not. I’m sure there are a great many pastors that long for the day when their churches embrace their own responsibility for the work of their church, nevertheless, their structure works against them, and furthermore, I’m not convinced we entirely dislike being the guy people always turn and look to either if we are honest. We neglect many of the gifts and offices that are meant to function in the church, expecting the guy that’s being paid to do whatever needs to be done when he really can’t be all the things the church needs in the first place. We expect pastors to reach people, save people, and grow people with their sermons and any necessary Bible studies or counseling sessions. To think this will work is to look far to narrowly at the spiritual need and investment everyone of us actually needs. Now, I know that’s probably a little simplistic, but I’m convinced that’s essentially what happens in many churches. By leading believers to understand their own responsibility to invest in the life of other believers (or unbelievers) I believe we can begin to challenge the notion of the professional Christian and begin to accomplish far more in our churches. The work that God’s intends for His church to accomplish simply cannot be done by a few men (unless of course they leverage their leadership to do what I am proposing in this blog, by leading in a way that leads their church to be a disciple-making church).
Two, personal discipleship by believers of other believers is critical to their own spiritual maturity. I believe that God calls every Christian, as a disciple themselves, to make disciples, per Matthew 28:19-20. He commands all Christians to teach others everything Christ has commanded. So in one sense, faithfulness to Christ’s command here is an act of obedience that plays a role in a Christian’s spiritual maturity. But, I’m also convinced now that a Christian simply cannot know God and flourish spiritually in their life apart from the responsibility to teach others. Most have probably seen the data that says we remember 90 percent of what we teach as opposed to 10 and 20 percent of what we hear and see respectively. Jesus commands all of those who follow him to teach others. This doesn’t mean they have to preach sermons to the congregation or lead small groups, but it does mean they have to teach a few in their lives about what it is to follow Jesus and how to do that more and more in their lives. When Christians become teachers themselves they are forced to learn, but also to understand what they learn well enough to help someone else understand it. Christians do this all the time outside of the church, training and teaching new employees, teaching their children how to do work around the house, etc…, all of us teach in life, most just don’t think we have to do it in church. I would not know God and His Word as I do if I would have not been forced to be a teacher over the last 14 years of my life. God has used my involvement in teaching believers and discipling individual Christians to take me to a place in my own journey with Jesus that I wouldn’t be at otherwise. Our churches are full of immature believers not simply because of a lack of obedience (will get to that in a minute) and faithfulness to others, but also because maturity needs discipleship, as much for the teacher as for the student.
Three, discipleship is critical to doing community together. Community is a pretty popular word nowadays and many herald it in their church. Some are probably doing it well. But I’m convinced that many of our churches don’t really do healthy biblical community. For most, Christian community really isn’t very Christian at all. I believe that for the vast majority of American Christians community serves a primarily relational function, fulfilling a psychological need for belonging, as opposed to a spiritual function, learning to live life together committed to prayer for one another, fighting sin, proclaiming the gospel, and learning the Bible from one another. The problem is that real life together and the spiritual impact it should have on our lives and those we are with requires a few things, one of which is time. My brother Jared and I were discussing this last week. He made what I thought was an insightful observation into the fact that really to learn to do discipleship, and the kind of life together that it requires, really means teaching our people a completely new way to live their whole lives, because most of us simply live isolated lives throughout the week and spend time together for an hour or so a couple times a week at church. It requires far more time and investment to make a disciple. Community is essential to healthy Christian lives and churches and I believe a greater commitment to personal discipleship is a central answer to doing community more effectively.
And four, discipleship seems to me to be absolutely essential to obedience in the Christian life. Obedience is really more caught than taught. Certainly we have to learn how it is that God calls us to live as His children, so there is a teaching dimension to obedience, but example and modeling are critical to a Christian’s obedience. Discipleship pushes Christians to walk through life together and model for other Christians how to live in obedience to Christ’s commands. I think we learn obedience in a far more effective way in personal discipleship relationships than in worship services or even small groups. If we really want to recommit ourselves to a healthy biblical concern for obeying all that Jesus commanded, personal discipleship will be necessary to do so.
There’s a glaring hole in the way we do church in America. Even our seminary trained and educated probably couldn’t identify a handful of individuals whose lives have been deeply impacted by the personal investment they made into their lives. We do lots of things in church, some of it good, some of it worthless, but personal discipleship is rarely one of them. We sacrifice much, I believe, because of it.