In the previous article, I used Eric Geiger and Thom Rainer’s book Simple Church as a model for making disciples. Clarity, as suggested by the authors, was the indispensable element of growing, vibrant churches. Without a clear definition of discipleship, simplicity is almost impossible. (Click here if you missed the post.)
A. People Misunderstand the Meaning of Discipleship
B. People Minimize the Importance of Discipleship
A misunderstanding can lead to minimization.
George Barna states that only 4% of Christians identify the command to make disciples of all nations the primary purpose of their life.
How important is discipleship to pastors? In study after study, ministers have ranked discipleship at the bottom of their priority list. The average church today focuses on creating, starting, and sustaining programs. Few have any real emphasis on personal discipleship, much less any structure or instruction for performing it.
One of the reasons for the lack of discipleship in churches today resides with the leadership.
A few years ago, LifeWay Research surveyed various Southern Baptist Churches about their ministerial priorities. Mark Kelly created an online study entitled, “Critical Ministries and Their Leadership,” which questioned 801 Southern Baptist pastors about the most critical ministries in their churches. Pastors, listing ministries in the order of importance, identified evangelism/outreach as the most important ministry of the church (24%), followed by Sunday school/Bible study/small groups (17%). In descending order were worship/specific worship services (13%), preaching/proclamation/teaching (10 percent), children/youth (9%), discipleship/spiritual growth/mentoring/counseling (7%), and prayer/prayer ministry/prayer groups (5%).[i]
Sadly, prayer and discipleship—extremely important disciplines in a believer’s life—scraped the bottom of the priority list.
Wake Up Call
Five years after writing about mobilizing, inspiring and leading others, Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, publicly apologized to his congregation for failing to produce disciples in his church. Hybels hired a company to evaluate Willow Creek’s effectiveness, and the results caused Hybels to experience the “wake-up call” of his ministerial life.[ii] Acknowledging Willow Creek’s failure, Hybels expressed his frustration. “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self-feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people how to read their Bible between services, and how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”[iii]
After investing thirty years of ministry and tens of millions of dollars in facilities, programs, and promotions, Willow Creek was admittedly unsuccessful in producing disciples. Resources were prioritized on attracting visitors, but a step-by-step plan for personal growth was ignored.
Jason Mandryk of Operation World would agree with Hybels’ desire to create “self-feeders.” More to the point, he believes discipleship should be our highest priority: “Discipleship is the greatest challenge facing the Church today…. There is a genuine need for effective Bible study and teaching in Christians’ heart languages, genuine fellowship, and a commitment to involvement in ministry.”[iv]
It’s Not All the Church’s Fault!
Speaking about the impact Christians have on the world, or the lack thereof, Greg Nettle stated, “The lack of discipleship undermines all else that we seek to do.”[v] So who is to blame for this oversight? It is unfair to blame the Church exclusively. While the shortcomings of the church in discipleship cannot be overlooked, it is also true that many professing Christians never commit to a growing relationship with the Lord.
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus taught us that many who receive the Word of God never grow and bear fruit for Him. A shallow commitment and love for the things of this world—this life—stunt their growth as believers (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23).
The fact is, nearly all evangelical churches emphasize, to some degree, Bible study and prayer, which are the basic keys to knowing God. Most offer some sort of Bible study or D-Groups, albeit, often ineffectively. But, in the best of churches, only a fraction of the membership even attends a worship service regularly! Smaller still is the percentage of people who are faithfully involved in a group or class.
Jesus pulled no punches when it came to discipleship. He was blunt and crystal-clear about it: following him is a choice, a choice that requires sacrifice, commitment, and making him the number one priority of our lives. There is a cost involved with being his disciple.
But the rewards are out of this world!
Why do you think discipleship has been an oversight for so many years?
What steps can be taken in order to make disciple-making a priority?
[i]Mark Kelley, ‘Critical Ministries’ Study Reveals Pastoral Priorities, Leadership Challenges” http://www.lifeway.com [online] (April 1, 2009), Accessed 3 April 2009.
[ii]Jason Mandryk, Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 17.
[iii]Christianity Today, “Willow Creek Repent?” http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2007
/10/willow_creek_re.html [Internet] October 2007, (Accessed 29 March 2013).
[v]Alex Absalom and Greg Nettle, Disciples Who Make Disciples (Exponential Resources, 2012), Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 104.