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How The Church Today is Getting Discipleship Wrong

One of the ways you know you’re making progress is that you stop having the same discussion over and over again.

If you’re discussing the same issues on your team or at home year after year, you’re probably stuck.

When it comes to much of the discussion around discipleship, I believe we’re getting it wrong in the church.

We’re stuck.

What if the popular understanding of discipleship is producing some of the ill health and even stagnation and decline we see all around us in the church?

And what if you could do something about it by rethinking what you mean by discipleship?

Different Day, Same Conversation

From my earliest days in ministry, I’ve had a conversation about discipleship that repeats itself again and again.

It goes like something like this:

Me: People need to reach out more and focus more of their time, energy and resources on evangelism.

Other person(s): That’s a great idea but what we really need to focus on is discipleship. There’s such an immaturity in Christians today that we need to focus on growing the ones we have first. And besides, evangelical churches are known for producing shallow, immature Christians.

Pretty compelling logic.

Unless, of course, it’s wrong.

 

Flabby Christians

I agree that often Christians in the West are immature. I agree our walk doesn’t always match our talk.

But I also think the average North American Christian is about 3000 bible verses overweight.

The way many leaders approach maturity is to assume that knowledge produces maturity. Since when?

It’s wonderful that people understand what they believe, but knowledge in and of itself is not a hallmark of Christian maturity. As Paul says, knowledge puffs up. Love, by contrast, builds up. And some of the most biblically literate people in Jesus day got by-passed as disciples.

The goal is not to know, but to do something with what you know.  I wrote more on why our definition of Christian maturity needs to change here.

 

7 Truths About Authentic Discipleship

Here are seven things I believe are true about biblical discipleship church leaders today should reclaim:

 

1.  Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not be disciples.

The way many Christian talk, you’d think Jesus told us to be disciples. He commanded us to make disciples. The great commission is, at it’s heart, an outward movement.

Could it be that in the act of making disciples, we actually become more of who Christ designed us to be? It was in the act of sharing faith that thousands of early Christians were transformed into new creations.

I know personally I grow most and learn most when I am helping others. It gives me a place to apply what I’m learning and to take the focus off myself and place it on Christ and others, where it belongs.

 

2. Discipleship is simply linked to evangelism.

The thrust of all first century discipleship was to share Christ with the world he loves and died for (yes, Jesus really does love the world).

You can’t be a disciple without being an evangelist.

And for sure, the opposite is true. You can’t be an an evangelist without being a disciple. But somehow many many people would rather be disciples without being evangelists.

 

3. A mark of an authentic disciple includes getting it wrong.

A common criticism of churches that draw in large numbers of outsiders and newer believers is that these new followers of Christ get it wrong as often as they get it right. They might not realize that reincarnation isn’t biblical or struggle to understand the faith they’re stepping into.

What if that’s a sign that their discipleship is authentic?

After all, Peter didn’t get it right most of the time when he was around Jesus. Many leaders in the early church needed correction. And even Paul would later confront Peter about his unwillingness to eat with Gentiles.  And yet Christ chose to build the early church on Peter and Paul. Imagine that.

 

4. A morally messy church is…inevitable

One stinging criticism of churches that are reaching people is that many of their attenders don’t bear much resemblance to Jesus.

These new, immature Christians can be

swayed by powerful personalities

still be sexually active outside of marriage

have questionable business practices

end up in broken families

be too swayed by the culture

not know how to conduct themselves in worship

doubt core doctrines like the resurrection

If these issues remind you of why you so dislike growing churches or megachurches, just realize that I pulled every one of those problems out of 1 Corinthians. The church in Corinth struggled with every problem listed above and (I think) every problem growing churches today struggle with.

And last time I checked the church in Corinth was an authentic church Christ loved.

The fact that you have these problems may actually be a sign you’re making progress with the unchurched. You don’t want to leave them there, but when people really start engaging with Christ, tidy categories are hard to come by.

In fact the most morally ‘pure’ people of the first century (the Pharisees) were the very ones Jesus most often condemned. Go figure.

 

5. Maturity takes time and is not linear

It would be great if there was instant maturity in faith and in life. But it never works that way.

You can’t expect a 3 year old to have the maturity of a 13 year old, or expect a 23 year old to have the maturity of a 43 year old. When you place expectations on people that they are just not able to bear, you crush or confuse them.

And yet we do that in the church all the time. People grow and mature over time. And our progress isn’t always as linear as a 101, 201, 301 progression would make it. In fact, I know some 23 year olds who are more mature than some 43 year olds.

Expose new Christians to the love of God and community, to great teaching, great relationships, and solid accountability and over time, many will grow into very different people than they were when they first came to Christ. They may grow at different rates and in different measures, but I believe Jesus talked about that. Just don’t judge them after a few months or even a few years.

 

6. Christian maturity was never about you anyway.

Christian maturity has never been about you anyway. It is certainly not about how awesome you are compared to others, how smart you are, how righteous you are, or how holy you are.

It is about Jesus. And it is about others.

It was never about you anyway.

 

7.  Love compels us

If you love the world, how can you ignore it? Jesus said the authentic mark of his followers is love. He defined the primary relationship between God and humanity as one of love. The truth he ushered in is inseparable from love.

The primary motivation for evangelism and discipleship is the same; it is love. That should characterize both the discussion about evangelism and discipleship and also the way we go about both.

This isn’t an exhaustive treatment of discipleship and evangelism, but in the time it takes to sip a coffee I hope it helps some way advance the conversation about evangelism and discipleship in your church.
And if we advanced our understanding of discipleship in the church, maybe the church and our culture would be transformed.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  • Pastor Chris

    Good article. Spot on.

  • Dave Adamson

    Great post Carey. We too often translate “disciple” as “student” which is we we tend to focus on knowledge as a sign of maturity. Yet the Hebrew word Jesus knew for “disciple” was “talmid” which more accurately translates as “apprentice”.
    A student learns to know what the teacher knows so they get a passing grade. An apprentice learns to do what the teacher does. It explains why Jesus told his followers they would “do even more than this”.

    • Dave…you’re one of my favourite geniuses. Thank you!

  • Yes, yes….well said. We have wrongly separated evangelism and discipleship, and ironically discipleship from disciple-making.

    I think the question that must be settled before there is any effective disciple-making is “What is a disciple? What is it we are actually seeking to produce?”
    Here’s my take: A disciple is a lover of God; a lover of people; holy; truth-based; evangelistic; God-dependent; persevering; focused on eternity.

  • Isa Torres

    I think this is great. We’re not supposed to grow outside of the church, much less outside of Jesus. That means that we’re embracing our failures constantly and believing that Jesus justifies and sanctifies us and the church. But I do think this is putting it a little too black and white, when in reality it should go together —acknowledging that two things are both part of each other. Barth says that faith is knowledge, so we do need that. But he does call this to be knowledge that forms and guides our lives. It’s not informational knowledge, but the knowledge that would be found on the Hebrew word for wisdom, a knowledge that you live by. So our discipleship is to be one that is done because we have this knowledge. So we are to forgive our enemies because Jesus has called us to do so, we feed the poor because Jesus fed the poor, we evangelize because Christ called us to do so, and most importantly, we love because Jesus has loved us. All of those are things we know of, but our knowledge has just put them there, as information. Our faith knowledge has to be more of doing, which does include evangelism, but that evangelism is certainly only found in the discipleship. In doing one we’re doing the other, and one cannot be done without the other.

  • wraiththirteen

    you shouldnt seek to be a disciple? explain this then 2Th 3:7 For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us:2Th 3:9 Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. 1Th_5:15 See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men. Heb_13:7 Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.

    • I would say Jesus’ desire is be for us to be both at the same time. Furthermore, for those who love God, the two would be mutually inclusive. We cannot be a true disciple without discipling others and we cannot truthfully disciple others without being a disciple. We follow and lead at the same time. I am not speaking of salvation requirements, but of discipleship.

  • sheepfeeder

    I desire to grow continually, but it doesn’t always seem to happen. Over a period of time,reading, studying, & trying to walk in the WORD, you do notice that you’ve grown, especially when life’s problems don’t turn you into a drama king/queen. When you can restore believers without condemning or judging them, knowing any of us, no matter how mature can fall into sin.

    • Very true. growth is gradual…and subtle sometimes. But progress is measured in distance.

  • Pastor A

    Carey, this is so helpful. I find myself making these same statements when approaching ministry. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard “Turn to (enter scripture) followed with “I can quote it to you, as you know” – It’s nauseating and (maybe unknowingly) creates an inferior complex to those listening.

    If we take away evangelism from discipleship instead of Christ-followers we create Pharisees.

    • So true Pastor A. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.

  • Thanks Carey,

    Jesus DOES actually love the world. Lately I have been realizing in a strange way that when I say that Jesus loves the world it almost feels like a “guilty pleasure” in my inner being. It’s like a reaction in me happens that feels like “Ha! I knew it all along, He actually loves this place!” So thanks for linking that to discipleship.

    I love the catalytic idea that “You can’t be a disciple without being an evangelist.” I am not a person that would self identify as an evangelist but I would tend to call myself a disciple. So it is good for me to think about MAKING disciples as God’s desired outcome of my life each week.

    Matt 21:28-32 (two sons/vineyard/doing what their father wants) has been my 2015 scripture. I have been asking God to help me be a “first son”. Maybe the first son learned that MAKING disciples is actually what his father was up to!

    One last thing, very empowering idea that my Christian maturity is actually about Jesus & others… reminds me of wisdom that I feel I have been picking up in my solitude times with God lately… Jesus made fulfilling his mission and returning to His Father not about him but about his Father, the New Creation and us.

    Have a great day!

  • David B

    Discipleship is not an either or proposition in terms of “being” vs. “making” It’s both/and. It’s about being in one relationship where the other is doing the making and you are doing the being. This is how you learn how to do the making. This is where you learn humility. And, then, at the same time you must be in another relationship where you are doing the making and the other is doing the being. But, even before that – that plank that is in thine own eye – that must be dealt with. Do that – and learn – then you can teach others, having demonstrated it in your own life. Discipleship is about helping others remove the splinters from their eyes.

    • Agreed. You can’t make a disciple without being a disciple, but I wrote this because I see so many people trying to be a disciple without making disciples.

  • jim

    The word disciple drops out after acts 21:16

    • Right on. Then they are apostles. We’re sent. It’s outward.

      • We invest ourselves & our resources mostly in gathering people while Jesus spent most of His time sending people. Would love to see a renaissance of “Church” in our day that is known for sending people

  • Jonnie Tabitha Shumate

    Great stuff and just another confirmation to what God has placed in my heart…thank you for sharing! I hope lead pastors will get this message.

  • Amen and amen!

  • tmarsh0307

    For the most part, I agree with the article – especially the link of discipleship to evangelism. Yes, they are one and the same and should not be seen as separate entities. Nevertheless, making disciples presupposes discipleship. I don’t think that point one should be an either/or, but a both/and. And while you are correct in indicating the thrust of Matthew 28:19-20, we also have Mark 8:34 and parallels, Luke 12, Matthew 5-7, Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 12:1-2 (if translated correctly.) Simply put, the cross is not only something done for us, but also a paradigm of discipleship.
    If you are indicating that discipleship comes when we quit focusing so much on our progress and look outward to engaging mission, then I agree. Perhaps the article could be worded a bit better. Nevertheless, points 2,3, 5-7 – yes, I agree wholeheartedly!

  • I have just completed a book on Discipleship, God Called – He Needs Your Decision! My research would track well with your comments 3 to the end, but not with 1 or 2. Jesus certainly calls us to be disciples. I know you correct yourself later, but I think the comment would be better left unsaid.
    I don’t believe that you have to be an evangelist to be a disciple. What Jesus never did say or Paul or anyone else: Go into the world and make converts. Sure we need to tell folks about Jesus, the Gospel, and the Hope of Heaven through words and actions. We need to love God and others. But that kind of evangelism should flow out of our love of God and others.

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Appreciate your comment Randy. I’m still not 100% sure you can separate discipleship from evangelism the way we have in the church these days. In the early church, I have a hard time seeing how discipleship wasn’t evangelism, and evangelism wasn’t discipleship. Christ-followers regularly shared their faith and radically changed their lives. Otherwise the spread of Christianity would not have happened. But I appreciate you weighing in.

  • Creche1

    John 3:16-17-18

  • Anton Lim

    Great points Carey. I remember when I was in university reading a book called the “Master Plan of Discipleship”. The bottom line was: go do evangelism and do it with others and that will be great discipleship.
    Thanks for your reflections. Challenging me personally.

    • Appreciate that Anton. I’ve got to get to that book at some point. I agree that it’s the missing ingredient for many today.

    • Lizzy

      Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman? A must-read!

      • Carey Nieuwhof

        Did not know that! Thanks Lizzy.

  • joshua kosch

    “What if the popular understanding of discipleship is producing some of the ill health and even stagnation and decline we see all around us in the church?” this is the exact thing that is happening to me right now. i’ve got some many “Christ” following people causing stagnation and ill health of Gods project. one of which i have to watch every day do worse but get better and then worse. its gotten better to a point then takes a set back. i need all of your help to get me back to where i was before but better so it is never the same thing from God just more of his work getting done. i’m dealing with really sick people. i need your pray for help the church is destroying everything. once i get them to go away everything is fine.

  • renewed4life

    Most enlightening, now to put it to use with the help of the Lord. Amen

  • Missionarymike

    Having had the privilege to work alongside a rapidly multiplying church planting movement in Russia for the last 8 years one thing I have realized is that there is a much higher expectation that people will actually put into practice the things they are taught (obedience) as opposed to my experience in the United States were it seems that we believe we are making disciples when we transfer infer nation from us to those whom we “disciple”. The difference is huge.

  • Very, very good. I have never thought about discipleship that way. Thanks for the perspective.

  • Barack Oyala

    very edifying

  • Jack

    Very insightful; however you are adressing the symptoms of a much
    deeper problem that is plaguing the American Church and the
    “absolute” cause of the current failure and decline of the
    Church and the Church’s Responsibility’s. Simply put; the Church has
    prioritized everything from Money, to Sucessfull Christian Living, to
    Discipleship, to Evanglisim, even Prayer, and Bible Study, will
    become more and more usless untill we get our focus and priority back
    to the two most important comandment’s in the bible. And even when we
    get the first comandment right we usualy seem to forget; you can not
    do the first without doing the second. If we get these two simple
    comandments right everything else in the Church will fall into place.
    It is all about LOVE. Here are the two most important Comandments God
    ever gave to Mankind; “Mathew 22: 37-40”. Yet how often do you hear a sermon or see a book on LOVE?

    • You’re right in many respects Jack. How we handle all the issues you mention changes when our motivation is love. Thanks!

  • adam

    I found this very refreshing but @ point 1, it’s worth considering that those Jesus sent to “make” disciples are the same ones he just spent three intimate years training to “be” disciples. Thank you for the article!

    • coffeeshoptheologian

      Agreed. But the imbalance is that too many are stuck in training, getting fat and happy for self instead of making disciples of others. (Plus, the disciples weren’t sitting around for those 3 years. They were out there making disciples while they were in training.)

  • patsan Reyes

    Great article about discipleship. God commanded us to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching these new disciples to obey all the commands God has given us. God promised He will always be with us. Trust God and go, go, go…make disciples. Thanks for this great article.

  • The best leaders understand that it’s impossible to take others where you yourself aren’t going. This absolutely applies to discipleship as well. I’ve been working for the better part of a year now on a discipleship course, I’d love to connect with you about it and even include you if you’d be so kind!

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  • Stanley Ziegler

    I agree that we carry too many verses. Christ came to simplify Christianity into two rules: Love God and love others. If we bring others ‘as they are’ to be followers of Christ, without judgement, we are showing we understand the two rules.

  • Alex Baez

    Our job in making disciples, according to the Great Commission, is to teach people to obey. The Holy Spirit’s job is to teach all things (see John 14:26). Too often we focus on the Holy Spirit’s job instead of ours. Good post!

    • Norman Prather

      Far too open ended statement “…teach people to obey.” Obey whom?

  • Steve R

    Great post Carey – makes us think of the reality behind what were are to BE and what were are called to DO. It’s helping people understand we are not just going to church, but we are to go out and be the church!

  • Nestor Salmon Reyes

    Wow! I never saw it this way. Makes sense too.

  • Daniel Indradjaja

    This is the best and freshest take on discipleship I have read in a long time. I will share this with all my leaders!

    • Thanks Daniel…and thanks Nestor. Appreciate the encouragement.

  • Cole

    I love this post. When I look at how I am being discipled by other disciples there is a little bit of a process to it. The person discipling gives out information (the Bible, sermons, books). Then they show the person being discipled what its like to live like Jesus did (to the best of their ability, no one can be exactly like Jesus) Finally, they invite the discipled individual into trying their hand at living out what Jesus calls us to do. They invite them to walk along side them like Jesus invited the disciples. Full of questions, not knowing the answers to everything, but willing to sacrifice their lives to the calling Jesus has for them.

  • I am more and more convinced that the same activities that make disciples also make disciples mature: worship, prayer, service, generosity, authentic relationships. It’s not ether/or. It’s both/and.

  • Really appreciate the feedback so far. Just to be clear, I am not saying we don’t need to be disciples. Clearly we do. I am saying that Jesus didn’t just tell us to be disciples, he actually told us to make disciples. I completely agree you can’t make someone else something you’re not (at least not for long). So I agree. It’s just the thrust of discipleship moves outward, not inward as it seems to in too many church circles today. Hope that helps.

  • Dave Palmer

    Some rally good points taken from this piece, such as: “The average North American Christian is about 3000 bible verses overweight”. I’m not sure if I agree 100% with the statement that we aren’t called to be desciples, but perhaps I understood this wrong. One of the first things I was taught in Bible School was that you can not give what you do not have. That being said, to make disciples of all nations, one has to be a disciple himself. Also to be a disciple of Christ means to be disciplend in Christ and we are definately called to the be all that and more. Last but not least, if I am called to make desciples of all nations, that means that someone else had to reach out to me first and had to make me a desciple first. That is the olny way I could’ve had that seed planted in me. That or a personal touch from God.

    Anyhow, just my thought. I’m sure someone will find a wy to correct me.
    Be Blessed and keep spreading the good news!
    Dave

  • Steve Digby

    So, Discipleship includes making Disciples. I like that. The bottom line is not our dogma but our commitment to love. Unfortunately much of the church is caught up in an agenda that is more about talking about love rather than loving.

  • Margie Bryce

    Not sure I agree with the above statement that you just have to make disciples and not be one… and possibly while you are helping someone BE a disciple that that is when transformation occurs. But perhaps I misread?

    What you DO flows out of who you ARE… identity and doing are connected. How can I tell someone else how to be a disciple if I am not being one myself? I need to be a disciple and have a keen understanding of what that entails before I offer marching orders for others. Part of the issue for North American Christians is that many have attended church for decades and have no idea what a disciple is. How can you live into something that is unidentifiable in your own heart? Further, disciples make disciples. We cannot circumvent it for ourselves and plop it onto others.

    We must embrace the role of servant of the Most High God (disciple), which also has its ancient roots in “learner.” The ancients sat at the feet of their chose Master and soaked up everything it meant to be their student. Then, as they lived into that, it would be hard to tell the master from the student. For us Christ calls us to be disciples, to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn what it means to be a disciple so we can integrate that into our hearts and lives. Our hope is that we offer at least a glimmer of Christ as others see us in action.

    Blessings, Rev. Dr. Margie Bryce
    Pastor, DownRiver UMC

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  • Janie K

    As I was reading, I was thinking that I have jumped into positions without fully knowing everything but I learned by making mistakes…and then I scrolled to #3! So True! Discipleship happens in many forms and methods. Do we dare believe that the apostles had it all down to an art form even though they had lived with Jesus? I don’t think so! But their mistakes and imperfections didn’t stop them from growing the church. And in the process they became better servants for Christ!

  • “I also think the average North American Christian is about 3000 bible verses overweight.” Great line. Despite the example of Jesus and the early church, it feels more intuitive to think that knowledge leads to maturity doesn’t it? But it’s easier to educate a doer than to motivate a thinker.