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The Decifit of Discipleship: How American Churches Is Off-Mission

By Allen White

The American church is off-mission.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

That may seem like a ridiculous statement considering the number of growing megachurches and multisite churches around the country. How could the church be off-mission with record crowds? Well, let’s go back and look at the church’s mission statement:

Jesus said: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV).

Regardless of how churches can rephrase and reframe their mission statements, this is the mission: to go and make disciples. The church is not called to make converts. In fact, to lead people in a prayer without offering them a pathway and companions for the journey is irresponsible. The church is not called to make leaders. In Jesus’ view, the first would be the least. This doesn’t sound like western leadership. It sounds like discipleship. The church is not called to make volunteers to staff the weekend services. In fact, to reduce the ministry of the church body to guest service roles is an affront to the New Testament church. The church is not called to draw crowds. The church is not called to build buildings. The church is not called to make money. We are called to make disciples.

But, how can megachurches or any church for that matter make disciples?

Disciples Aren’t Processed. They’re crafted.

Many churches attempt to convert their crowd into some form of discipleship through an assimilation process. Take this class. Make this commitment. Sign this card. Yet an assembly line process doesn’t work with people. They aren’t raw materials. They don’t all start from the same place.

Who are you the most like? What is your default? While we would all like to say, “Jesus,” the reality is that you and I are more like our parents than any other people on the planet. We think like them. We talk like them. We parent like them. We relate like them. Our habits are like them. Their example is ingrained in us. Some of us had great parents. Some of us had loving parents who did their best. Some of us had parents who were complete nightmares. Regardless of what type of parents we had, what’s ingrained in us is difficult to overcome. Even the example of the best parents can be improved upon. No one’s parents are perfect.

Then, in addition to parents, we can add experiences, tragedies, pain, addictions, suffering, career paths, relationships, and so many other things that shape our lives. Discipleship is not making widgets on an assembly line. Widgets are made from pure, raw materials. Disciples are made from broken and sinful people who long for transformation. But, it doesn’t disappear all at once. As Pete Scazzero says, “Jesus may be in our hearts, but grandpa is in our bones.”

Processes are inadequate to make disciples, yet how many churches have an assimilation process, department, or even pastor of assimilation for that exact purpose? In college I had a double major in biblical studies and missions. What I learned in cross-cultural communication and anthropology is that assimilation is the process of helping people adapt to a new culture. They take on the language, the customs, the mannerism, and the wardrobe of their adopted culture. Once they look like, talk like, and act like the new culture, they are regarded as being assimilated. So if we are assimilating non-church people into becoming part of the church, we are teaching them how to look like, talk like, and act like people who belong to the church. What is lacking is actual life transformation. Mimicking actions, language, and appearance does not make a disciple. It makes a cultural Christian and that’s a lot to live up to. Disciples make disciples, but not in mass quantity.

And while we’re at it, stop using the V word: volunteer. Churches should not have volunteers. The church, meaning the people or the body of Christ, have been equipped with spiritual gifts, abilities, and passions to fulfill a divine calling. By reducing the focus to serving and helps, a church is effectively ignoring about 20 other spiritual gifts. The “real” ministry is reserved for paid staff members. This flies in the face of what Paul taught the Corinthians, the Romans, and the Ephesians about the nature and use of spiritual gifts. Paul admonishes the church that no one part of the body can say to the other “I do not need you,” but that’s exactly what the American church is saying today. The attractional movement told people to sit back, relax, and leave the driving to us. That was Greyhound’s slogan. When was the last time you took the bus?

People are reluctant to get involved because the opportunities churches offer them are beneath them. That doesn’t mean that they’re too good to serve. It just means that the only opportunities most churches offer to their people are menial tasks that feed the demands of the weekend service. When CEOs are handing out bulletins and entrepreneurs are parking cars, this is a great misuse of their gifts and talents. They have so much more to offer.

Processes are inadequate for making disciples. Any mass approach to discipleship is a failure. Assimilation doesn’t make disciples. Worship services don’t make disciples. Sermons don’t make disciples. As Mike Breen says, “People learn by imitation, not instruction.” Yet, most churches attempt a programmatic process of making disciples that does little to help people overcome the powerful models they’ve come to imitate. People can be very inspired by sermons, yet within a day they resort to their default behavior. The only way to help people change and grow is to provide personal encouragement and accountability, and of course, all of this is built on the expectation that every member should apply God’s Word to his or her life. If the expectation is for people to come back next Sunday, then we’ve missed an opportunity and are relying on the weekend service to have a greater impact than it possibly can.

Disciples are crafted, not processed. After all, it takes a disciple to make a disciple.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great among other titles, coined this term for when success organizations set out to achieve ridiculous levels of growth. They didn’t settle for being stalled or accepting mediocre, incremental growth. They went for it.

Jesus spent three and a half years of His life pouring into 12 men. The impact of these disciples is still felt 2,000 years later around the globe and involves over 2 billion people. Jesus set the BHAG in Acts 1:8. Propelled more by persecution than ambition (Acts 8:1), the disciples spread a movement worldwide to transform lives.

How can you activate your disciples when most are intimidated by the thought of evangelism and distracted by the busyness of life? Groups could be the answer. You could argue that many people don’t have the time or the desire to lead a group. Some don’t even believe they can. I think we’re going at this all wrong.

Jesus didn’t call us to make leaders. Jesus called us to make disciples. And, disciples make disciples. Do you get it? You don’t need to recruit leaders to lead groups to make disciples. You could, but you don’t have to. You need to equip disciples to make disciples. Who in your church couldn’t be a disciple?

Often in the church today, we embrace the definition of disciple as “follower” or “student” when in reality we’re just working hard to increase the size of the crowd. The crowd are not disciples, if they were, they would be making disciples. In Jesus’ ministry, He spent 73% of his time with His disciples. Jesus could have easily built a megachurch, but He spent very little time with the crowd. The modern American church has flipped Jesus’ ministry on its head. Most churches choose to rapidly add people rather than invest in multiplication. This has a diminishing return.

A Disciple-Making Moonshot

So now that I’ve poked at the church and pointed out what’s broken, let’s fix it. Rather than putting our energy into mass efforts of corralling the most people we possibly can at the fastest rate, let’s focus on the 1/3 of your congregation who has enough of a spiritual basis they could each disciple two other people. Who would be on that list? Church members? Leaders? Long-time members? Then, with the church’s guidance, curriculum, and coaching, you could equip these disciples to make disciples. If the church can get 1/3 of its people to disciple the other 2/3, then you’re making some significant progress. You don’t need to do this all at once, but you certainly could. And, it’s doesn’t need to be just groups of three. You could use church-wide campaigns and host homes to get them started, but don’t leave them there. Or challenge people to get together with their friends and do a study. The bottom line is to stop intimidating people with the thoughts of leadership and evangelism and challenge them to offer what God has given them in community with other believers. What they lack, they can learn from a coach, a resource, or relevant training.

We measure what is important. When you think about the metrics used by most churches, they count nickels and noses. Maybe they count the number of groups or the number of people in groups. Maybe they count the number of people who are serving. But what if churches focused on a new metric? This metric would dynamically impact all of the other metrics. What if the measurement of success became the number of people actively discipling other people? It could be a person discipling two other people as I described above. Or it could be a person discipling eight other people. And of course the intention of all of this discipling is to produce more disciples who make disciples.

What Kind of Church is Yours?

Not all pastors and churches are doing a bad job at making disciples. But, not very many are doing a good job either. Pastors and churches fit into one of four categories when it comes to making disciples:

Content: These pastors and churches are happy with what they have. Often discipleship and small group pastors in these churches are content with the groups and discipleship efforts they have because they have met the expectations of their leadership. They are satisfied with a good job that’s keeping them from achieving a great job at discipleship.

Confused: These churches and pastors believe they are making a greater impact with discipleship than they actually are. Often these churches are led by brilliant teachers who can captivate an audience. The thought is if the pastor gives the people more of the truth, then they will learn and become more like Christ. This is a result of the Enlightenment. Knowledge is king. But, we must remember that “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV). How many people know a great deal of God’s Word, yet it’s not reflected in their actions and attitudes? Great teaching alone won’t overcome the average person’s default which was established by imitating their parents and other role models. They need the support and accountability of others to apply God’s Word to their lives. One service or series won’t dramatically change someone’s daily habits. In fact, a call to change without the means to change will lead to tremendous frustration.

Frustrated: These pastors are trying to make disciples in a church that doesn’t support their efforts. Make disciples anyway. These churches have a spiritual growth/discipleship/assimilation/small groups department for the minimum purpose of preventing members from complaining about a lack of discipleship. When someone asks what the church is doing to help people grow or to go deeper, these pastors and churches just need to point to the department. If you are a pastor who’s discipleship efforts or small group ministry as been relegated to a complaint department for unchallenged members, you have my sympathy. In your church, the weekend service is king. But, in your circumstance, you can still make disciples who make disciples despite the limitations.

Disciple-making: These pastors and churches are making disciples who make disciples. They use worship services and sermons to catalyze commitments that lead to next steps in discipleship groups, support groups, or whatever next steps people need in their spiritual walk. In every worship service, every event, every church initiative, these churches provide an opportunity for people to take the next step of working through issues, applying God’s Word to their lives, finding their unique calling as part of the body of Christ, overcoming sin and addiction, and so many other things. A worship service alone will not resolve these things, but it can motivate people to take their next step. People need someone to disciple them. Disciples make disciples.

Which church are you? Isn’t it time to stop striving to become the megachurch you will never be? Isn’t it time to come to grips with the fact that bigger is only better as long as the church stays on-mission to make disciples? The alternative is wearing yourself out trying to raise money, build buildings, market strategically, and recruit volunteers to maintain a large weekend gathering that doesn’t make disciples in and of itself. Then you wonder why you don’t have any energy to fulfill the church’s calling to make disciples. If your church’s focus is not on making disciples, then what are you making?

This is why I am calling churches to the 100 Groups Challenge in 2020. We have got to make up for this deficit of discipleship in our churches. We need to give 100% effort to either connecting 100% of the weekend attendance into groups, reaching 100 total groups in your church, or starting 100 new groups in 2020.

If you are ready to go for it and join the 100 Groups Challenge, you can find out more here. There is no cost. My goal is to help 100 churches start 100 groups in 2020 and effectively disciple 100,000 people. Over the last eight years, I’ve helped churches to start over 16,000 groups and connect over 125,000 people into groups. My BHAG is to do the same in 1 year! Will you join me?

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