The Basic Elements of the Church: Discipleship

So I get home from work yesterday and we all take our seats in the dining room as we prepare to eat dinner together; this is our daily routine.  During the course of eating our simple meal, sandwiches,  my 13-year-old daughter asked a question; I am not sure of the exact question but it was something like, “Why is it wrong for a man and a woman to live together before they get married?” She then quickly followed that question up with “What if they are not ‘doing anything’ though?” I could have easily gotten angry at my daughter for asking a question that challenged my Christian values.  Believe me, she knows my position on that issue.  I could have told my wife, “That’s it, we’re home schooling our children or sending them to a Christian school!”  This question coming from my 13-year-old daughter should have threatened my wife and I, right?  -But, it didn’t.  We have carefully constructed an environment in our home where questions can be asked.  What occurred after my daughter’s question was a meaningful 30 minute discussion as we ate our meal.  We discussed boundaries, healthy relationships, why my wife and I instituted certain rules in our home and even why Amy and I have set certain limits for ourselves in relationships with others from the opposite sex in order to protect our marriage.  It gave us a relevent opportunity to share God’s plan in marriage, why husbands and wives are to cling to each other and unfortunately, what happens when they don’t.  While the initial conversation only lasted 30 minutes during dinner, there were follow-up questions that lasted until we went to bed.  You see, my daughter’s question presented the perfect opportunity to explain our Christian values and to express to her and our other two children why God’s plan for our lives is best.  -This is called parenting; it could also be called “Discipleship.”  And no matter what you call it, it requires time, it requires patience, it requires grace, it requires Truth and it requires relationship.  There are no shortcuts.

“Our pastor has decided that discipleship is not his ‘thing.’  We have just decided to focus on having a great Sunday morning service with a large crowd; this is what we are good at.”  -This comment was made by the senior associate pastor of the largest church in our two state conference of the denomination that had sponsored me to plant a church.  His church was a ten-year old church plant that served as “the model” for the other churches in the conference.  The conference leadership saw potential in me and offered to help mold me and my church plant into a “successful church.”  But, comments like the one quoted above caused me to pull away and question their recipe for “success.”  Before long, we realized that we were not on the same page and we parted ways.

Discipleship… the great failure in the modern American Church.  Why do we have such a hard time with this?  Sometimes when I think about it, it absolutely blows my mind.  How can someone go to church their entire life, sit under thousands of hours of preaching and teaching -and still be a baby Christian?  Why do so many Christians stumble in regards to the basic principles of the faith?  If Jesus really is the answer, why do most church people live no differently than those who are still “of this world?”  I want to be very clear here; I am NOT talking about being legalistic, religious or churchy.  I am simply talking about living a life where it is clear to those around us that we are not “of this world” and that our Father is not “of this world.”  If we would get brutally honest with ourselves we would have to admit that much of American christianity puts a “churchy” facade in front of a worldly life.  This is why people are leaving the church in droves.  They are simply not getting anything out of it and do not feel compelled to “play our game.”

So how does effective discipleship play in with all of this?  First off, I would be an extremely arrogant guy if I thought I had all the answers.  -I know I do not have all the answers, but I do feel like I have discovered a few clues to effective discipleship over the years.  The words of St John echo in my ears, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” and “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  So do Jesus’ last verbal instructions to us: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.”

If we were to write a mathematical equation for effective discipleship, I think it would look something like this:

(“Relationship with God” + “Relationships with Each Other”) X (Grace + Truth) = DISCIPLESHIP.

Healthy relationships are the foundation for discipleship.  No relationships, no discipleship.  How many healthy disciples have you met who were “not” in relationships with others?  I would venture to say, “zero.”  We were designed for relationship, we were created for relationship; calling yourself a mature disciple without being in relationship is like calling yourself a parent when you do not have any children.  The statement is simply absurd and foolish.  Jesus calls us to be in relationship with Him as we follow Him AND He does not call us to follow Him “alone.”  However, healthy relationships do need boundaries.

So… as we follow Jesus, and enter into a relationship with Him and each other, God’s Word gives us basic relational principles to follow.  God basically says, “If you want to be in relationship with Me and your fellow-man, here are the spiritual principles (-or the Truth) you must practice.”  Please note, Truth is not “the law,” John made a definite differentiation between the two. God’s Truth has the power to literally transform us; it is not a rule, but a gateway to life.  God also knows that we are incapable receiving Truth, yielding to it and following it on our own, so He graciously extended His grace towards us in Jesus.  As a result, Grace and Truth come through Jesus -as we commune with Him.  The transfer of Truth takes place via relationship, through our relationships with God -and each other.  It is a heavenly transaction that perpetually takes place as we all follow Jesus.

Jesus taught in the synagogues and to the masses, but most of His time was spent in smaller groups and in one on one atmospheres.  Thus, He gave of Himself more relationally than corporately. In addition, the example that Jesus set for us was just as much about the model as it is the actually words that came out of His mouth.  You will never catch Jesus saying, “Do what I say, but not what I do.”  No just the opposite, He served as a model for every single one of His teachings. He never asked us to do a single thing that He had not already done Himself.  He served, He gave, He trusted the Father, He sacrificed and He took the time for authentic relationship with His disciples.  He Knew them -and they knew Him.  This was the discipleship model that Jesus used.  It was not a program; it was a way of life.  Discipleship is just as much about modeling the Truth as it is about teaching the Truth.  We fail at discipleship because we do not follow Jesus’ model.

Therefore, our journey of discipleship unfolds as we commune with Jesus and each other & follow His teachings together.  Discipleship does not happen by sitting in a corporate service and listening to hours and hours of teaching and preaching.  I have nothing against the preaching and teaching of God’s word.  In fact, I like listening to God’s word preached and taught when it is done well -and I am actually pretty good at doing that myself.  However, I have realized that our best preaching and teaching is insufficient for discipleship when it is isolated from healthy relationships.  Relationships are key to discipleship, relationships in the home, relationships in the Church and relationships outside of the four walls of the local church building.

So then, why is the American church failing so miserably at discipleship?  I think the main reason is because we have believed the lie that we can make discipleship happen on Sunday mornings -in a crowd.  If the music is good enough, if the preaching is good enough, if the facilities are good enough, if the programs are tweaked enough, if the atmosphere is “just right” then discipleship will “magically” happen.  We can have our cake, eat it too and make it taste very good.  The problem is: discipleship is not happening.  The American church is shrinking and the people who call themselves “Christians” are less and less mature disciples.  Our mindset of, “If we can just get Sally to church on Sunday, she will be OK.” is flawed.  Most of the time, Sally is not affected by our church service alone.  Sure, she might get excited every now and then, but the excitement and emotionalism wears off.  What Sally really needs is Christian relationship; Sally needs to be discipled.  Furthermore, after experiencing what we have to offer on Sunday morning, Sally does not feel compelled to buy in to our churchy facade and “play the game” with us.  Sally has better things to do.  -I talk to people like “Sally” almost everyday.  Most of them are polite, but in a nutshell this is what they are saying.

If I really thought having a great Sunday service was the answer, I would drop everything I am doing, recruit a core group of talented people and plant an attractional church as soon as possible.  I would recruit, plug away and build.  We would have the best music, the best preaching, and the best children and youth programs; then we would build the best facility in town.  People would come, it is a proven model.  If done right, you can have yourself a mini megachurch in about ten years.  –Been there, done that, know how to do it -but walked away from it all.  Why, you ask?  Because I have seen the fruits of it first hand, in multiple environments.  I have become convinced that a Sunday morning performance in front of hundreds of people is not the answer to making disciples.  And Jesus called me to make disciples not build “c”hurches.  “Sally” will not be helped by this -and the hard statistics prove it.  Do we get that?  WHAT WE ARE DOING IS NOT WORKING!!! Can we get that through our thick skulls???  If we want different results, if we want disciples, if we want authentic Christianity as it was designed by God to be, if we really want to help people, we must do something different.

Our corporate worship services create the problem for us.  We want to use them as a foundation in the Church and stack everything else on top of them.  Our corporate services are supposed to be the big thing that attracts people to our churches.  We use them as the “connecting point.”  Therefore the majority of our energy and resources are directed towards this weekly event.  Do you see the problem? Discipleship comes with authentic relationships; discipleship happens in smaller groups.  You don’t get that in the corporate service.  If you attend a church that has more than 100 people, stop and ask yourself a question, “When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with your pastor?” -Stop and think about it.  Not a quick question about an issue or detail in the church, not just shaking a hand at the back door with a few short comments, but a meaningful conversation about something in your life or theirs.  Then think about this, “the Kingdom of God is built on relationships.”  Does your pastor even “know” you?  Do the people at your church really “know” you? If the Church is supposed to be your spiritual family, shouldn’t more than a few people in your church really “know” you?  Do even a few people “know” you?

In addition, huge problems are caused by the money, power and personalities that are involved in most large churches.  I will save that discussion for a later post, if needed.  Just please notice, Jesus refused to accumulate power and money in His earthly ministry.  He refused to involve Himself in politics.  He knew the problems these foreign elements would bring to His Kingdom. Remember He said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  Money, power, politics and egos often create large religious institutional machines where the value of the individual person is lost and authentic relationships are under valued. It is very easy to “throw people away” in these systems. The institution is valued more than the individual person.

The symptoms of the real problem are all over the place, pastors throwing away church people, churches throwing away pastors.  Pastors throwing away other pastors. Church hopping is rampant.  Why???  I thought these people were family? The lack of accountability of pastors, church leaders and church members, failing marriages, corrupt leadership, secret agendas, positioning for power, begging and manipulating God’s people for money to pay salaries and build large elaborate buildings that we think we need because we compete with the world -all symptoms of weak dysfunctional relationships and shallow discipleship:  –Just because these dysfunctional elements have become “normal”does not mean they are right -or justified.  Christian relationship in the church has been replaced with politics; then we wonder why the unchurched are not interested in what we have to offer them.  Do you actually blame them?  Seriously, do you really???  Honestly I don’t; frankly, I am embarrassed for us. -And a good performance on Sunday morning does not make any of this ok.  WE NEED TO REPENT!

The current system does not promote discipleship; it promotes… -well, it promotes what we have now.  Call it whatever you like.  Relationship and discipleship go hand in hand and are the first two of the three core elements of the church; they are the elemental glue that holds a healthy church together.  If we are not getting them right, then we must stop and ask ourselves some hard questions -and then seek answers.  This is exactly what I am doing right now in my own life and on this blog.

-Again, constructive comments are welcomed and appreciated.

4 thoughts on “The Basic Elements of the Church: Discipleship

  1. I know Suzy, I get no joy out of being “the critical guy,” but if we want to things to get better, we have to be honest with ourselves.

    For the record, I really believe NBC is on the right path. I could easily be jealous of Pastor John : )

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