The Great Suggestion

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What’s happened to real discipleship in America ... and how we can get back on track

It was a small gathering with a big name. The “World Apostolic Summit.” February 1999. Singapore. Thirty “apostles” from around the world spent three days answering the question: What do you feel God is saying to His church?

As usual, I was the youngest in the room and the only one wearing jeans. I was simultaneously inspired and intimidated as I listened to these spiritual giants talk about what God was doing in their nations. I felt like a lion in a den of Daniels.

When it was finally my turn to suggest what I felt the Lord was saying to His church in 1999, I said that He was probably saying the same thing He said in 1899, in 1599, in 999 and in 99: “Go and make disciples.” I wasn’t trying to be smart. But sadly, I was the only one in the room who mentioned anything about making disciples.

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Why do church leaders spend time doing everything but making disciples? Why do we try every church-growth gimmick known to mankind, yet ignore the one strategy Jesus endorsed? Shouldn’t His last message be our first option?

Discipleship isn’t supposed to be complicated. Difficult sometimes, complicated never. Two thousand years ago, discipleship was so simple that a carpenter explained it to uneducated fishermen in one sentence: “Follow me and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matt. 4:19, TNIV). Those simple fishermen followed, fished and changed their world.

If modern discipleship is confusing or complicated, it is because we have strayed from biblical principles and the simple biblical process that Jesus lived and taught His disciples. Sadly, the fruit of this departure is glaringly evident today in the United States (see “What’s Going Wrong”).

For Jesus, discipleship was and still is top priority. Yes, He fed the hungry and healed the sick. But He always gave the 12 disciples His prime time. His final word to them before He ascended into heaven was a commission not just to be disciples, but also to make disciples. Like the original followers of Jesus, we are supposed to be disciples and we are supposed to make disciples. In others words, we are supposed to follow Jesus and we are supposed to help others follow Him.

Shhh ... Don’t Say the D-Word

Ever wonder why it’s so rare in the modern church to hear leaders talk about discipleship? Or why it’s even more rare to see a leader prioritize discipleship? We’ve gathered huge crowds, built massive buildings, published books, recorded CDs, preached on TV and radio, and exerted political power. We’ve had healing revivals, laughing revivals, crying revivals, repenting revivals, manifestation revivals and offering revivals. We’ve built faith churches, charismatic churches, nondenominational churches, megachurches, cell churches, house churches, organic churches and emerging churches. Yea, we’ve done it all during my 29 years in ministry, but have we made disciples?

Unfortunately, not very often.

The problem is that although most Christians agree that discipleship is important, even essential for Christian maturity, few understand biblical principles and even fewer apply a biblical process when it comes to discipleship. We seem to prefer random acts of ministry and call it being led by the Spirit.

Copying methods and models can often seem easier than understanding and applying biblical principles and biblical process. In the never-ending search for a perfect model, countless desperate-for-growth leaders copied David Yonggi Cho’s Korean cell model in the ’80s, Ralph Neighbor and Lawrence Kong’s Singaporean model in the ’90s, only to turn to Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven model or Bill Johnson’s miracle model ... or whatever the latest greatest get-big-quick method that’s come down the pike.

It’s time to stop copying methods and models, and instead start understanding biblical principles and biblical process.

Methods and models are unique to a particular time and location. Principles and process can be applied in every ministry context, at any time and in every nation. They are universal. The trick is to understand the principles and the process. Rather than copying something that worked at Saddleback or in Korea, why not discover the same principles that Warren and Cho discovered and do the hard work figuring out how to apply them in your community?

Simple Steps for Anytime, Anywhere

No matter what you call it, here’s a basic step-by-step discipleship process that was created by applying biblical discipleship principles. This process is universal and timeless.

Let me reiterate one thing, however: Discipleship isn’t complicated, but it can at times be difficult. And the difficulty lies in applying the following steps to your specific context—which is ultimately the key to the process’ success.

Simply put, here’s how anyone—young or old, male or female, pastor or entrepreneur—can make authentic disciples.

1. Engage your community and culture.

When Jesus told His original 12 to go and make disciples, they did not interpret His command to mean, “Find people who are already following Me and help them become better followers.” They interpreted His “great commission” to mean that they should go and find people who were not yet followers and help them know and follow Jesus. Evangelism and discipleship were not two separate departments in their church. Rather, evangelism was the beginning of the discipleship process.

Today too many people see discipleship as a program to help church members become better church members. As long as the evangelism department does the outreach and the discipleship department does the discipleship, both will be ineffective.

The starting line of the disciple-making process must be evangelism that engages both our community and culture. Far too many sermons and ministry methods seem to target a community and culture that no longer exists, except in our memories. The more we do away with outdated methods in order to engage those living around us in a shared culture, the more effective we will be in evangelism and discipleship.

2. Establish spiritual foundations.

While changing planes in Singapore a few years ago, I noticed a billboard that underscored the importance of foundations. On this sign was a huge picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with the tagline: “Good façade, bad foundations.”

Only three stories into its construction in 1173, the Italian bell tower began to tilt and continued tilting until it had to be closed in 1990 for fear that it would topple. After almost 12 years of work and a whopping $25 million in renovations, the tower was permanently anchored with a 13.5-foot lean.

Like that infamous tower in Pisa, many Christians have a good façade but are dangerously unstable because of poor foundations. Even the slightest temptation sends them crashing to the ground. On the other hand, Jesus promised His disciples that storms, winds and floods would beat against their lives, but they could survive if they built their “foundation on the rock” (Matt 7:24-25).

If we want our disciples to survive the storms of life, we must help them establish spiritual foundations. This essential groundwork includes repentance, faith, water baptism and the baptism in the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:38-41). Once these basics are established, we need to begin to develop theological foundations such as eternal judgment and resurrection from the dead (see Heb. 6).

3. Equip all believers to minister.

Several years ago the church I lead was in the painful process of equipping a new worship leader named Carlos. He was a talented singer and musician, but his first few times in the spotlight were rough.

After a staff meeting (that didn’t include Carlos), the head of the worship department suggested that he switch Sundays with Carlos the following week since we had a big-shot foreign guest preacher coming. When I asked why, he reminded me that the last time Carlos led worship it was forgettable. I said that I was well aware we were hosting the big-shot American and that Carlos wasn’t our best, but I did not see any reason to bump Carlos from the schedule. The discussion ended with me reminding our entire staff that we weren’t trying to impress our guest speaker—in fact, he had better impress us or he wouldn’t be invited back.

For me, it’s more important to equip a worship leader than to have a perfect worship service. I knew that if we rescheduled Carlos, it would shatter his confidence and set the equipping process back a few months.

When Sunday came around, Carlos led and our guest preached. Sure, the worship was less than average, but Carlos went on to become a great worship leader and church planter.

We hear the phrase all the time: Every member a minister. Yet often, because of our performance-driven culture, we have little tolerance for the messiness of the equipping process. We do church as if only professional ministers should do ministry. The biblical job description for professional ministers—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—is to equip the “non-pros” for ministry, then get out of their way (see Eph. 4:11-12).

Let me ask you a probing question: Do you spend more time ministering to people or preparing people to minister? Do you spend more time preparing sermons to preach or preparing people to minister? Pastors are called not just to minister, but also to equip “God’s people” to minister. When we forget that, we forget one of the primary reasons God called us to serve in the first place.

4. Empower all disciples to make disciples.

Jesus expected all of His original disciples to make disciples. He empowered them, knowing they would make mistakes. The call to make disciples (see Matt. 28) was given to people who were far from perfect. They had questioned, disobeyed, doubted and even denied Jesus.

Too often we act like only full-time pastors or people who have been believers forever can make disciples. But we must not forget it is progress, not perfection, that qualifies one to disciple others. Because Jesus expects all His disciples to make disciples, we must not only equip them, we must also empower them.

Equipping without empowering produces disciples with head knowledge. Empowering without first equipping produces disciples who never mature.

The church I lead was established 25 years ago in Manila’s inner city after a 30-day summer mission trip with 65 American university students. As the time approached for the summer mission team to return to the United States, it was my job to equip the new Filipino “altar counselors” who would replace the Americans. The only problem was that they were all new believers. To build their confidence, I explained that they had been saved three whole weeks and those who would respond to the gospel tonight were newbies, so they were really spiritual giants comparatively.

We had told all the new believers to start reading their Bibles in Mark. Some had finished Mark, Luke and John. Others were already in Romans. After surveying the Bible-reading progress of my 3-week-old disciples, I simply told them to “stay one chapter ahead” and they would be able to disciple those who would get saved tonight—but if the new believers got to Acts before they did, then they would become their disciples.

Years later when people ask me why our church has so many anointed ministers and mature leaders, I try to explain that it is the fruit of an empowering church culture.

So what is God saying to His people in America in 2009? I believe He’s saying the same thing He said to me in the Philippines in 1999 and 1989, and the same thing He said to His followers in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago:

“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” (Matt. 28:19-20, NIV).

Steve Murrell is the senior pastor of Victory in Manila, Philippines, a director of the Real Life Foundation, and the co-founder of Every Nation, a worldwide family of churches and ministries.

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