We’ve Got a Discipleship Problem

Men's fellowship

I walked into my dorm room thinking I was alone, but I was wrong! As a senior in college at Alabama State University, I found myself at the end of a very successful four years. Everything was great. I had great grades, great girls, a great reputation and a great future.

However, one small matter did plague me. At times I felt empty inside—but I tried to drown that out with lots of activity.

You see, I was as far from God as I had ever been. No one on campus witnessed to me. Not a soul tried to strike up a conversation that might convert me.

But on that remarkable day, I walked into my room and instantly knew I was a sinner. The Holy Spirit visited me that day and convinced me my life was not pleasing to God.

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For three weeks, I wept day in and day out, pleading with God to forgive me of my sins. The conviction was so strong, I began systematically ridding myself of many things I knew were wrong. I severed unhealthy relationships and eliminated bad habits. At the end of those three weeks, I looked up into the sky and said, “Jesus, You are real. I give You 100 percent of my life.”

Instantly, I felt the conviction leave me and an unfathomable peace enter my soul.

I somehow knew I needed to find a group of Christians to hang with, so one day I parked my car and went to a room on campus I knew Christians frequented. I was able to see them through the balcony, holding hands in a circle while they prayed. I tried to get in the door, but it would not open so I literally climbed over the balcony and broke in to join their prayer meeting.

That group became my new family for the next several months. Day after day, we spent time with each other. We ate, prayed, witnessed and fellowshipped together. We were mentored by a Bible study leader and other mature Christians who modeled living for Christ and expected us to follow in their ways. They taught us the Word regularly and expected us to grow and mature.

After graduation, our group continued to relate and connect for Christ. Incredibly, we had our first reunion of that college fellowship this year—27 years later. I was amazed almost everyone we saw or heard about was still going strong for the kingdom of God.

In those days, I received a foundation I still stand upon. Although I never thought about it at the time, I was literally discipled into being a solid Christ follower, willing to lose my life if necessary to proclaim the name of Christ.

Our Twofold Mandate

Lots of people have a similar testimony of being discipled this way, but something has changed. The American church has drifted far from the original biblical mandate to disciple globally. Many have embraced the call to reach people, and they do so through events, creative worship services and other means that showcase evangelism people can swallow down.

Evangelism is surely important, but let’s remember it is only one aspect of our mission. Discipleship is just as important. It seems few churches in America are truly competent in the second part of our mandate: to raise people to a higher level of mature Christian experience and leadership.

Although a good number of churches have some type of discipleship curriculum in place, they have failed to produce a plethora of disciples. George Barna, known for his research on church life and the culture, declared in his book Growing True Disciples, “My study of discipleship in America has been eye-opening. Almost every church in our country has some type of discipleship program or set of activities, but stunningly few churches have a church of disciples.”

A disciple is one who learns under the teaching of a master. This disciple becomes a complete, ardent, adequate, devoted follower of Christ in thought, word and deed. A disciple lives to follow the master, reproducing other disciples as far and wide as possible. A disciple is not perfect but is sold out to the cause and ways of Christ. A disciple is not about self but about Jesus.

Many of our churches are bigger and boast programs broader than in times past, but we are not producing disciples—and the statistics show it. Jim Putman admonished the church in his book DiscipleShift, “Consider how recent statistics show that when it comes to morality and lifestyle issues, there is little difference between the behavior (and one can assume condition of the heart) of Christians and non-Christians. Divorce rates are about the same. The percentages of men who regularly view pornography are roughly the same—and it’s a lot of men. Christians are considered to be more than two times as likely to have racist attitudes as non-Christians. Domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and most other problems are just as prevalent among Christians as among non-Christians. Consider too statistics about evangelicals. About one in four people living together outside marriage call themselves evangelicals. Only about six percent of evangelicals regularly tithe. Only about half the people who say they regularly attend church actually do.”

Heaven, we have a problem—and Houston can’t help us! No wonder the church’s voice sounds like shrill soprano when its members speak to upbraid culture for its immorality. It doesn’t have the morality that adds the needed bass, or gravity, to our words.

The Second Bookend

The church finds itself in this predicament through a fixation on the number of decisions for Jesus, with too much focus on the power of one salvation prayer. It’s not uncommon to have hundreds recite the sinner’s prayer in a church service or a crusade. Once that happens, a “mission accomplished” feeling envelops the whole room.

But salvation is only one bookend. Discipling the saved is the other.

Like most of America, perhaps the church has begun to chase quantity over quality. Take, for example, the AT&T commercials you may have seen lately where children discuss the meaning of “more” with an adult who keeps asking questions that compare “more” with “less”—and “more” always wins.

The company’s campaign around these commercials is “It’s not complicated,” implying more is always better—and self-evidently so. But more is always better only when it’s more of the essential thing! The church of our society usually aims for more buildings, more money and more people in the seats, more decisions for Christ and more baptisms. These are all good, and we need more of them, but as Paul Harvey would say, “Now, here’s the rest of the story.”

We need more true disciples. It shouldn’t be complicated, but it seems it is. The church has fewer disciples than ever before. Focusing on evangelism without insisting converts be discipled is like:

  • A dating relationship that never grows to courtship or marriage
  • A new hire on a job who never receives orientation or training to perform well
  • A newborn child who only receives four weeks of training about life when he gets home from the hospital and a 30-minute talk once a week from dad at the dinner table
  • A college freshman who receives a full scholarship but does not attend class or finish her college program
  • A young recruit who joins the military and receives none of the boot camp or specialty training critical to fulfilling a mission

Who would consider such an approach? In some cases, the world is doing a better job orienting its followers than the church.

The job is not done until we teach, model and mentor those we reach to be disciples and to observe all the things Jesus commanded of them. If we are to get back to the true meaning of the Great Commission, decisions for Christ must become the starting point of a greater journey of growth and fruitfulness that lasts a lifetime.

7 Ways to Course-Correct

Now, here’s where things get real. I have pastored the same church for the last 20 years. In the early days, we were a disciple-making machine. I followed my early training and ordered the church’s training track in a similar manner.

But in the last few years, something happened. As we grew to become a megachurch, we drifted into a quagmire of the status quo. Many would say we are still producing very serious and healthy believers, and I agree we are doing a decent job—but I know our focus on discipleship has waned a bit.

Reflection has allowed me to see where we made the mistake. Since we are able to point to a well-discipled and committed core, that resulted in the incorrect feeling that the process would continue automatically in the lives of the newcomers. Unconsciously, we began to put less energy and effort into the most important aspect of the Great Commission—discipleship.

For several months, my team and I have been re-evaluating everything. Our evaluations have led to some conclusions for how to get back on course. Here are the steps I plan to take with our church:

1) No quick fix. I realize it will take time to shift the focus of our organization back to fully embrace both demands of the Great Commission. We did not get where we are in a day, and we won’t change it with a Band-Aid. Patience will govern our strategy.

2) I am the problem. As senior pastor, I take personal responsibility for where we are as a church. When I was intentional about discipleship, my church followed suit. When I shifted my focus, my church slid with me. If we are going to change, I must initiate the change. It will not work if I delegate it to a staff member. Modeling will start at the top.

3) Redefine a win. We must change what we measure as “success.” Although we will continue to count salvations, square feet and silver, we will not evaluate effectiveness based on these measures alone. The number of true, sold-out, unashamed, committed-unto-death, Christ-following disciples who are reproducing other disciples will be our yardstick. Our leaders will need to be given a vision of what this looks like.

4) Celebrate discipleship. I have learned we often reproduce what we celebrate. Our culture must be one that celebrates growing and mature disciples. Through testimonies, life stories, sermons and every other means afforded us, we will make a big deal of those who are being discipled. These celebrations will reinforce the goal of discipleship among the congregants.

5) Relational construct. Discipleship happens through a relational construct. It’s birthing and raising progeny. Parents and families raise children. Our discipleship structure will be a mentoring, apprenticeship structure with measurables through and through. Each ministry will embrace this component so that work and service are not substituted for relationship but grow from it.

6) Rites of passage. Just as Jesus brought His disciples to a point at which they were to carry on His mission, having been properly trained, we must have spiritual rites of passage. We must develop a way of determining when disciples are ready to become disciplers. We must have a systematic approach that defines not just bases but places. Instead of finishing a class with a certificate or applause, we must walk-step believers toward mastering a set of standards and values that allow them to move on to the next phase. This rite of passage will help perpetuate growth without anyone feeling as if they have “arrived.” We will use a four-step approach: convert, apprentice, coach, oversee.

7) Kill the leaches. Everything will be geared toward discipleship. Anything that does not foster that goal will be eulogized. We cannot afford to spend needed resources and energy on programs and projects that do not produce true disciples in the 21st century. Everything draining our energy and resources that is not helping us produce healthy disciples must die. We will need to train our leaders to face these hard choices.

Of course, many churches are producing strong, healthy disciples in the true sense of the word. But as many also realize the church is in need of an adjustment. Making disciples is a mandate, not a suggestion. Standing before God one day and getting a D or F on your Great Commission report card doesn’t sound all too exciting.

A change in the church’s thinking and actions has become necessary to reach the lost. Are you willing to take the time and energy required to correct your course and strengthen the cords of discipleship in the body of Christ?

In this case, it’s not that complicated—more (disciples) is always better! 

Kyle Searcy serves as senior pastor of Fresh Anointing House of Worship in Montgomery, Ala., and Norcross, Ga.

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