from the Gospel According to Bob, Chapter 6, verses 31-45…

Then Jesus said, ‘Think well and hard before you respond to the call to be my disciples, for many are called but few are truly prepared.’

Robert the follower, also called Bob, piped up, saying, ‘What’s that ‘disciple’ thing?  Is that like believing you are God’s Son?’

‘It begins with belief,’ replied Jesus, ‘but it is much more than that…’

‘You mean we ought to listen to you and do what you tell us?’

‘Well, yeah, that’s also part of it, but…’

‘I know, I know, you want us to be sure to attend synagogue when the kids don’t have soccer or band on the Sabbath,’ continued Bob.

‘Uhm, well, actually I’d put the bar a bit higher…’ reflected Jesus.

‘Oh, sure, sure, we should also do like the poor widow and toss in a penny whenever the plate gets passed…’

‘No, Bob, I want much more than that…’ Jesus said.

‘Got it! You want us to volunteer to serve on committees and maybe even teach a class,’ Bob proudly concluded.

‘You’re missing the point completely, Bob.  Unless you leave father and mother, sisters and brothers, spouses and children, and give up all your possessions, you can’t BE a disciple!’ said Jesus.

‘Whoa, whoa, that’s not gonna work!  Who would want to do that?’ asked Bob.

‘The point isn’t about whether YOU want to or not.  It is about what GOD might want!’

‘Yeah, well, there’s such a thing as going too far, is what I’m sayin’.’ commented Bob. ‘I am perfectly willing to be your disciple as long as it’s convenient and doesn’t cost me anything.’

‘Bob, unless you are willing to take up your cross daily and follow me, you cannot be my disciple,’ intoned Jesus.

‘Good luck with that.  This disciple thing has to be attractive, you know?  If you don’t work harder to make it sound fun, most people aren’t going to be interested.  You need a logo and a catchy slogan.  Maybe find a celebrity to endorse it…’

‘Bob, Bob you are distracted by many things.  But there is only one truly important thing: put God first in all you do, and commit yourself to loving God and neighbor and self,’ instructed Jesus.

‘Okay, fine, I can do that.  But lay off the leaving family and giving up my stuff.  That’s probably not gonna happen.”

The Revised New Revised Standard Revised Version (RNRSRV)

Once again I received a barrage of emails and phone calls from kind people informing me that discipleship is an unreasonable and unattainable goal, the way I describe it in my posts.  In a dozen different ways, people explain patiently to me that very few folks actually have any interest in discipleship and that if we insist that people take their faith so seriously, we will lose them in droves.  Many tell me that the church is not set up to promote discipleship and that churches have never had true discipleship as a goal or objective.  A few point out that discipleship as we talk about it today isn’t the same as discipleship in Jesus’ day.  We need a more practical and achievable discipleship.  The bottom line is, if you want to truly be a disciple, the last place on earth you will waste your time is in church.  Most churches make discipleship a very low priority, and to try to say that our mission should be to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is to deny and insult the real reasons that people come to church.  I hear all of this… and I continue to disagree.

When I conducted the denomination wide study on healthy, vital congregations, I discovered dozens of congregations — mostly between 40 and 300 active members — engaged in functional processes of cultivating, equipping, training, supporting, and deploying spiritually functional disciples.  The impact of these churches were phenomenal — small groups of people touching thousands of lives because they spent the majority of their time away from the church building, meeting and serving people in the name of Christ wherever there was need.  All ages, races, propensities and perspectives rising above their egos and agendas to become something greater united by the Holy Spirit.  It is possible, but alas, it is not popular.

In just about every case the story was similar: the day the church got serious about discipleship, an exodus occurred.  The comfortable and the complacent, the consumer and the customer all headed for the door.  As “church” shifted from noun to verb, those who sought to be served rather than serve headed down the street to a different church that wouldn’t expect as much.  The most frequent response was simply to stay home and withhold financial support.  A war of attrition commenced in an attempt to smoke out the disciples and allow the church to return to “normal.”

But what was different in the churches where discipleship was embraced rather than disdained?  Generally, smaller congregations that shared a strong, compelling vision for service to others formed the core.  While clergy might champion the vision, the ownership of the vision pervaded the entire group.  Expectations were clear and high, and accountability was loving but firm.  Success was measured qualitatively — “how well?” was asked more frequently than “how many?”  And when “how many?” was the measure, it was of how many lives were touched, not how many people attended a function at the church.  Communication was open, inclusive, and transparent.  Engagement in the activities of the group were a high priority for all ages.  Giving of gifts, resources, energy, time, money and talents were ubiquitous.  Church wasn’t a place, but an identity.  This reality came about by hard work, dedication, and intention.  More people were turned off by it than were attracted by it — much the same as the majority who came to Jesus.

There is no place in the Bible where discipleship is described as easy, cheap, or fun.  The concept of a passive discipleship — what has become the norm of “church membership” — is a contradiction in terms, and an unacceptable standard by which to define ourselves.  A mediocre faith is indicative of a mediocre God, and I can’t imagine that God is pleased or amused.

I once led a workshop on spiritual leadership in a local church.  I emphasized the importance of prayer, Biblical reflection, and a time for conversation and discernment at each board, council, committee or team meeting.  The chair of the Trustees stopped me and said, “We have way too much work to do to waste time with all that touchy-feely crap.”  Heads nodded around the room, and I looked to the pastor.  Sheepishly, he confessed that the meetings were packed full, and everyone’s time was too valuable to add more to the agenda, so he agreed that prayer and Bible study would need to be held off until a more appropriate time — business meetings needed to focus on business.  I attempted to reframe the spiritual work as the business of the church, but was stopped again — this time with a phrase that defines for me the essence of our real problem: “Prayer won’t pay the bills, I’m afraid.  We owe a half million on this building and the help we need from you is how to get more people who will come and give more money so we can afford to stay in business.”  It’s sad when our business isn’t in making disciples, but in building churches too busy to be bothered making disciples.

25 replies

  1. I find your comments to be not only refreshing but bitingly true. Until the church understands, embraces and accepts that its true mission in the world is disciple making, we will continue to do what amounts to spiritual busy work! Anything that appears to question the notion of ‘bigger is better’ is a threat to the ego of some pastors and pew-dwellers alike. We need to wake up, get up and be about our Father’s business!

  2. Dan, I fear I will be showing my simplicity by asking, but will do so anyway. I suppose it is more an “organizational” question. And you are skillful in the area of organizational structure. Can our leaders establish a way that allows a category of congregations in the US that clearly communicates that it is one of those congregations that has a deep commitment to discipleship, like you and the others posting have defined? If so, can our leaders manage/direct/support/lead this category differently than a category that describes the rest of the congregations? Disculpe la molestia.

  3. Try reading David Platt’s “Radical: Taking Your Faith Back From the American Dream”–what church in Asia is like and what is happening with a church in Birmingham Alabama that is truly producing disciples. David Platt bases everything on Scripture and prayer. After reading the book, I went back and pulled up a phrase from your “Reform or Refunction”blog: “Why are we not being asked to spend serious time on our knees in prayer and deep contemplation? Why are we not drawing our metaphors and images from our scripture instead of marketing firms?” and shared it with several people multiple times. Problem is there was a whole lot of us that were brought up in the Methodist Church in the 60’s and 70’s extremely deficient in Bible and applying it to our everday lives. Folowing the example of my pastor and after reading “Radical”, I have been pushed to start my year long trek through the Bible.

  4. Thank you again for a thought-provoking and spirit-nudging article. I am blessed and challenged by what you share.

  5. While agreeing entirely with everything Dan has said, I want to suggest that beyond what was said there are levels of maturity in becoming a disciple, and that people cannot jump from kindergarden (worship attender) to senior in high school (missional servant) without the steps in the intervening levels being provided for. Demanding that people run a marathon before they learn to walk is why there are so few who reach the missional stage … and why people exit when the “demand for discipleship” is presented, often in a harshly confrontative manner. We have to build a bridge from here to there and mentor people as they walk on it.

    The second suggestion is that for a church to focus on missional service is to burn out disciples. It is not the end stage but a stage on the way to the next higher level, being a disciple maker or a mentor of disciples. It is a necessary stage, and service is a necessary component to being a disciple – but it isn’t everything.

    Here is my parable on the levels: http://www.disciplewalk.com/parable_hunger.html

    If there is no ongoing personal relationship with the person you are serving, then there is no ongoing disciple making. Consequently, task oriented missional service benefits the server with spiritiual growth – no question! – but does not make disciples. The research, from missiologist McGavran to sociologist Rodney Stark, is that conversion only occurs in the context of relationships … which is why “love thy neighbor” and “love one another as I have loved you” are called commandments. Missional service is a necessary stage of growth, but “the transition to spiritual maturity involves moving from an exciting but shallow ministry with many people to calm, deeply nurturing relationships with just a few people who have names.” Those people are our disciples in the sense of 2 Timothy 2:2. You will find those relationships in growing churches.

    Most of us can list the names of our children and grandchildren, and tell you what is happening in their lives. If you can list the names of your disciples, and the disciples that they have made, and tell what is happening in their lives, then you are likely someone who is “making disciples.” Thinking along this paradigm helped me to realize how ineffective I was at disciple making during decades of “successful” program oriented ministry.

    • David, it isn’t like we haven’t had time to cultivate disciples. Are you saying that we are expecting too much of twenty-, thirty-, and forty-year members who are no more mature in their faith today than when they first joined? I’m not talking about a recent phenomenon — I am talking about a historic abdication of responsibility to challenge people to live disciplined and generous lives because we are more interested in large numbers of people supporting the institution than in truly making the world a better, more God-grounded place. If our people aren’t prepared to run the marathon by now, whose fault is that? The concept of discipleship is no different now than it was a generation or two ago — we didn’t care then, we mostly don’t care now. Where discipleship is a true value, it shows. (And vice versa)

      And I agree completely that discipleship isn’t the goal or the end of the journey. The twelve were referred to as disciples up to the Pentecost event — then they are never referred to as disciples again. Their followers are referred to as disciples, but they experienced a transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit that moved them from being followers to leaders, from students to teachers, from apprentices to masters. Certainly they never actually quit being disciples, but they definitely became something more. Most congregations have no vision for anything beyond discipleship, let alone a vision of discipleship.

      • If a baby is left in a crib without the nurturing relationship necessary to thrive for 20, 30 and 40 years, they will not be more “mature in their faith” – they will be dead. These people have not matured because they have not received what is necessary for them to grow beyond the spiritual stage of infancy, no matter how long they have been a member. That’s a pastoral failure. John Wesley prevented it by excluding people who weren’t ready from his societies – he left them in the “bin” of the parish church until they were ready for more. In the USA, in Wesleyan terms, everything but the parish church has faded away and we have no Society functioning as a hierarchy of small groups where people move from one to another as they grow spiritually.

        Anyone who wants to can visit the church nursery this coming Sunday and challenge the babies to leap out of their beds and follow you on a mission trip. That’s the problem with confronting and criticizing people, and why there is an exodus … some would even call it abusive.

        When babies are nurtured and feel safe, curiosity naturally develops and they move into learning opportunities and become disciples. That individual nurture isn’t happening, and this is why (in my opinion): (http://www.disciplewalk.com/parable_Orphanage_M.html). That nurture requires a focus on individuals … you can’t do it in a large group or institutionally. Wesley provided that nurture through the network of nurturing leaders in a variety of small groups – the learning group is the class meeting where there was consistent spiritual supervision by caring lay leaders.

        When learning opportunities focus on Jesus’ words – the gospels – people develop a desire for “more” of the Lord and move into missional service … from discipleship to being “sent ones” who carry a cross for the benefit of others (bands). And from there the focus moves to nurturing individuals and they become “laborers in the harvest” (Mat 9) (class leaders). Finally you end up with “friends” (John 15) who maintain the discipleship system (Select Society). These are the levels I can find in the gospels (and Wesley) and that I worked out for my DMin project.

        I don’t find in my reading of the gospels that Jesus took larger groups of people from one stage to another … but instead took pains to identify and work with the individual person who was ripe to move to the next level. There are individuals in every church who are ready for “more” while we tend to be frustrated that we can’t move an entire congregation at one time to the next level. Working with those who are ripe (the harvest metaphor) is how a flow or trend of moving through the levels of the discipleship system begins … working with the people who are ready. Or so it seems to me – as I read the gospels, I don’t notice a challenge made to those who wanted to hang out in the temple rather than follow Jesus into the wilderness for more teaching … he just made provocative statements, then left and worked more closely with those interested enough to walk several miles to follow him, then came back and gathered a few more (repeating the process).

      • David, we’re going to be in a different place on this. I don’t believe treating adults like children is any kind of solution. I have never said that discipleship isn’t a process that requires time and nurture, but we have to start somewhere. If you read the invitation passages from our gospels, people actually weren’t given a lot of time to decide. Those who wanted to bury their dead or take time for long goodbyes were free to make those choices; those who wanted to follow Jesus were free to make that choice. I am not talking about people who have a deep desire to follow Jesus but haven’t had an opportunity to decide; I am talking about people who could care less. They want all the benefits without any of the costs. I am talking about bishops and pastors who should know better, but choose the easy way. I am talking about a self-satisfied and complacent culture that doesn’t want to be bothered. You can defend these folks all you want as babies who need time to mature, but guess what? That ship has sailed. They aren’t where they are because they don’t know any better. They are where they are because they choose to be there. Accepting Jesus as the Son of God is not any kind of end point, but a beginning. Those who think they have “arrived” simply because they believe are part of the problem. Our church will never improve or turn itself around if we allow the people who think Christianity shouldn’t be hard or challenging to call the shots. People who walk away because they are expected to actually learn and give and serve and grow aren’t to be coddled or pitied. That’s what brought us to the sorry state in which we find ourselves today. We need to stop making excuses for the lowest common denominator and actually care about integrity and maturity.

  6. “As you have found though, most congregations and their leaders, lay and clergy, do not want or value this.” – Taylor Burton Edwards

    I have to disagree on this point. I believe that most laity haven’t the foggiest idea of what they COULD do and how much of a change they COULD make if only they had some training and some direction provided. And I think too many clergy are “busy” with other things that they can’t start to add one more item to their to-do list.

    What is needed is a culture change – and it will happen because what we have right now is not sustainable. If your laity had even the slightest taste of what being a disciple outside the walls of your church building was like, you’d see a change in culture. It happens when people come back from mission trips – but when we see mission as only something that happens outside of our neighborhood we are stuck – not everyone can afford the time and money to “go somewhere else” to do mission.

    Changing culture is not easy – yes you will lose people, but the ones remaining will be more energized and jazzed. Change your metrics – instead of how many people plop their butts in your pews, count how many people in the neighborhood have been impacted by your members – and I don’t mean just “church-sponsored” events, but everything that they may do. The member who checks up on his elderly neighbor a couple times a week; the family who helps out a single mom take care of her house and children, the member who visits a nursing home once a month, etc. Be creative – start changing the culture.

    When you think you can’t make a change, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • Traveling coast-to-coast in The United Methodist Church, I find that the majority of people do understand that their Christian faith should be a higher priority and that God/Christ/Bible hold a higher standard for belief and conduct than the church demands… and they are perfectly happy with this situation. In fact, they will actively resist efforts to change it. When people are challenged to greater standards, a minority respond very favorably, but around 80% do not. The reality check for this is global travel to churches in the Methodist/Wesleyan traditions (outside of Europe) where the standards are much higher and the accountability is much greater. Seeing the centrality of Christian faith to daily life in other cultures is an embarrassing and stunning contrast to what we call Christianity in mainstream US churches.

      My wish/hope is that as our leadership envisions a future for United Methodism in the US, we would focus more on the 20% who do want a more vibrant and transformative faith, and we would stop pandering to and worrying so much about holding onto the money of the 80% who could care less. Our “Call to Action” is a call to appease the least engaged (and even to attract more of them!) and continue the slide we are on. It is not a call to serious discipleship, which may be the only thing to offer us a viable future. We simply cannot allow that health may require a radical elimination of low expectations, consumeristic values, passive engagement, ego and materialism. A healthier church will probably be a much smaller, poorer, more deeply committed and sacrificial church — from which we can grow and flourish. But it will be a shift to the values of the minority that will save us, not acquiesence to the status quo.

      • As I recall, this process describes what happened in the Ginghamsburg, OH, UMC when Michael Slaughter came as the pastor. A small church got smaller before it was then able to grow into the vibrant, mission-focused church it is today. I believe that can happen in many congregations.

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