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. This post reminds me of the quote from Mike Breen’s book, “Building a Discipleing Culture:” When you make disciples, you always get the church. When you make a church you rarely get disciples.” Breen makes clear that the church is the result of discipleship, not the other way around.

  2. I have been wrestling with how to deepen discipleship within my congregation these past four years. We have been making some inroads, especially in the area of encouraging people to be the church, rather than go to church, but it has been slow. I have people who “get it” and rather than lament that others do not, I think of my job like this: I can provide services and love and encourage those who are members/constitutents AND I can spend some time developing those who want to become disciples. My prayer is that the number in the second category will continue to grow… and will become contagious, but maybe not. In the meantime, our mission giving has increased dramatically, there is energy and life among our congregation once again. Our worship attendance has not increased in the least bit. Our overall membership numbers are stagnant. But there is LIFE and SPIRIT moving in my church. How do we share that discipleship is happening? Where is the box to check on the forms? Nowhere that I can see. But what I have been able to do is share and celebrate the places of transformation with my District Superintendent and Field Outreach Minister and they get it and they see it. I’m fortunate and I’m blessed. It saddens me that others are not so lucky.

  3. Great post.

    Yesterday, in SS, we watched Francis Chan’s 4th chapter of Crazy Love. His stories of how other countries view discipleship was eye-opening, and it made me sad. It made me sad that we’ve reduced it to something like your character Bob. It saddens me that many churches and leaders have reduced it to such as well.

    Maybe this is the why people are making the distinction between being a Christ-follower versus Christian.

  4. Dan, how many bishops in our connection right now would support a pastor who led such an exodus?

    I’m not saying clergy should use that as an excuse. But how many places in the UMC do you think a pastor who followed God in this way would be praised?

    • How many fingers am I holding up? When I did the Vital Signs study ten-plus years ago, the majority of pastors who were serious about discipleship were viewed as problematic by their cabinets. In one setting, a woman pastor was told by her DS, “you’re making it impossible to appoint anyone here to follow you, and most other churches don’t want you as their pastor.” This in response to her successful efforts to equip laity for preaching, care-giving/healing ministries, and Biblical scholarship. Pastors (and laity) who actively promote and pursue discipleship simply don’t “fit” in The United Methodist system. So, do we change the system or settle for more of what we already have? Bishops? Any opinions?

      • Dan – you’re going a little over the top. I’ve never heard in a cabinet meeting that a pastor was problematic because a pastor was serious about discipleship. Stephen’s Ministries are growing in number and we have more and more laity being equipped and going forth to do ministry. It’s not perfect, but it’s slowly turning in areas.

        I would agree that clergy need to be more serious about discipleship and leading congregations in their discipleship. But I think you’re guilty of some hyperbole on this one.

      • This is a direct quote confirmed with both pastor and DS and documented in Vital Signs. Sorry, but the system truly doesn’t support discipleship very well.

      • I am sure it is a direct quote from *a* pastor and *a* district superintendent. But to make that a blanket statement for the WHOLE Connection is, I think, a stretch.

      • Oh, man, if it were only A pastor and A DS! We would be in such a better place. But the synecdoche applies here as well. Vital Signs and subsequent articles are packed with similar stories… and that, sadly, is not hyperbole.

  5. Dan,

    I am grateful for that small percentage of congregations who will, as congregations, pursue a vision of discipleship.

    As you have found though, most congregations and their leaders, lay and clergy, do not want or value this.

    So if our aim is to increase the number of actual disciples, and the reality is that most of our congregations, as congregations, won’t directly support discipleship all that well, perhaps the early Methodist tactic (in general, if not in all its specifics) of connecting those among these congregations to discipling communities that are inside, alongside, or even outside the congregation proper, is one that would be beneficial toward achieving that larger end.

    An analogy I often use in talking about this is taken from the movie, Miracle on 34th Street. Kris Kringle, as Macy’s “store Santa Claus,” tells a child that Macy’s does not have a particular toy he is seeking, but that if his mother would go to another store, she could find it there. The manager, watching this, fires Kris on the spot. The mother, though, not knowing what the manager had done, goes to Mr Macy and tells him how grateful she is that their Santa Claus cared more about her child than about whether she shopped only at Macy’s. Mr Macy calls in the manager (not knowing the manager had fired Kris) and commends him for the brilliant strategy.

    Bottom line, it shouldn’t matter to us, perhaps, who actually gets the credit for directing people toward others who can actively disciple them, nor even the credit for doing the discipling ourselves. It matters far more than more people actually become disciples of Jesus, and come to experience the complete salvation of God that leads to perfection in love toward God and neighbor in this life.

    May we find more ways to incarnate that vision…

  6. Brother Dan ……

    I popped into the office between crisis’ and V O I L A — saw your post.
    and of course, being the ordinary radical that I am I had to stop to comment.
    — I heard it once said that we can’t be disciples by sitting on our
    tushies in our pews and writing (a) check(s) ……… though those checks are important — they are the END to the MEANS — not the other way ’round!

    That “Trustee” must be represented in every church community — doing the “busy work” of the church — mostly administrative and managerial in nature — that most of us mistake for the Work and Direction of The Scriptures…………
    Why must we be so task-driven on the dross/admin. and management and business — and so not-task driven — perhaps even negligent on the priorities? (rhetorical question).
    ———-more, perhaps later once I have a chance to really
    dig in.

    As always — SPOT ON — Great Work — Keep It Up!

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