Why Don’t Churches Make Disciples?

Robert Easter at Sanctifusion asks this question, and answers as follows:

  1. Our world view is all wrong. “Be holy as I am holy” is not a core conviction.
  2. We prefer the things that are “more exciting” – like worship, harvesting tithes, building buildings, getting on the latest trendy movement of evangelicalism.
  3. Not intentional enough. We think Sunday school or the regular programming dynamic of the local church will do the trick to transform lives.
  4. We read the gospels for many reasons but not to find the methodology of Jesus for changing the world.
  5. Hard to brag about discipleship in the statistics manual of district conference.
  6. It is hard work.
  7. We were not discipled therefore we don’t have a clue what is meant by discipleship or how to do it.
  8. American society is a time stealer, and discipleship, alas, takes time.

All of the above are, sadly, true.  However, such a position doesn’t square with what the New Testament teaches.  Let me look at this from a (somewhat) Pentecostal perspective.  The whole story of the first disciples themselves is a good illustration, and can be broken down into three phases:

  1. Jesus–God himself–come to earth and invests three years in those whom he has chosen.  They’re not the sharpest knives in the drawer and, as Rob Bell notes in Velvet Elvis, may have been turned down by other rabbis, to be stuck in their family business.  They frequently don’t get it, especially about being first in the kingdom, about Jesus’ need to suffer and die first, and the like.
  2. Jesus Christ rises from the dead, and give the first and foremost order to his soon to be apostles: “Therefore go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the Faith of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, And teaching them to lay to heart all the commands that I have given you; and, remember, I myself am with you every day until the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)  Making disciples, therefore, is our core mission.
  3. On the day of Pentecost, the Apostles received the baptism (and the empowerment) of the Holy Spirit to carry out that mission.  They additionally “get it” about the nature of Jesus’ mission to this earth, which is reflected in Peter’s confident and informed preaching.  But that event of power was preceded by a process of discipleship.

All of this being so, it is amazing that churches try everything but making disciples.  But they do.  I work in men’s ministries, and we have discovered that making disciples is crucial in sustainable men’s ministries.

Churches’ methods of avoiding a discipleship emphasis break down into three categories.

  • Some churches which are the heirs of “the revival” (to use a Finneyesque phrase) have the idea that, if we can just have enough major meetings, we can sweep our churches and the world around us into the kingdom.  This is what I call the “Pickett’s Charge” approach to Christianity, and without ongoing discipleship between meetings it won’t work any better than the original charge did for the Confederacy.
  • Other churches which have long historical roots (Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Lutherans and the like) have the idea that, if we can set up the culture properly, we can transmit the Gospel via a kind of osmosis.  The result of this is cultural Christianity.  As one men’s ministry leader tartly put it, such a faith is like a spare tyre: in the trunk, just in case.  In the past, this might have worked, but in a culture increasingly hostile to Christianity, it won’t.
  • Still other churches which are “seeker friendly” (and that goes back longer than you might realise) think that, if they can involve people in the life of the church, they will become Christians.  But again, without the backup of discipleship, the result will be, as J. Vernon McGee put it, people who are as busy as termites and have the same effect.  Bill Hybels at Willow Creek has admitted as much.

Discipleship is unavoidable if we want a sustainable church with sustaining believers and members.  It’s not easy, but the up-front investment pays both temporal and eternal dividends.

3 thoughts on “Why Don’t Churches Make Disciples?”

  1. For what it’s worth, discipleship is how we evangelize Muslims. There’s no getting around it, like you say. And like Jesus, we the process of discipleship begins before they are believers. Discipleship IS evangelism and then it is training and modeling and education after the conversion.

  2. Don, You’re bang on as usual, except if the question is about making disciples, well, there are two angles. The first, Great Commission Stage One, is about evangelism or even, I might offer, pre-evangelism. The crux of the matter is in GC, #3, “teaching them to observe…” In recent history, George Whitefield majored on Stage One, and of the thousands who had responded to his preaching at the end of his life they were not to be found. His co-laborer John Wesley focused on Stage Three and was blessed to preside over the longest-lived revival, likely, in the whole of Christian History. We can embarrass ourselves all day with questions about how many decisions we see in a week, but maybe we need to be looking more to the health of the flock than the number of new lambs?

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