Why Churches Don’t Disciple and How Yours Can
By Stephen Lim
Of course, my people are being discipled, I had assumed for years. After all, they attend worship services and Bible classes on Sunday. They participate in small groups and fellowships during the week. With all of this spiritual nurture, they must be growing spiritually. Yet, as the months and years passed, I finally had to admit that, except for newer Christians, for the most part I could discern little growth in discipleship in the members of my church.
In this respect the church I pastored did not differ from most. “Stunningly few churches have a church of disciples,” concluded George Barna,1 even while he recognizes that most churches have programs for this purpose. While most pastors fail to see the need, this could be the greatest problem in the church, negatively impacting everything it does.
Presently, 46 percent of Americans claim to be born again. Gallup, however, found that only 13 percent evidenced behavioral and attitudinal differences compared with the general population.2 Barna found that only 5 percent of adults — and less than 10 percent of churched youth3 — possess a biblical worldview.4 Dallas Willard bluntly states, “Nondiscipleship is the elephant in the church.”5
Why this dismal state? In researching the lack of discipleship and reflecting on my pastoral experiences, I found many factors leaders must address. In this article, however, I will focus on the nearly universal problem of flawed ministry paradigms — over which churches have direct responsibility — and how those paradigms sabotage their efforts at disciple making. These divide into two categories — inadequate goals and defective approaches to disciple making. Churches can create a culture of discipleship by replacing these flawed paradigms with biblical paradigms for ministry.
In our culture fulfilling the twin goals of the Great Commission — evangelism and disciple making — to any significant degree requires strenuous spiritual and practical effort. Clear, lasting results require time. We are tempted to substitute more easily and quickly achievable human goals that offer visible impressions of success to validate our ministries. Because these goals have deeply rooted themselves in church culture, we need courage, wisdom, and perseverance to replace them with biblical paradigms that reflect Jesus’ calling.
Contrast four popular but inadequate ministry goals with biblical ones.
Growing numbers versus life change
As a pastor, even when I knew better, I was tempted to use growing attendance as a measure of success. In a culture that prizes size, ministers and churches strive for this visible sign of accomplishment. Barna’s studies consistently indicate that churches measure their success by attendance, income, building size, and satisfaction of members.6 In this age of residential mobility and consumer Christianity, however, 80 percent of church growth results from believers changing churches. Churches become adept at collecting crowds by offering desirable ministries. Through this means — especially in large or growing population areas — new churches can reach an attendance of hundreds and even thousands within a few years. While outstanding exceptions exist, Carl George concludes that megachurches generally sustain growth by being receptor churches for believers from smaller feeder churches.7
Instead of simply seeking numerical increase we need to aim at life change. Jesus said that His followers should be so positively different that they flavor a bland culture and illumine a dark world (Matthew 5:13–16). The apostle Paul said that a Christian becomes “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Willard suggests, “Instead of counting Christians, we should weigh them … by focusing on the most important kind of growth — love, joy, peace … — fruit in keeping with the gospel and the Kingdom.8
Sin management9 versus lordship
Christians have confessed their sins and accepted the forgiveness that God offers through the Cross. They become God’s children and have the hope of eternal life. Surely this summarizes the essence of Christian faith — or does it? When we have dealt with the sin problem, how to live out our lives under His lordship should become our central focus.
Today a large percentage of adults who become Christians do so because they realize their inadequacy to cope with life’s challenges using their own resources. A variety of long-standing problems culminated in their cry for divine rescue. They require the ongoing healing and shaping power of God’s Spirit, along with a supportive community of believers, to live healthy and obedient lives.
The Los Angeles International Church specializes in reaching out to people in extreme physical, emotional, and spiritual need resulting from personal dysfunctions, wrong choices, and abuse. One staff member commented, “Everyone likes to fish. No one wants to clean the fish. That’s what we do here, clean the fish.”10
Serious evangelists and disciple makers need to emphasize the lordship of Jesus. Otherwise we continue the scandal of millions professing faith without living it. In his book, Mere Discipleship, Lee Camp bluntly asks, “Could it be that ‘Jesus is Lord’ has become one of the most widespread Christian lies? Have Christians claimed the lordship of Jesus, but systematically set aside the call to obedience to this Lord?”11
Compliance and zeal versus maturity and fruitfulness
We tend to produce members who support the church, instead of disciples who impact their world. During 30 years in ministry I observed that most pastors settle for appropriate behaviors and a zealous spirit on the part of their members. Much of the time I did the same. If members regularly attended church activities, accepted its basic doctrines, served in a ministry, and did not create waves, I felt satisfied. If they also tithed, contributed to missions, attended prayer meetings, and occasionally witnessed or invited people to church, I practically jumped for joy.
Yet believers can do all of these and still live self-centeredly. They can endure miserable marriages, display un-Christlike behavior at church, and irritate their neighbors and coworkers — while making little difference for the kingdom of God. Too often we equate compliance and zeal with maturity. Compliance may be external, without transformation, and zeal simply human enthusiasm instead of deep conviction. Even when genuine, zeal without maturity fails to produce the fruit that it could. We cannot settle for less than continuing growth toward mature and fruitful discipleship.
Full programming versus mission-driven strategy
“We offer a full range of activities for every age group,” churches boast. Unfortunately, secondary activities divert our focus, crowding out time, energy, and resources for the Great Commission. Thom Ranier’s research finds that simple churches that eliminate these activities are more effective in evangelism and discipleship than activity-filled churches.12
Busier means less effective. This mission must drive the ministries of the church. Unless an activity contributes effectively to evangelism or discipleship, leaders need to consider eliminating it. In retrospect, one of my failings as a pastor was to focus on creating and managing programs instead of concentrating on the mission of the church.
Too many activities and programs arise in the course of a church’s life, each with vested constituents. These continue even when ineffective or only partially effective. More is not necessarily better. Peter Drucker urges organizations to assume a policy of abandoning yesterday to release resources for strategies that work today.
Defective Approaches to Disciple Making
Even when we avoid inadequate goals and target biblical ones, defective approaches can still sabotage disciple making. Consider four common but flawed approaches along with the correct biblical paradigms.
Discipleship by osmosis versus intentional discipleship
As a pastor, I failed to craft an intentional strategy for making disciples. Instead, I relied mostly on discipleship by osmosis, confident that growth would naturally occur through participation in church services and activities.
People do tend to accept the values of their faith communities, at least cognitively. Yet, in the case of transforming discipleship, my reliance on this nonmethod assumed too much. First, it supposes a highly spiritual environment in which strong biblical values would naturally transfer. This is rarely the case. Second, it presumes that true community exists, where members meaningfully relate and influence others. Again this seldom occurs. Third, it assumes that when believers regularly listen to biblical preaching and teaching, they will grow in discipleship — a process that occurs only in a small percentage of individuals.
Basics for new believers versus ongoing growth
Many churches label their course for new believers as a discipleship class. Typically these run for several months, assuming that this amount of time suffices to transform a convert into a disciple. Since discipleship is a lifelong process, however, churches need to develop means for ongoing growth.
One respected scholar states that during its first several centuries, the church required converts to go through a training period of 2 to 3 years before they were fully accepted into the church. He considers this time frame “probably not transferable for today.” Because of the difficulty of getting newer believers to commit themselves to an extended period of discipling, he recommends a shorter period of initial discipleship.13 Most churches have done exactly that.
However tempting, we cannot make this concession if we want to fulfill our mission as the church. We must not ask what we can manage in light of current conditions, instead we must ask: How can we change the church’s culture to align with God’s mission? In particular: How can we motivate believers for ongoing growth? Leaders must address these issues in light of significant cultural and personal hindrances and the natural difficulties that discourage discipleship.
Selective discipleship versus holistic discipleship
In discipling, if we are not careful, we emphasize particular doctrines and practices at the expense of others. This results from denominational emphases, training, and personal preferences. Many areas of Christian living, moreover, do not receive adequate attention. As a seminary professor, I regularly survey my students on the topics their churches taught during the previous 2 years. In terms of frequency of teaching, the results indicated that these students received an adequate amount of instruction in most areas of spiritual life — prayer, faith, stewardship, and temptation — along with the areas of family life and marriage. Many practical areas, however, that occupy a huge part of the believer’s thought, time, and energy received scant attention. These include: work, success, money, time, entertainment, romantic love, sex, and servanthood.
Focus on curriculum versus transformation through relationships
Most churches assume that if individuals complete the recommended classes and absorb the necessary information, they will be discipled. This conveniently avoids the difficult work of engaging people in the confusion and messiness of their lives. Generally Christians have far more spiritual knowledge than they apply. If Bible study does not transform us, warns Reggie McNeal, it is “merely a head trip … an idolatrous substitute for genuine spirituality.”14
While needed, we must recognize that curriculum alone cannot effect transformation. Mike Yaconelli regretfully observed, “Spiritual growth has become an industry, a system, a set of principles, formulas, training programs, curricula, books, and tapes that, if followed, promise to produce maturity and depth.”15 People are unique, however, and their circumstances vary. Individuals also learn and implement truth at different rates and in varying ways. They have personal issues calling for resolution and areas of their lives that need development. These processes work best in an environment of ongoing nurture through relationships of trust, vulnerability, modeling, and accountability. This is what Jesus demonstrated with His disciples.
The new believers’ course at a Midwestern megachurch consisted of 13 weeks of lectures. Realizing the need for improvement, the pastor of discipleship took my seminary course on “Building a Disciple-Making Ministry.” Afterward, he extended the new believers’ course to 6 months, and then a year. More important, he divided the class into groups of 10 and recruited a mature couple to mentor each group. For half of each class meeting, instead of listening to presentations, participants shared their lives and applied the teaching to their lives. Most significant, group leaders continued to develop these relationships outside of class. Even after the completion of the course these relationships and the process of discipleship continued.
Two of these mentoring couples shared with me how many questions and personal issues they had helped their disciplees resolve. One couple found that nearly every person in their group had problems with his marriage or an addiction. A female convert asked her mentoring couple, “My boyfriend wants me to move in with him. What should I do?” Churches deal with these kinds of issues not simply by giving biblically correct answers, but by prayerful, ongoing support throughout the difficult process of obeying Jesus and by modeling a better way.
The large majority of American churches have accepted flawed ministry goals and approaches to disciple making. These must be exposed and replaced with biblical ones. While doing so poses many difficulties, God calls leaders to lovingly challenge the cultures of their churches.
We do not need to change all of a church’s ministry paradigms to improve the quality of disciple making. The implementation — even partial — of a single one can improve the process. Sometimes small changes result in visible and positive results, and the accumulation of small victories creates momentum toward progressively greater changes. Then one day, instead of a church that cannot disciple, we will have a church that regularly produces growing disciples.
1. George Barna, Growing True Disciples: New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2001), 20.
2. George H. Gallup, Jr. and Timothy Jones, The Saints Among Us (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse Publishing, 1992).
3. “Teens Evaluate the Church-Based Ministry They Received as Children,” Barna Update [Internet]; available from http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=143; accessed 11 April 2007.
4. “Most Adults Feel Accepted by God, but Lack a Biblical Worldview,” Barna Update [Internet]; available from http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=194; accessed 11 April 2007.
5. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (Harper San Francisco, 1998), 301.
6. “Most Adults Feel Accepted by God, but Lack a Biblical Worldview,” The Barna Update.
7. Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Revell, 1991), 31–34, 43,44.
8. Dallas Willard and Dieter Zander, “The Apprentices,” interviewed in Leadership (1 July 2005).
9. Willard, 35. Willard uses this phrase.
10. Quote by Dominic Gaccetta in Joel Kilpatrick, “Inner-city Outreach Hits the Streets: Los Angeles International Church,” Today’s Pentecostal Evangel, 24 November 1996, 25.
11. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 16.
12. Thom Ranier, “Is Your Church Too Busy?” Rick Warren’s Ministry Tool Box [Internet]; available from http://www.pastors.com; accessed June 7, 2006. Adapted from Outreach Magazine (May/June 2006).
13. Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 81.
14. Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 144.
15. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 88.