Swimming Upstream?

Motivating Your Church for Serious Discipleship

by Stephen Lim

“How can I get believers to want to follow Jesus in serious discipleship?” I wondered many times as a pastor. Church members busily pursued education and career, while meeting family and community responsibilities. In their limited spare time, they explored recreation and vacation options. Most attended church regularly, and many served in an area of ministry. Yet, I realized this fell far short of God’s intent for us to become more like Jesus in character, attitude, action, and mission. Considering the members’ flabby desire and modest efforts to grow, my efforts to encourage them in discipleship felt like swimming upstream against a strong current.

Making disciples has never been easy. It is even harder today. George Barna found that two-thirds of believers felt that they did not have the time required for discipleship, while one-quarter simply had no interest.1 Most resources on making disciples assume eager believers, ready and waiting for discipling. If only that were true. This would make our task so much easier. Besides addressing the normal topics, such as the means and content of discipleship, leaders must consider the crucial — but often missing — factor of motivation. Without it, the best methods and materials have little value.

Four Enemies

My appreciation of the need for strong, sustained motivation escalated when I discovered four powerful enemies of discipleship. First, inherent difficulties rear their heads: We must surrender our preferences, agendas, and will, transferring to Him ownership of our lives, so God becomes our highest priority and passion. At this point, many balk. Second, urgent concerns seize available attention and energy, including family responsibilities, work pressures, personal problems, and community involvement. Third, our culture seduces us with such goals as career success, possessions, and entertainment. Finally, a multitude of cultural misbeliefs regularly assault our minds, including the idea that the physical is more real than the spiritual; personal fulfillment is the ultimate purpose of life, and spiritual obedience limits our fulfillment. Like low flying cruise missiles, these falsehoods often fly below the radar of our consciousness to penetrate our unconscious minds, where they weaken our resolve to fully follow Jesus.

Duty or Desire

How can pastors motivate believers for discipleship despite these challenges? Early in my ministry I tried guilt: “If you can watch 3 hours of television each day, you should be able to read the Bible for 10 minutes.” “Good Christians are supposedto (insert — pray, witness, tithe, sacrifice, love).” I quickly found that this only has limited, short-term effectiveness. And, no matter how well-intentioned, people resent the use of guilt as a manipulative tool.

Often I have emphasized duty, which appeals to responsible Christians. Sometimes we do the right thing because of duty, not because we feel like it. One night, as an infant, my daughter, Jennifer, did not feel well and vomited over herself. Groggily I arose, and cleaned and changed her along with her smelly bed. Less than an hour later, she threw up again, and I had to repeat the process. I did it not because I wanted to, but because it had to be done. Any responsible parent would do the same.

For some aspects of life, duty works. In relationships with people and God, however, duty has its limits. When people act out of duty as their main motive, three undesirable consequences develop. First, they do the minimum required, and soon most will weary of even that. Second, the Elder Son Syndrome emerges. Like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, believers may feel that they must earn the Father’s acceptance and approval, while experiencing little joy. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you,” he complained to his father (Luke 15:29, emphasis mine).

Finally, a strictly dutiful relationship brings little pleasure to either party in a relationship. Imagine a husband saying to his wife, “I’m giving you these roses because it’s my duty as your husband.” Some wives might accept them. Most, however, would respond, “If you’re only doing this out of duty, you can keep your stinking roses!”

Similarly, what pleasure does God take in the attitude, “I’m obeying you, because it’s my duty as a believer”? Christian living does involve duty and responsibility, but these need to be energized by desire. In light of its strenuous demands, the only adequate motivation for following Jesus is desire.

In the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, the man joyfully sells all that he has to buy the field, because its value far exceeds the cost (Matthew 13:44–46). When people have little interest in doing something, they find excuses not to do it. In contrast, when people have a great desire to do something, they manage to find a way despite imposing obstacles. How can leaders provide and sustain such motivation for discipleship?

Through the years, I discovered six sources that generate this desire. A strong biblical vision of God and reality serves as the primary motivator. A clear understanding of the nature of God’s law and sin supplements this vision. Additional sources include the recognition of our incompleteness; joyful experiences of God; the lives, testimonies, and encouraging words of others, and the joy of growing.

Biblical Vision of God and Reality

As disciple makers, pastors need to bring motivating spiritual truths to life, so believers heartily embrace them. Pastors cannot communicate a motivating vision of God, however, unless they personally experience God’s reality in their lives, and find excitement in their relationships with Him. Otherwise, communicating facts about God becomes an exercise in transferring information without spiritual vitality.

Believers need to see God’s holiness and greatness. They also need to appreciate His goodness, faithfulness, and forgiveness. Foundational for discipleship is the reality of a loving God who is for us, not against us. Otherwise, we feel that we must depend on ourselves to meet our needs and find fulfillment. Richard Foster wisely observes, “The Christian life comes not by gritting our teeth but by falling in love.”2

We also need a vision of a God of joy.3 The Bible gives us glimpses of this joy: Jesus spoke of His joy being in us (John 15:11). Luke wrote that “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52). Paul declared that God’s Spirit at work in our lives results — among other things — in joy (Galatians 5:22,23).

Besides joy, disciple makers must convey that living for God produces growing wholeness, hope, and a fruitful life in fulfilling God’s purposes. Despite the sacrifices, those who follow Jesus get the best of the deal. Giving up what cannot fill the heart, we enjoy the bread that truly satisfies (John 6:35). He frees us from bondage to things that distort our lives (John 8:36), and enables us to enjoy life to the full (John 10:10). We must sincerely believe: Instead of partial, temporary satisfaction, I will gain full and lasting joy. I am trading an ultimately trivial life of living for myself for one of eternal significance. In the place of illusion and outward glitter, I am getting reality. And, ultimately, I gain eternal life with the God who loves me. While difficult, serving God overwhelmingly beats any alternative — so it is hardly a choice at all.

Skeptics attack the doctrine of heaven as “pie-in-the-sky-in-the-by-and-by” — a tacked-on incentive to get people to behave. The concept of eternal life, however, naturally follows from God’s nature as revealed in the Bible. Who among us wants death to separate a loved one from us? We, however, do not have the power to prevent it. God not only loves us, but he also has the power to prevent that separation by providing eternal life.

In heaven, we will experience the greatest joy. Freed from the limitations of a fallen world, we will fulfill our highest potential as beings created in the image of God. Most important, we will forever be with the One who loves us and who is the Source of all that is good. We will fully experience what we can only partially grasp now. The writer of Hebrews declared, moreover, “Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:14). Despite all the time and energy we invest in achieving earthly goals, the first tide of eternity will obliterate them all. Through our obedience to God, we invest in what will last eternally (Matthew 6:19–21).

Appreciation of God’s Law and Revulsion Toward Sin

Whenever I pick up my hair dryer, I see attached to the cord a large, ugly tag that presumes to tell me what I should and should not do with it:

1. Always unplug it after use.

2. Do not place or store it where the dryer can fall or be pulled into tub, toilet, or sink.

3. Do not use while bathing.

4. Do not use near or place in water.

5. If dryer falls into water, unplug immediately, do not reach into water.

And in big black print, “Do Not Remove This Tag!”

Why should I allow the manufacturer to tell me how I can or cannot use my hair dryer? After all, I paid for it; it belongs to me. Why should I limit my actions based on a set of rules someone else created? If I actually thought this way, you would shake your head at my stupidity.

God’s laws seem burdensome for four reasons. First, many are difficult to obey, such as “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Second, others appear to limit our lives, such as “If what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Third, others run so counter to societal practice that we question their validity, such as “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:24). Finally, some commands require courage, risk, and sacrifice, which we do not find appealing: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Consequently, we obey because we must, not because we want to.

For sustained motivation to obedience, believers must be convinced of the desirability of God’s standards. When pastoring, I regularly reminded my congregation that God’s laws are descriptions of reality.He gave them for our good (Deuteronomy 10:12), so we can live the best lives possible — that which accords with reality and offers eternal significance. To ignore His laws means to ignore reality. Sooner or later, this results in diminished and distorted living, damage to ourselves and others, and eventually destruction.

Sometimes we might feel, It’s too bad that I’m a Christian. If I weren’t a believer, I could … Regretfully, because of our faith, we cannot blast that nasty coworker, puff our resume, or indulge in a forbidden pleasure. The right perception of sin complements a correct view of God’s laws. Sin attracts us, because it seems to offer satisfaction. While it may partially and temporarily do so, it cannot yield lasting or complete fulfillment. Instead, it diminishes and damages our lives. Philip Yancey shares, “I am learning to view sins as spiritual dangers — much like carcinogens, bacteria, viruses, and injuries — that must be avoided at all costs, for my own sake.”4

Recognition of Incompleteness

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus taught, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Those who realize their poverty and incompleteness will seek more of God and His reign in their lives. Spiritual lukewarmness characterizes those who lack this awareness (Revelation 3:15–18). Often it takes a crisis to force us to examine our lives deeply and honestly. In doing so, we recognize the inability of any earthly circumstances or relationships to satisfy our deepest needs. We can also discover inner wounds and broken places that need healing. Appreciating how far short we fall of God’s standards, moreover, we will pursue God and grow in relationship with Him.

As a leader, however, I cannot simply tell believers that they lack completeness. I need to recognize my own incompleteness and the parts of my life that still need wholeness. Vulnerably and appropriately sharing these weaknesses encourages those we seek to disciple to become increasingly aware of their own lack.

Joyful Experiences of God

French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote of his life changing experience with God: “From about half past 10 at night to about half after midnight, Fire. … Feeling joy, peace. … Forgetfulness of the world and of all save God. … Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.” This experience touched his life so deeply, that as a reminder, he sewed a copy of these words in the lining of his coat.

We need words and propositions to understand and express our faith, but mere words cannot fully convey God’s reality and motivate passionate obedience and consistent growth. Furthermore, with my strongly analytical temperament, I need objective evidence for the reality of my faith. Yet, I recognize that evidence alone is not enough. While subjective in nature, experiences of God, nevertheless, are real and powerful to the person experiencing them — as we see in the case of Pascal.

The Book of Acts contains numerous accounts of believers who experienced the reality of God. Consequently, they felt highly motivated to serve Him despite persecution. We can experience God in various ways. Genuine worship helps believers encounter God and inspires them to serve Him. Their experience of wonder — whether in worship, in nature, or in marveling at God’s goodness — heightens their love for Him. Answered prayer also spurs the desire for deeper relationship with Him. When He works in our lives in obvious ways, we become excited to seek and serve him. Baptism (immersion) in the Spirit moves us from a peripheral awareness of God’s presence to His becoming the greatest reality in our lives. These experiences of God inspire and motivate us to grow in relationship with Him.

Lives, Testimony, and Encouragement of Others

The quality of other disciples’ lives and their testimonies of God at work in and through them inspire us to follow Jesus. These put flesh and blood on spiritual principles and demonstrate their effectiveness. Hearing fresh stories from others, we vicariously experience what they experienced, stimulating our growth. Also the encouragement of others enables us to push through difficult and dry times in our spiritual journey toward maturity.

When I pastored in San Francisco, Hubert, a young man in the church, was involved in an auto accident, which caused serious head injuries and left him in a coma. The doctors gave him little chance to live. If he did, they said, he would be a vegetable for the rest of his life. In response to the prayers of the congregation, however, Hubert awakened from his coma and began to improve. After several months, he recovered sufficiently to return to school. In a year or so, he resumed vigorous sports. Hubert’s presence in the church testified of God’s goodness and power, which inspired and motivated members.

The Joy of Growing

We are made to grow. Although our bodies quit growing and begin to decline, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual growth can proceed unabated. God wants us to grow to the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). And as a field on which seeds have been sown, He desires us to produce an abundant harvest of spiritual fruit (Matthew 13:1–23).

Growing in any area brings satisfaction that motivates me to desire even more growth. When I fail to grow, my life becomes routine, and I experience the boredom of stagnation. Men, in particular, seek the artificial stimulation of adrenalin-pumping entertainment to mask this inner dullness. When I grow, however, I experience a freshness and aliveness in my life.

God, who is agape or self-giving love, created us in His image. In giving of ourselves to serve others and God, we express our deepest nature and experience joy in so doing. The more we grow, the more we are able to bless others and make a difference for God, which adds more joy. Continuing an upward spiral, this joy fuels more growth and greater service.


Many factors discourage and distract believers from following Jesus in serious discipleship — natural difficulties, urgent concerns, cultural seductions, and misbeliefs. Without strong, sustained motivation on the part of Christians, a pastor’s efforts to enable believers to grow in discipleship will feel like trying to swim upstream. With the empowering of God’s Spirit, pastors can use six sources to generate and maintain this desire.


1. George Barna, Growing True Disciples (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook Press, 2001), 42.

2. Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water(San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 51.

3. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 62

4. Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004),106.