Why Churches Don't Disciple and How Yours Can 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.
Discipleship for All of Life
Following Jesus should make a difference in every aspect of our lives, if He is fully Lord. Most discipleship materials, however, focus on spiritual aspects such as right beliefs and practices. These include: Bible study, prayer, stewardship, witness, resisting temptation, and the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. While essential, these scarcely comprise the whole of our lives. The New Testament clearly shows the centrality of the spiritual in the believer’s life. Many other areas, however, must be considered in a holistic discipleship for all of life.
Consider areas of daily living, such as work, money, possessions, entertainment, and relationship to culture. These form important arenas in which we honor God. Understanding the way money affects our lives, Jesus taught more on money than prayer. We also need to address relationships, including the meaning of Christian community, relationships with nonbelievers, family, and marriage. We must provide intelligent biblical guidance about romantic love and sexual morality because these have been badly distorted by our culture.
Following Jesus should also lead us to embrace servanthood and mission. We need to embrace His concern for the spiritually lost, the materially needy, and those for whom justice has been denied (Micah 6.8; Amos 5.24).
Spiritual growth and personal maturing are closely related and affect one another. Spiritual resources not only produce spiritual growth, but also enable personal growth as well. Those who do not grow personally seldom make much progress spiritually.
Discipleship that honors God and produces maximal fruit requires growth in all five areas above. Failure to grow in one category negatively impacts our growth and effectiveness in others. I have known Christians, for example, who possess a strong commitment to God, yet they make little apparent difference for God. Why? Their weaknesses in relationships or personal immaturities neutralize or limit their effectiveness in ministry and witness.
Stephen Lim, Springfield, Missouri
Five Ways To Make Disciples
Depending on their training and inclination, leaders typically advocate one or more of three intentional means of making disciples: the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, the practice of spiritual disciplines, and the use of a small group and/or mentoring relationship.
Vital means for disciple making as currently practiced often lack the impact they could have. Barna, for example, found that the average church member could not remember the topic of a sermon after 2 hours. This makes application and life change difficult. Assessing the effectiveness of typical programs, educator Ted Ward declares, “Christian education is neither.” The percentage of Christians consistently practicing spiritual disciplines tends to be small. Also Barna found that most small groups do not effectively form disciples. Consequently, we need to learn how to enhance these traditional means, so they can contribute to making disciples.
These intentional approaches, however, do not exhaust the ways believers develop spiritually. God also works through the circumstances of our lives, especially when we cooperate with His Spirit and respond rightly. These include the daily choices we make in the situations we encounter. Even hardship, doubt, and guilt can contribute to growth if we respond appropriately.
Finally, spiritual growth and personal maturing influence one another. A person cannot continue to grow spiritually while remaining personally immature. Because of this, leaders need to develop approaches to discipleship that foster growth in both areas.
Too often we put people through a program or curriculum and call it discipleship. At the heart of growth in discipleship, however, are relationships of trust, commitment, and vulnerability, in which we receive encouragement, support, correction, and challenge. This requires us to change our churches from those that engage in superficial relationships to having genuine biblical community.
Stephen Lim, Springfield, Missouri
Four Hindrances to Discipleship
“Stunningly few churches have a church of disciples,” concluded pollster George Barna, even as he recognized that most churches have programs for this purpose. “Never before in the history of the United States has the gospel of Jesus Christ made such inroads,” George Gallup observed, “while at the same time making so little difference in how people actually live.”
The first step toward tackling this pervasive and deeply rooted problem is to understand the hindrances to discipleship. First, we need to overcome two frequent and significant areas of hindrances in our own ministries. Then we need to help believers deal with two imposing barriers in their lives — cultural subversions and personal issues.
Ministry weaknesses divide into two categories: flawed ministry goals and defective approaches to disciple making. Examples of the first include: striving for growing attendance instead of pursuing life transformation, and being satisfied with compliant and zealous members rather than seeking their ongoing spiritual maturation. One of the most common approaches that falls short is reliance on attendance at church services and activities. At best, they should only be part of an intentional strategy for making disciples.
Cultural seductions include the blatant lure of wealth, possessions, success, and entertainment. They also involve misbeliefs that infiltrate our minds through constant exposure and shape our values. Examples include: The present is what is important; the physical world is more real than the spiritual, and God exists to take care of our needs. These seductions produce spiritual anemia instead of growing discipleship.
Many personal issues also thwart discipleship growth. For example, in a fallen world painful experiences inflict deep wounds in our spirit. These often cause us to turn to substances and behaviors, such as workaholism, to numb the pain. They easily become compulsive or addictive, and rob us of the time, energy, freedom, and will to follow God’s direction for our lives. Unless overcome, they block meaningful discipleship.
If we want to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples (Matthew 28:19), we must overcome ministry-related hindrances and show believers how to overcome hindrances in their lives through the enabling of God’s Spirit.
Stephen Lim, Springfield, Missouri
Six Ways To Motivate Your Church for Serious Discipleship
Most resources on making disciples assume you have believers who are ready and waiting for discipling. If only this were true, it would make our task much easier. Leaders must consider the crucial — but often missing — factor of motivation. Without it, the best methods and materials have little value.
My appreciation of the need for strong, sustained motivation escalated when I discovered four powerful enemies of discipleship: inherent difficulties; urgent concerns, such as family responsibilities and work pressures; culture seductions, including career success, possessions, and entertainment; and cultural misbeliefs that regularly assault our minds and weaken our resolve to fully follow Jesus.
Duty or Desire
How can we motivate believers for discipleship despite these challenges? Early in my ministry I tried guilt. I quickly found this only has limited, short-term effectiveness. I have emphasized, duty but this also falls short. What delight does God take in the attitude, “I’m obeying You because it is my duty as a believer”?
The only adequate motivation for following Jesus is desire. In the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, the man joyfully sells all he has to buy the field because its value far exceeds the cost (Matthew 13:44). How can leaders provide and sustain such motivation for discipleship? Through the years I have discovered six sources.
Biblical Vision of God and Reality
A strong biblical vision of God serves as the primary motivator. Believers need to see God’s holiness and greatness, and appreciate His goodness, faithfulness, and forgiveness. Foundational is the reality of a loving God who is for us, not against us. Richard Foster wisely observes, “The Christian life comes not by gritting our teeth but by falling in love.”1
Disciple makers must also convey that living for God produces growing joy, wholeness, hope, and a fruitful life in fulfilling God’s purposes. Ultimately we gain eternal life with the God who loves us. We must sincerely believe: “While difficult, serving God overwhelmingly beats any alternative — so it’s hardly a choice at all.”
Appreciation of God’s Law and Revulsion Toward Sin
For sustained obedience, believers must be convinced of the desirability of God’s standards. As a pastor, I regularly reminded my congregation that God’s laws are descriptions of reality.He gave them for our good (Deuteronomy 10:12,13), so we can live the best life possible — that which accords with reality and offers eternal significance. To ignore His laws means to ignore reality, and results in diminished and distorted living, and eventually destruction.
A 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 damages our lives.
Recognition of Incompleteness
Those who realize their poverty and incompleteness will seek more of God and His reign in their lives (Matthew 5:3). Spiritual lukewarmness characterizes those who lack this awareness (Revelation 3:15–18). Often it takes a crisis to force us to deep and honest examination of our lives. In doing so, we recognize the inability of any earthly circumstances or relationships to satisfy our deepest need. We also may discover inner wounds and broken places that need God’s healing.
Joyful Experiences of God
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, answered prayer, His working in our lives, and the infilling of His Spirit. These experiences of God inspire and motivate us to grow in relationship with Him.
Lives, Testimony, and Encouragement of Others
The quality of other believers’ lives and their testimonies of God at work in and through them also motivate us. 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.
The Joy of Growing
Although our bodies quit growing and 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). 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. When I grow, however, I experience a freshness and aliveness in my life.
Without strong, sustained motivation on the part of Christians, growth in discipleship will be anemic. With the empowering of God’s Spirit, we can use six sources to generate and maintain desire for spiritual maturity.
Stephen Lim, Springfield, Missouri
1. Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 51.