by Bryan Rose
Discipleship is at the heart of our calling as believers. As framed by each gospel writer, the great commission stands as a clear, undeniable call to every Jesus follower. Yet over two thousand years later, why do church leaders still identify disciple making as a growth area for their leadership and a deficiency in their churches? Shouldn’t Jesus’ followers have this figured out by now?
There are five challenges that significantly contribute to the pastor’s struggle with discipleship. Making headway in discipleship will require leaders to make moves in response to these challenges. The entire church must be aligned around the singular focus of helping believers grow in Christ-like maturity. Facing these five challenges will develop your discipleship leadership and guide your church toward full engagement in the calling to follow Jesus.
Challenge #1: We operate from theory instead of first-hand understanding.
> Your next move: Seek two (people) for you.
A few years ago, I attended a gathering of prominent church pastors. Most of their disciple-making perspective had more to do with organizational advancement than personal growth. While it’s true that leadership development is a vital part of disciple making, walking alongside others in their spiritual development is the heart of discipleship. Most senior pastors today were never discipled growing up. For today’s pastors coming of age in the “do it yourself” church leadership era of the 70s through 90s, most disciple making was assumed and never modeled.
To remedy this, begin to move away from the organizational to the personal, starting with yourself. Find one or two others and read the Bible together simply and consistently. “Don’t over-construct growing together,” said David Putman, Auxano senior lead navigator. “Keep it simple each week by asking two questions: What did God say in this passage? What will I do about it?”
Maybe it’s time to branch out beyond staff or critical leaders and start looking at your neighbors, or even your dermatologist, through the gospel lens. Your church must never become too large or your job too important for you to walk alongside someone growing in their walk with Christ.
Challenge #2: We transfer knowledge of Jesus instead of experience with Jesus.
> Your next move: Step into the messiness.
Early in my ministry journey, I began to model my schedule and activity after leaders who worked hard to not be interrupted. I watched them structure their days toward study and teaching preparation and thereby minimize the potential for sideways energy expended on people. In this way, church members sometimes represented a bothersome interruption of ministry rather than the awesome reason for ministry.
This posture ultimately results in teaching—or transferring knowledge—as a primary discipleship tactic, rather than walking with people through the messiness of their lives. Yet, interruption was the way of Jesus. He was committed to studying but formed disciples by serving them, and His teaching emerged from walking with God and with people.
To remedy this challenge, follow Jesus in more profound, messier experiences with a few rather than prioritizing polished teaching to broad audiences. Indeed, we need to study, but there’s no substitute for applying the text through experience with people. As the apostle Paul instructed the Philippian church, “Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9, CSB).
What if Jesus’ time with the Father came when nobody else was awake because ministry is more about daily interruption than weekly instruction? Maybe it’s time to step out of the office and apply your knowledge of the Bible to the messiness of people’s lives.
Challenge #3: We celebrate church activity instead of spiritual maturity.
> Your next move: Shift your leadership priorities.
A lay leader recently described his church’s growth challenge: “We are a 1990s church trying to reach people in 2022.” This small group leader’s frustration was about more than the look and feel of their building. He described a mindset of ministry activity and church programming that reached its peak effectiveness at least 30 years ago.
In walking with families far from Christ and His church, I’ve yet to find parents looking for more things to do. Family schedules are full of activity, yet meaning and purpose remain elusive. Many churches still operate from an un-networked, analog era of calendar-driven ministry that defines maturity as showing up three or more times per week. Today, bringing meaning to people and purpose to families through intentional spiritual development is of higher value than simply offering more activities.
To remedy this, change the conversation by shifting your leadership priorities. Make life change and transformation more than a five-minute celebration at the start of weekly staff meetings. Create consistent language that paints a picture of maturing believers helping to mature believers. For example, instead of cheering about Vacation Bible School (VBS) volunteer numbers, tell VBS volunteer stories. More important than the number of volunteers are the experiences of first-time VBS leaders.
Testimony is the currency of transformation, so commission your staff or leaders to seek and share stories in which people grow in their walks with Christ and lead others to do the same. When you anchor church activity to a larger continuum of spiritual maturity—not just the church calendar—every family understands what the church wants for them, not just from them.
Challenge #4: We create complex processes instead of defining simple growth outcomes.
> Your next move: Shape culture with a new scorecard.
Every week I meet another church or pastor who (in pursuit of simplicity) organized their website menus around three or more programmatic words (usually some form of “worship,” “connect,” and “serve”). However, simple ministry demands more than picking a few words to put on your marketing pieces and anchoring processes around them. True simplicity requires conviction about a calling to make disciples, the courage to assess effectiveness, and team competency to lead the way forward. It’s a simple thing to create complexity, but it’s a complex thing to create simplicity. It’s easier to count numbers and create programs than define and sustain spiritual growth.
To remedy this, pastors and lay leaders must shape culture by changing the scorecard of success away from the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. While these are essential measurements (after all, healthy things grow), more people, more activity, and more money are not guarantors of disciple-making success. It’s possible to make a budget without making a disciple. We can build a building without building the church. Therefore, shared definitions of what a disciple is and does must exist in your church.
Create a collective experience of personal scorekeeping as each member takes responsibility for their spiritual growth and the maturity of those around them. Define the outcomes of disciple making beyond attending, giving, or serving. Instead, create commonly held marks of maturity that are personal, observable, and reproducible. Start with the list of faith-builders in 2 Peter 1:5-7, knowing that, “… if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8, CSB). The complex work of defining the outcomes of spiritual maturity allows simplicity to flourish as every ministry aligns around a new discipleship scorecard of success.
Challenge #5: We position discipleship as an activity happening to someone instead of toward something.
> Your next move: Saturate everything in multiplication.
Across the landscape of local churches, the word discipleship represents a classroom or meeting more than describes a way of living. Discipleship pastors launch, train, and maintain activities that happen to people, more than develop and focus on disciple making as a daily movement toward God’s ultimate calling on people’s lives.
When Jesus called His followers to make disciples, it didn’t only mean “get as many people as you can to commit to at least an hour a week in some sort of small group or 1-1 setting.” Discipleship, modeled back in Deuteronomy 6, looks more like revealing God’s work in day-to-day living through the lens of God’s Word. Classes and groups are critical but must represent a waypoint of disciple making, not the entire journey.
To remedy this, reposition disciple making away from a weekly moment that happens to people, and reframe it as a daily movement of people pursuing God’s calling on their lives. Growing in Christ-like maturity is a daily living action, not just a weekly experience. Equip more than just your group leaders to be disciple makers. Empower families to define and pursue a generational purpose through every sports practice or dance recital. Develop a deep sense of calling in every family and follower of Jesus at your church until their faith is expressed in every conversation, not just their weekly calendars.
What would happen if you could saturate maturity and multiplication of faith in every area of life, not just in activities of church life? Disciple making then becomes something that happens toward a purpose, not just something that happens to a person.
>> Discipleship headway
Making these five moves may not fully remedy the Church’s 2,000-year challenge to make disciples who make disciples. However, the challenges of the past two years remind us that making headway in disciple making in your church will take a new mindset, leading to a new priority, ultimately resulting in new practices around the timeless calling to multiply faith in every church member every day.
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