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Why We Are Getting Discipleship All Wrong

“Discipleship” and “missional.”

These are the two big buzzwords on the Christian landscape today. Of course, there is also “simple church.” But that’s another discussion for another time.

As I speak in conferences throughout the world and meet people who have jumped on the discipleship bandwagon, or the missional bandwagon (or both), I make several observations.

Two Streams of Missional

There seems to be two different streams in the missional world:

1) Those who are stuck with D.L. Moody’s mindset. These are those who basically make the mission of God the salvation of lost souls. The church, then, is regarded as either a soul saving station (the mechanism to save the lost), or it’s something that doesn’t appear on the radar screen as being anything terribly significant.

“Whatever church you attend, whatever form it takes, and whatever practices it observes is irrelevant. The church exists to save lost souls, end of story.” So the thinking goes.

2) The other camp, which I joyfully throw my hat in with, are those who do not see the mission of God as being the salvation of individual souls. While that’s a slice of it, it’s not the whole pie. Nor is it the goal. God’s intention actually began before the fall, and it stands outside the reaches of redemption. God has a non-redemptive purpose—an eternal purpose, as Paul calls it in Ephesians 3:8-11—that was in God’s heart before the fall ever occurred. And God has never let go of it.

T. Austin-Sparks used to say that you can think of the eternal purpose as a straight line that moves from eternity past to eternity future.

But somewhere in the middle of that line, there’s a dip. That dip represents the fall of humanity. At the very bottom of the dip is a cross. The cross is designed to bring us back onto the straight line.

Regrettably, many Christians have forgotten the rest of the line. In fact, they’ve forgotten the beginning of the line and the end of the line. Instead, they are stuck in the dip. We can’t seem to get past salvation and redemption. Our starting point is Genesis 3 (the fall of humankind) instead of Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 (God’s purpose before time).

Consequently, serving God, helping others, trying to improve the world, saving souls from hell, worshipping God, etc. are routinely stated as being God’s grand mission.

I contend that God’s purpose goes beyond all of that. And it has something to do with a burning intent that is for God Himself, rather than something that simply benefits humans. The eternal purpose is immense, but it’s beyond the scope of this article to unpack. (I’ve done so elsewhere.)

Two Streams of Discipleship

I also observe that there are two streams of discipleship.

Note that in the New Testament, “disciple,” “convert,” “believer,” and “Christian” are all used interchangeably. The word “discipleship” is often used today to refer to the biblical idea of being conformed or formed into Christ’s image. It’s a word that describes Christian growth or spiritual formation. The biblical term for this is “transformation.” But we will use “discipleship” as a synonym for transformation in this piece even though the New Testament never uses it this way.

Here are the two streams of discipleship that I observe:

1) There are those who say, “What’s important is discipleship; the church is irrelevant. Let’s not discuss the church; let’s instead discuss how to make disciples.”

When people talk that way, it shouts one fact: That our understanding of church has gotten far afield from what it was in the New Testament.

When people make such statements, they are really talking about how church has been done traditionally (and that can include “churches” that gather in homes, parks, and pubs).

Whenever people think of “church” through a traditional lens, it’s not hard to see the pressing need for discipleship.

2) The other camp rightly understands that you cannot separate disciple making from the ekklesia. You cannot separate the forming of people into full-fledged followers of Jesus and a living, breathing, vibrant community that gathers under His headship.

To put it another way, you can’t separate discipleship from the ekklesia anymore than you can separate child rearing from the family. And you can’t separate the ekklesia from Jesus Himself, for it’s His very body.

I want you to imagine a saltwater fish. The fish can only survive in his natural habitat, which is the ocean. Why? Because the ocean surrounds the fish with everything it needs to live, breathe, and have its being.

The fish is also a dependent creature. Fish swim in schools.

Now consider a different image. Imagine that this fish is removed from the ocean, and from its school, and is thrown in someone’s backyard. People take turns spraying the fish with a water hose every 15 minutes. They also sprinkle salt on its body.

That’s an apt picture of modern discipleship.

Discipleship has been separated from the Christian’s native habitat (ekklesia), and it’s become a highly individualistic event. An individual discipler “disciples” an individual disciplee to become a better individual disciple.

And we have not so learned Jesus Christ.

Christianity has and always will be a collective, corporate life and pursuit.

The issue, therefore, is not discipleship. The issue is restoring the ekklesia as God intended it to be, for the ekklesia is the Christian’s native habitat. And out of it flows everything else.

How Did the Twelve Make Disciples?

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FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. His blog, Beyond Evangelical, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.