Home Pastors Articles for Pastors Why Most Church Discipleship Plans Fail

Why Most Church Discipleship Plans Fail

My last article, Why the Missional Church Will Fail, caused quite a stir in the past week and the overwhelming response seemed to require a follow-up post. So consider this PART TWO.

There were a few questions that emerged in online conversation because of this article:

  1. How am I defining disciple/discipleship?
  2. Am I separating mission from discipleship? Aren’t they part and parcel the same thing?
  3. Why am I making this complicated? Can’t we just do what Jesus says and stop talking about this stuff?
  4. What should we do about it?

Defining a disciple is fairly easy, in my view. The Greek word mathetes is the word that Scripture uses for “disciple,” and it means learner. In other words, disciples are people who LEARN to be like Jesus and learn to do what Jesus could do. One great writer on discipleship put it this way: Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.

A disciple is someone who, with increased intentionality and passing time, has a life and ministry that looks more and more like the life and ministry of Jesus. They increasingly have his heart and character and are able to do the types of things we see Jesus doing. We don’t have to look far in the New Testament to see this happening. Just look at the lives of the Disciples/Apostles and the communities they led…over time, they looked more and more like Jesus!

How did the church go from 120 people in an upper room to more than 50% of the Roman Empire in about 250 years? Simple. They had a way of reproducing the life of Jesus in disciples (in real, flesh-and-blood people) who were able to do the things we read Jesus doing in the Gospels.

Is that still the way we see Christians, or have we moved the goal post? I have to wonder if we’ve changed our criteria to match the kind of fruit our communities are now producing. Many are now fine with Christians who show up to our churches, are generally nice people, do some quiet times, tithe, and volunteer. Maybe they even have a little missional bent to them. These are all good things, but I don’t think this is the kind of “fruit” Jesus was referring to when he talked about fruitfulness in John 15. Would those kinds of people change the world like the early church did?

Probably not.

In truth, I think we are pretty bad at making disciples in the Western church. Why? Because I look at the life of Jesus, the life of the Disciples, the life of the early church, and what they were able to produce with their fruit…and then I look at ours. When we read Scripture and the texture of their lives and ministry, do we think that ours holds up to it? Even if we have a growing church, do the lives of the people we lead look like the lives of people we see in Scripture? That’s the goal post we should be going after.

I’ve heard Dallas Willard say that every church should be able to answer two questions: First, what is our plan for making disciples? Second, does our plan work? I believe most communities have a plan for discipleship. I’m not convinced many plans are working the way Jesus is hoping they will — and that’s why we’re in trouble.

I think the fruit of our lives will reveal the root of our lives. So if we are creating disciples who are far from the people we see in Scripture as the rule and not the exception, we must ask ourselves why this is the case and how we can change that reality.

Undoubtedly, one of the key components to being a disciple is to care deeply about mission. In Christendom, it seemed that people thought of discipleship as only an “inner” reality that sought the transformation of the individual and mission was left on the sideline. As we have come to re-embrace the missio Dei — the reality that the God of mission sent his Son as the great rescuer, and we are to imitate him — I wonder if some within the “missional movement” are far more concerned with being missionaries/reformers than also seeking the transformation and wholeness that Christ is offering them personally.

What concerns me is that we have gone ditch to ditch. The reality is that both things are at work in being a disciple. The reality of living more fully in the Kingdom of God is that we are being put back together through God’s grace, conforming more to the image of Jesus, having his heart and mind, and the overflow leads to Kingdom activity. That is why Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Apart from the active work of Jesus in our lives, we cannot produce Kingdom fruit. To engage in Kingdom mission without being equally attentive to our own personal transformation (through relationship with the King) is like asking for a cheeseburger with no cheese. It stops being the very thing we’re asking for! By the same token, to be a “disciple” while not actively engaging in mission as a way of life is asking for a cheeseburger with no burger. Both are necessary. To be a disciple is to be a missionary.

If we look at it objectively, we see churches with discipling cultures (that focus mainly on the transformation of individual self) and churches with missional cultures (which focus on the transformation of the world/people around us), and we often see tensions between these two camps.

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Mike leads 3DM, the global home for an organic movement of biblical discipleship and missional church. He and his wife, Sally, have three children.