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Why We Don't Make Disciples

A few days ago a Mike Breen asked the question, “Why does most ‘innovation’ in the church revolve around technology instead of discipleship?” In other words, why do we spend so much intellectual and creative capital tinkering with technological niftyness instead of investing that capital in finding out how to make disciples well?

Most of the possible reasons he offered revolved around the fact that discipleship is difficult, and therefore left untried (like that great G.K. Chesteron quote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”) While I think there’s an element of truth in that, I think that the real issue lies much deeper, and has to do with how our unspoken theological assumptions invariably guide our lives. And everyone has theological assumptions. You can’t live without them. But if they remain unexamined and un-articulated they could lead you to waste your life tinkering with things that don’t really matter in the long run.

My contention is this:

If we want to see a discipleship revolution take root in the North American church, we have to grapple with our inherited assumptions about what salvation is.

Until we really wrestle with this question and come to some solid answers, discipleship will not take root because it will always feel like an optional “add-on” to the “main thing,” some Christian bling for those who are into that kind of thing.

Essentially the issue is this: If salvation is merely agreeing with a few propositions so we can get into heaven when we die, if that’s what it’s really about, then of course all we’ll do is innovate new ways to attract people to hear that message and “say the prayer,” so to speak. Our goal defines the path our innovation takes.

But if salvation is something bigger, like participating in the life of God, joining with him in what he’s doing now (which I would argue is a far more biblical definition), then it makes perfect sense to make disciples of Jesus, because if we accept the invitation to live with God in his kingdom now, we very quickly learn that we don’t know how to do that. Thus discipleship follows naturally from this, because Jesus knows how to do it, and he promises to teach us and empower us to do it.

If salvation is “signing the papers” so we secure blessing in heaven, then our goal will simply be to get more people to sign the papers, and thus our innovation will take a technological turn, because you get more informational bang for your buck that way. But if salvation is participating in what God is doing now, and our goal is initiating people into that kind of life, we will naturally utilize our creative and intellectual capital to innovate ways to more effectively make disciples. Again, our goal will define the path our innovation takes.

The problem is that many churches try to “add” discipleship to their already-existing programs and paradigms, without deeply examining their assumptions about salvation, which tragically lead them to invent tricky new ways to “get the word out” and remain impotent in their ability to make disciples. Like my friend Michael Rudzena says, “Sometimes it isn’t the problem that needs troubleshooting, it’s the paradigm.”

If we really want to move churches toward building discipling cultures, we need to find ways to ask this deeper question about the nature of salvation. We need ways to confront the underlying assumptions that lead us away from discipleship. One idea I’ve wondered about is using parables. Jesus used them all the time to explode paradigms and turn things upside down.

What kinds of parables could we tell that would explode our paradigms of salvation?