“Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Discipleship is a word around which most followers of Jesus agree in its importance but have broadly different understandings as to what constitutes a disciple and discipleship — the practice of making disciples.
Many churches have defined a disciple as someone who attends, gives, serves, and invites people to the local church regularly. Discipleship programs have largely been designed to teach people these behaviors. Over the past few decades, there have been growing signs in the American church that our approach to discipleship has not been yielding the results we have been striving to attain.
Prior to 2020, a staggering 94% of churches in the U.S. were plateaued, declining, or growing at a pace slower than the population in their context.[i] Regular attenders are also attending less frequently. In the 1980s, regular attendance meant people attended services three or more times a month. In 2019, Stadia, a church planting network, said its research showed regular attendees attend three services across two months, an average of 1.5 times a month.[ii] We are especially losing ground with younger people. While half of Americans say that attending church is at least somewhat important, only 20% of Millennials say so, and 35% of Millennials have an anti-church stance believing the church does more harm to society than good.[iii] Giving to charity by Americans has been growing over the past decades,[iv] and, at the same time, giving to churches has been in steep decline with churches receiving about half the share of overall charitable giving (29%) as they did in the 1980s (58%).[v] The list goes on, but all illustrate trends that show clearly different results than what we are hoping to achieve through our discipleship efforts.
Then 2020 came onto the scene ushering in what seems like a never-ending series of crises. The events of this year have served as a magnifying glass highlighting the gaps between our aspirational views of ourselves and the realities that present us with the unflattering truth about our present state. The pressures of this year have also accelerated the trendlines and social shifts that were underway. Many churches are seeing much smaller attendance at physical gatherings, and digital attendance has shown further shifts away from Sunday morning as the primary time people engage with church.
These factors increase both the urgency for church to respond and create significant opportunity for church leaders to lead change that will help us recover our missional purpose and effectiveness in making disciples. We can lament the losses of the past few decades and pivot for the realties and opportunities of today. I am reminded of the popular Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second-best time is now.”
Part of the challenge might be found in our approach to discipleship. In the last century, the American church has been massively influenced by the industrial revolution and has attempted to make disciples using a standardized approach for everyone that centers around a professional lecturing a classroom of participants about a specific set of information.
What if discipleship is something else entirely? What if the goal of discipleship is not mental assent to a set of doctrines or adherence to a set of behavioral norms, but rather the surrendering of oneself increasingly over to the leadership of Jesus? What if, instead of something that occurs over the duration of a class or series of classes, it is a lifetime pursuit meant to be fostered in the context of relationship? What if we have been creating adherents instead of disciples?
To answer these questions, we must come to a common understanding of what it means to be a disciple. Jesus answers this question in Matthew 16:24–26 (NIV), “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’”
From Jesus’ words we can derive that a disciple is someone who does three things 1) denies themselves; 2) takes up their cross; and 3) follows Jesus. Perhaps part of our challenge in making disciples is that we have complicated discipleship by making it an external process we hope will produce internal fruit, instead of an internal process that produces external fruit. Jesus gives us a simple definition, but simple does not mean easy. Let’s unpack these three acts of submission: a disciple must…
1) “Deny themselves” – This is an act of laying aside my preferences, my desires, my ambition to position me to take up my cross and follow Jesus. This is an internal choice we make repeatedly. This a very personal first act of submission that is not something we can impose upon others. It is a skill we can help model and teach to others.
In a counterintuitive way, this begins in the heart of the discipler. We want to change the person we are discipling, but our personal transformation will always precede that of the people we are leading. Our first act of submission to Jesus is to deny our need to fix the people we are discipling. In the book Learning Change, Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor observe, “We need to let go of the fantasy that we can change others. When we stop trying to change other people, we free up vast amounts of energy to focus on cooperating with God’s efforts to change us. … We may even see others begin to change in response to God’s work in us.”[vi]
What if instead of telling people how they need to deny themselves with a list of disapproved behaviors, we modeled self-denial and invited them to join us by examining their own hearts before the Lord and allowing the Holy Spirit to identify ways He wants them to deny themselves to make room to take up their cross? What is Jesus asking you to lay down? This would require us to teach the skills of reflection, self-examination, confession, repentance, and listening to the voice of the Lord.
The Holy Spirit is intimately acquainted with the workings of each person’s heart and knows exactly what to bring up when. He has asked people I was relationally discipling to quit their secret use of illicit drugs, quit their lucrative but immoral job, sell assets that had become idols, and break off immoral relationships. I have been repeatedly amazed at the audacity of the Holy Spirit in asking people to lay down things sacrificially that I would never have had the knowledge or perhaps the courage to ask them to lay down. In any case, the goal is discipling them to be obedient to Jesus, not to us.
2) “Take up their cross” – This is an act of obedience, repeatedly taking responsibility for the things Jesus has asked of me. When Luke records these words of Jesus in Luke 9:23-25 (NIV), he includes a modifier, “daily.” This decision is not a one and done. We decide repeatedly to say “no” to ourselves and say “yes” to Jesus.
Again, this begins in the heart of the discipler. As disciplers we replicate who we are not who we want to be. If we are not saying “yes” to Jesus and modeling sacrificial obedience, then the people we are discipling will not be either. We must model obedience by taking up our cross and inviting them to take up the cross Jesus has for them. We have different areas of responsibility and calling in which we are to be obedient. While the crosses have similarity, no two crosses are the same. We are all called to be witnesses, but the who, when, where, and how are a personal responsibility each of us must bear.
Larry Walkemeyer once noted that Jesus taught His disciples to cast out demons, but we teach ours to pass out programs. As church leaders we have to a great extent redefined the cross to eliminate discomfort for our disciples and lower the level of personal responsibility followers of Jesus must have for partnering with Jesus in His redemptive work.
What if instead of telling people their cross is limited to what happens in church on Sunday (attendance, giving, serving, and inviting) we ask people what is it that Jesus is asking you to do? Who is Jesus asking you to pray for and be a witness to? This would require us to teach the skills of prayer, listening to the voice of the Lord, the arts of spiritual conversations, and the ability to articulate what Jesus has done in our lives.
Jesus invites all of His followers, from day one, to pick up their cross and take up their responsibility in the kingdom work. The Apostle Paul marvels at this in Colossians 1:27–28 (NIV), “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” It is Christ in each follower that is the hope of glory. In our obedience we lift Jesus up and in doing so He draws people to Himself.
3) “Follow me (Jesus)” – This is the direction we must be progressing in, not a destination we have arrived at. It is easy to identify at any given moment. Am I following Jesus or myself? Am I moving toward Jesus or away from Him? When we enter into a discipling relationship with someone, are we teaching them to locate Jesus in every situation and move toward Him, bringing others along whenever possible?
Again, this begins in the heart of the discipler. As disciplers we must follow Jesus. He has given us the Holy Spirit to lead us. Paul writes in Romans 8:14 (NIV), “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” Becoming more like Jesus is the goal. Progressing ever deeper in our trust and obedience is discipleship.
What if we focused on teaching people to identify Jesus and take a step closer? No matter where they are or what their current commitment level is, we can help people identify Jesus and move closer. This is why discipleship starts with “hello” and moves people toward Jesus. We can often help people take a step toward Jesus even before they have committed themselves to follow Him.
Our world is shifting significantly. The methods we have relied on for years are not suitable for the task. We need new wineskins. The good news is we can make disciples without having to rely on Sunday morning gathering. We can teach people to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus in relational networks that manifest digitally or physically. But we must engage people again in this journey. Matt Redman wrote the lyrics “I’m coming back to the heart of worship” as a cry of repentance for making worship something other than God intended. Perhaps it is time for us to return to the heart of discipleship.
[i] Sattuck, K. (2017, December 14). 7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America. Retrieved from ChurchLeaders.com: https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html
[ii] Whitney, C. (2019) Performance Evaluation in Ministry Organizations/Interviewer: E. Creps. The Center for Leadership Studies, Northwest University.
[iii] Barna Research. (2014, March 24). Americans Divided on the Importance of Church. Retrieved from Barna.com: https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD
[iv] Firch, J. (2019). Charitable Giving Statistics: 2018. Retrieved from Nonprofitssource.com: https://nonprofitssource.com/online-giving-statistics/
[v] McMichen, T. (2019, August 6). Giving Trends Are Shifting. Retrieved from Lifewaygenerosity.com: https://lifewaygenerosity.com/2019/08/06/giving-trends-are-shifting/
[vi] Herrington, J. and Taylor, T. (2017). Leaning Change. Kregel Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI. P.40.
About the Author
Michael Forney is the superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the Free Methodist Church. He has been equipping church leaders in formational leadership, church revitalization, and multiplication across multiple denominations for almost 15 years. He is the co-author of the book, “Gravity: Seven Essential Truths About Leadership, Influence, and Your Soul.” Michael has an M.A. in organizational leadership, from Regent University in Virginia. He has been married to Nancy for 32 years. They have four grown daughters, two sons-in-law, two grandchildren and one on the way. Michael loves spending time with his family, the Seahawks, hiking, beachcombing, reading a good book, and enjoying a steaming cup of dark roast coffee.