Part 1 – Internal Factors
As we showed last week, discipleship expands the Kingdom, changes your community and grows your church. So why do only 1% of church leaders surveyed believe American churches are discipling well. Why wouldn’t more pastors emphasize discipleship and implement a discipleship track that goes well beyond sermons and small groups (which aren’t making many disciples)? Why don’t many churches utilize more intensive and effective discipleship methods?
It’s not for a lack of understanding that discipleship is important. Most pastors list discipleship as a priority. Few deny its Kingdom-building potential. The story of Jesus’ ministry cannot be told without reference to how fervently He invested in, empowered and released disciples into service. For all those reasons, discipleship is addressed in sermons at least on occasion at nearly every church.
4 Discipleship “Pump Fakes”
However, today pastors seem more willing to preach discipleship principles than the corresponding actions and expectations that true discipleship entails. Too many pay lip service to discipleship and fall short on execution, anticipating few churchgoers will go beyond dipping their toes in the discipleship waters. In other words, in football terms during this Super Bowl week, in one of 4 ways pastors “pump fake” the congregation and hand off rather than throwing the ball downfield:
- Preaching without Principles – Not revealing the full costs of discipleship outlined in Luke 9 and Luke 14. This isn’t restricted to prosperity or “name it and claim it” churches, but applies to any church that fails to disclose that following Jesus may mean losing everything. Jesus’ high standards for His followers stand in stark contrast to the life improvement plan touted in churches that not only tolerate but cater to “consumer” Christians.
- Preaching without Programs – Fearless presentation of what challenges may await those who take a full-fledged leap of faith, but not offering a discipleship plank off which to leap. No company would rely solely on a weekly lecture and an optional weekly forum led by untrained employees as the full extent of its training program. Likewise, it is unreasonable for churches to think sermons and small groups should suffice as adequate discipleship training for those intended to be the personification of “church”.
- Preaching without Practicing – Sharing a hard message with a soft landing. So often Biblical truths passionately introduced throughout the first 25 minutes don’t seem to match the action items laid out in the last 5 minutes. You’ve seen it before – right message, wrong conclusions. A demanding sermon that seems to push the limits of life transformation (e.g. discipleship, evangelism and community impact), but ends with the same old Invite/Involve/Invest institution-building requests (e.g. invite friends, sign up for “church chores”, join a small group, give to the church).
- Preaching without Progress – Even with appropriate principles, programs and practices, real progress in disciple-making requires some form of accountability and tracking, either personal or corporate. A discipleship-driven church seeks to know whether its congregation is living out the Great Commission. It lays out a discipleship path and measures degree of life change as people move down that road. It may even abandon internally-focused “nickels and noses” metrics, replacing them with externally-oriented metrics like lives touched and impacted by its members.
Preaching with Power involves not only unveiling the costs of discipleship, but instituting an intensive 1-on-1 or triad discipleship program, deploying disciples into personal ministry inside AND outside the church, and expecting life transformation in line with what Jesus asked of His disciples.
Discipleship Works…so Why Not?
There are powerful INTERNAL forces (next week we’ll discuss EXTERNAL factors) at work within the current psyche of church leaders that deter all but a few from implementing full-scale, Biblical discipleship:
- Graduation – Churches provide different levels of Biblical “education”: Elementary School (“milk” Paul spoke of in Hebrews 5:13); High School (beginning to eat “solid” food); College (in-depth Bible study); and Grad School (deep personalized discipleship). Few churches provide all four levels. Yet I’ve never come across a church who admits that and refers members to another church once they’ve exhausted all the depth it can supply. A church who simply doesn’t have enough senior, mature leaders to start a “college” or “grad school” level discipleship program should either commit to fix that problem, or congratulate and bid farewell to those ready to earn their “bachelors” or “masters”. Instead, nearly every church tries to hang on to every person. That’s a disservice to those churchgoers and the Kingdom. Some may argue that those senior, mature leaders should stick around to disciple others, but their skills are likely underutilized by elementary and high school level churches where serious discipleship isn’t a priority. Regardless, truly transformed disciples probably won’t be content for long in a church that subscribes to conventional growth models – eventually leaving for a church with a higher “ceiling”.
- Centralization – Some pastors even get upset when members step away from church responsibilities to engage in community or world-changing external ministry. Leaders whose aim is to transform and release (build disciples) versus attract and retain (build an organization) would be excited for them. Serving on a finance committee or as a greeter builds that church, but serving in an external ministry that equips and unites many churches may do more to build the Kingdom. However, as pastors and staff have gradually come to be viewed as the “professionals” and “church” as a place to go to on weekends, the need for member engagement and loyalty has increased. A centralized concept of “church” is far more labor intensive and expensive to maintain than a decentralized church model. Discipleship decentralizes as members increasingly function as the embodiment of “church” between Sundays and more actively seek ministry opportunities outside the “4 walls”. A cycle of institutional dependency revolving around a single organization slowly gives way to a wider view of one’s personal responsibility to impact the community for Christ. In that respect, discipleship threatens a church’s viability by releasing its most valued resources. In fact, some churches have even asked me whether all external service opportunities that conflict with their internal volunteering needs can be eliminated from Meet The Need’s database.
- Expectation – The tables have turned. The “balance of power” today has tipped in favor of members. The law of supply and demand has given churchgoers the upper hand. A large number of churches, each carrying fixed expenses that have to be covered, are going after a shrinking “pool” of frequent attenders, each of whom donates less on average. The landscape is also filled with more “Walmart” churches, making life difficult for “mom-and-pop” churches who are unable to provide the same weekend “experience” for adults and children. Meanwhile, seminaries are producing significant numbers of aspiring new pastors every year. The math will only get worse – fewer people and funds to spread over the remaining base of church facilities and pastors. As a result, churches too often choose the path of least resistance to cling to members. As we discussed, they’ve reduced Worship, Compassion and even Salvation to events. Expectations have flipped – emphasis previously was on leaders expecting members to “perform” (e.g. life change; community impact) but now members expect pastors to perform (e.g. entertaining worship; availability for counseling and family events). Pastors are more hesitant to regularly make high commitment (and high Kingdom “payoff”) requests for discipleship, local missions, and evangelism – instead offering lower commitment alternatives (with lower Kingdom “payoff”) like serving on the usher, greeter or parking team.
It’s Your Turn…
Stop pump faking and throw the pass downfield. Get beyond words and put in place a life-changing discipleship program at your church that transforms people into the image of Christ.
Then, utilize Meet The Need’s software to point your members to opportunities to follow Jesus’ model of evangelism – letting loving acts of service open the door to presenting the Gospel message.
Finally, encourage your members to live Prayer, Care, Share lifestyles by introducing our new initiative #MeetAnEternalNeed. #MeetAnEternalNeed is a challenge to Christians and churchgoers everywhere to be intentional about:
- Bringing help and hope (found in Christ alone) to a friend, neighbor, coworker or complete stranger
- Posting a pic and telling their story on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #MeetAnEternalNeed (and #WWJB, #WhereWouldJesusBe) to inspire others
- Specifically challenging 3 friends on Facebook or Twitter to “pay it forward”