Several weeks ago, we provided a simple answer to a difficult question – “Are You a Disciple? A Surefire Litmus Test”. Disciples of Jesus Christ assume His attributes, and foremost among those is that of a humble servant. In 2017, we all have a fresh opportunity to show we truly are Jesus’ disciples. One of the most important ways we can serve the Lord and advance His Kingdom is by following His final marching orders – to “go and make disciples”.
That clarion call to incessant action stands in stark contrast to the passive event orientation that epitomizes most churches and Christians today. Disciples see the Great Commission as a way of life, not as participation in a series of religious events:
- Salvation – More than a one-time profession of faith, but life change exhibited by a radical transformation in Eyesight, Empathy and Engagement.
- Church – Not a place we go on weekends, but acceptance of personal responsibility to be the embodiment of “church” and fulfill the Great Commission all week long.
- Compassion – Rather than “checking the box” during the holidays, living Prayer/Care/Share lifestyles because countless people are still helpless and hopeless year-round.
Why Aren’t We Making Many Disciples?
Church members and attenders are the conduit through which the Church accomplishes its objective in the world – the Great Commission. Yet, we’ve seen previously how few in today’s congregations can be considered disciples, exhibiting the key attributes of Jesus. Somehow church leaders aren’t providing an adequate level of depth necessary to build a sanctuary full of disciples.
What should they be doing differently in 2017?
As we’ve discussed many times, the fundamental flawed assumption behind the Church’s decline in growth, impact, influence and perception is the re-definition of “church” and its “customer”. Biblically, “church” is a gathering of Individual believers, yet most churchgoers today treat church as a place or set of activities in which they participate each week. Church leaders would love to build disciples, asking members to endure all that entails, but realize the future of their church depends on people coming back, knowing few today have the time and willingness to stomach the costs of discipleship. (Luke 9 and Luke 14)
Because members ARE the “church”, they should be treated as “insiders”, much more like employees of a company than its customers (“outsiders”). When a company hires a new employee, training is the first priority. Would a company consider a 30 minute presentation each week to be adequate training? What if it added weekly group discussions with fellow employees for a few months each year? Would the combination of those two be enough? Of course not. Companies know that proper training for employees entails 1-on-1 mentorship, intensive classes and on-the-job (OJT), in-the-field experience.
However, church leaders are careful not to challenge congregations to the point where they may leave, thereby treating them more like “customers” (outsiders) than “employees” (insiders). Since discipleship is hard work, costly and risky, pastors don’t push it on them. Pastors understand that 1-on-1 and group training classes led by professionals work best in business, but most consider those too demanding and risky to employ with members/attenders. On-the-Job Training (OJT) is also poor at most churches because they know few members are committed to living out Jesus’ model for evangelism (i.e. regularly serving others as a door opener to sharing the gospel).
Instead, church leaders provide “lite”, easier versions of discipleship like Small Groups, and nudge them toward those options. As a result, most members and attenders are improperly trained to be effective ambassadors for Christ.
Disciples must be well-trained, but churches are not training members well. And churches are feeling the effects – collateral damage from pews full of folks who are generally under-equipped to fulfill the Great Commission (i.e. to pursue the real “customer” – the lost in the community).
Small Groups Should Not be a Church’s Primary Discipleship Method
The discipleship process is:
- Connection – Engendering trust through personal relationships, living in community with other Christians.
- Conversion – This is just the starting point. It’s someone else in heaven, but it’s not a disciple.
- Cultivation – Intensive training necessary to grow believers into disciples of Jesus Christ willing to undergo the requisite costs and undertake the Great Commission mandate.
Small Groups are good for Connection and possibly for Conversion, but aren’t intensive or personal enough to be the primary vehicle for Cultivation. Yet if you ask 100 pastors today about their discipleship program, nearly all will begin with “Small Groups”. Again, no effective organization would rely on occasional group gatherings led by untrained individuals as the primary means for delivering the intensive training required for “insiders” (“employees”). Successful, healthy organizations know 1-on-1 and OJT training are required.
It’s no wonder the Church isn’t growing, in number or impact. It’s not surprising that more members aren’t taking on more of the attributes of Christ. As long as pastors don’t fully buy-in to “members ARE the church” they won’t dare challenge them to train at the same level of a corporate employee.
So Why Do Churches Push Small Groups So Hard?
Given all this, we have to ask that question. Do pastors really believe Small Groups are the best method for discipleship, or is there another explanation? As we’ve discussed the most common church growth model today is “Invite, Involve, Invest“. In that model, Small Groups are the predominant method for the “Involve” phase. Small Groups do help bring people somewhat closer to the Lord, but they also build relationships and relationships are “sticky” – increasing the likelihood they’ll come back next Sunday.
Each church should examine its own heart – is it promoting Small Groups more to get people Involved (more loyal to the church) or more to turn them into disciples (more loyal to the Lord)? Presumably, pastors understand that Small Groups, most done only a couple semesters per year and with a fraction of the members participating, should not be the main strategy for discipleship. A church that’s more concerned with building disciples and not building an institution would certainly have additional, deeper methods of discipleship than just Small Groups. Therefore, our contention is that a church leveraging Small Groups as its primary means for discipleship can’t be that concerned about discipleship.
All pastors say that building and sending disciples is key to their mission, but is that reflected in how they spend their time and in how willing they are to prod members in that direction? In business, when goals and intentions often don’t line up with a company’s allocation of resources, that misalignment adversely impacts the bottom line.
Why 1-on-1 (or Triads) Work Best
Discipleship will scare off many of those who don’t view themselves as “insiders”. Preparing for and leading a series of meetings with another person over a long period takes a lot of time, studying and effort. And what’s the outcome of discipleship – possibly being called to bear the costs Jesus outlined – like leaving those you love and being homeless? None of that is pretty when you present it as an “action plan” to the congregation! Yet if pastors know 1-on-1 (or triads) is the best method for discipleship, then any hesitancy to promote it is further evidence of the tendency to cater rather than challenge, treating members as a “customer” and not as the personification of “church”.
1-on-1 and Triad discipleship are more effective than Small Groups because:
- The process of becoming a disciple is personal
- The best mentors in our lives were those who interacted with us personally, whether it was a teacher, a coach or some other role model
- People won’t say in public environments that they would in private, intimate ones
- One of Jesus’ favorite methods of discipleship was personal questions, allowing for self-discovery, not just telling them the answers but letting them figure it out for themselves
- Sermons can only cast vision around what it means to be a disciple and encourage people to take the next step
How to Achieve this New Year’s Resolution in 2017
- Pastor disciples leaders 1-on-1
- Those leaders then disciple a couple people each 1-on-1 or in triads
- Encourage all discipled members to disciple others (i.e. OJT)
- Sunday School – Consider resuming this dying tradition, making sure it’s taught by disciples
- Small Groups – Facilitated only by discipled leaders
- Immersion Bible Study – One night a week (several hours)
- Greater emphasis on private devotion – The fundamental blocking and tackling of Bible study, journaling and prayer
- Lay out a discipleship track for members
This approach will quickly and exponentially grow a base of disciples who can make more disciples. This is a significant part of the turnaround strategy for today’s churches. It was Jesus’ model. However, are we willing to chase members this far out of their comfort zones, knowing many will head out the back door to a church down the road that will cater to them?
It’s Your Turn…
Have you seen churches where deep discipleship took hold to the point where it was truly part of the DNA of the church? What other effects have you seen from churches reducing “insider” training to Small Groups led by “untrained” members?