Buzzwords are unavoidable, and we shouldn't overlook them. In fact, a buzzword often tells us where God is at work or where he's redirecting his church when she has veered off the right path. The hot buzzword today among church leaders is discipleship.
What Are We Really Accomplishing?
A few years ago, as I finished my last week on staff at a church, I wanted to see what kind of impact my small-group ministry had made over my seven years there. I decided to interview two couples who had come to Christ under my watch, immediately joined a group, and continued in groups for at least five years.
I was blindsided with what I unearthed. Both couples expressed that they had made lifelong friendships, learned how to be better spouses, and never wanted to leave their group. But neither couple had experienced meaningful spiritual growth. They didn't knew how to pray, knew very little about the Bible, couldn't begin to describe what the gospel was, and had never been encouraged to practice spiritual disciplines. And, because they had little to no connection to the heart of God and the spiritual practices of maturing disciples, their character had remained relatively unchanged since the day they received Christ. These two wonderful couples had been led to experience and enjoy community, but had never been directed to do what was necessary to become mature disciples of Jesus. My heart was broken.
Many are talking about whether their groups are making disciples because they've experienced the same ministerial trauma I experienced. They see the product their group ministry is producing, and it's not good. Rather than mature disciples, so many of our ministries are simply producing friendships.
Even beyond my own small-group ministry, I know that the church is not creating mature disciples because I see the kind of Christians we are creating and the issues they're facing. Mature disciples of Jesus keep commitments, carry out God's commandments, demonstrate the character of Christ, and never allow cultural Christianity to overtake God's unchanging biblical expectations. It strikes me that Christians are experiencing such widespread divorce, and many of those who are divorcing have been in the church for decades. They are bailing for many different reasons, but I believe one of those reasons is that their character hasn't been transformed by Christ. Few marriages split when those who are in the marriage consistently display the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in relationship with one another. After all, these characteristics show that they care more for their spouse than themselves. The fruit of the Spirit, though, is only consistently displayed in maturing disciples who are allowing Christ to transform their character.
Another sign that we're not creating mature disciples is that our people aren't living up to the biblical expectations of Jesus' disciples. Consider the martyrdom we see across the globe as our brothers and sisters proclaim Jesus. These stories force church leaders to ask, Why are my Christian brothers and sisters around the world willing to die for Christ when the people I lead aren't even willing to live for him?
Consider the biblical expectations of disciples of Jesus:
- Allegiance to Jesus above all other relationships (Luke 14:26)
- Give up creature comforts (Matthew 8:18-20)
- Don't love money and be willing to give up financial gain (Matthew 9:16-22)
- Speak proudly of Jesus even when it causes ridicule (Mark 8:38)
- Death (Luke 14:27)
We read in Scripture of the sacrifices Jesus' disciples must be willing to make, but when we compare those expectations to the selfish desires of our own parishioners, we realize that we're leading congregations of spiritual babes.
Getting a Redirect from God
Discipleship has become the primary conversation in churches and those who serve them. It seems God is creating a movement. It shouldn't surprise us that God is drawing our attention back to disciple-making. It seems we, the church, have given our hearts wholeheartedly to recruiting church members and assimilating people into church programming, and we've confused this with making mature disciples. A redirect from God is more than appropriate at this time in Christian history, especially in the Western church.
Thankfully, as church leaders become aware of this disconnect, many are discussing how to focus on disciple-making. Beyond that, many denominations are beginning to have these conversations so they can better serve the churches in their care. There is also much conversation about disciple-making taking place in the parachurch world. For instance, the Navigators have created a division solely for aiding churches that want to make disciples.
Likewise, several Christian publishing companies are giving much time and attention to disciple-making. I work for LifeWay Church Resources, and our purpose statement reads, "We serve churches in their mission of making disciples." Disciple-making is so important at LifeWay that we led the way in researching the topic and completed a groundbreaking book: Transformational Discipleship. Our hope is that this book and our many other resources are aiding churches as they strive to make mature disciples.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Discipleship is an important topic for small-group directors, coaches, and leaders because the goal of biblical small groups is to make disciples. This is what Jesus commanded.
It seems that we need a redirect in the small-group world. In many churches, we're giving our hearts to building community, but we're going about it backward. If we work simply to build community and develop friendships, our group members may never become mature disciples. On the other hand, if we work to develop disciples, our group members will develop friendships along the way, and our groups will experience true community as a result.
Small-group directors, coaches, and leaders need to understand what's necessary in the disciple-making process, and then build their ministry around that process. Otherwise, we may simply get people to stick around and make friends, but never become mature disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Western church is in decline. Soothsayers are repeating again and again that the church is dying. But those churches making mature disciples aren't dying. Instead, they're growing. These churches focus on transformational relationships, not just well-attended Bible studies. They unapologetically ask their members to be involved in spiritual disciplines instead of trying to figure out what their members are willing to do. Churches that are about making mature disciples realize there are levels of spiritual maturity, and they evaluate where people are at so that group leaders can aid them in moving to the next level. And finally, churches that are making mature disciples are setting the bar high, expecting and anticipating that the majority of those they're discipling will someday disciple someone else.
Consider this: Mature disciples not only evangelize, but also stand for Christ in the midst of emotional and physical persecution, live lives that depict the love of Christ, and lead people to believe that Jesus is real and truly capable of transforming lives. They serve in ways that take the burden off the church staff, and they support the mission of the church. They live in peace and unity with other believers, making the church a magnet for those longing for a loving, caring community.
It's essential that we, the small-group community, focus on developing mature believers in our ministries who then develop other mature disciples. As large numbers of believers are discipled toward maturity, the church will flourish, experiencing both spiritual and numerical growth.
—Rick Howerton is a discipleship and small group specialist; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.
To help your group members grow and thrive, use our training tool Growing Small Groups. It focuses on key discipleship elements in groups.