Over the last several years, the subject of discipleship has become an important topic for me. One that occupies my mind most days. I have spent a good amount of time reading, studying, discussing, and engaging in discipleship as much as I can. Of all the things Jesus said to his original disciples, and were written down for us to read in the Scriptures, what Jesus said about discipleship requires careful consideration.
What has made discipleship such a difficult idea/concept/subject to understand is we were not there to see what Jesus was doing with the Twelve. We are piecing together the best picture we can from the information we have been provided by the New Testament authors. We have some ideas based on what the Bible records but, it’s not like having a video to pause, rewind, and analyze. However, what is recorded needs to be understood if we are ever going to become disciple-makers ourselves.
The other morning I remembered something I said almost over 15 years ago. I was a 20-year-old interim pastor of a small rural church in East Georgia. This small church was nestled into a grove of Georgia pines and overlooked a large farm across the road. One of the oddities of this church was that the congregation’s average age was about 55 years older than I was at the time. There were only 7 members and not one of them was less that 70 years old.
I share this information because puts into context what I learned in that small, country church. Something that I have never forgotten. It has served as one of the driving ideas in my various ministry assignments. And, this past week, it clarified for me why the discipleship efforts in many churches are not more effective.
Lessons from a Country Church
What I remembered was this phrase: In the church, we know more than we actually do.
As I was trying to preach to these seasoned saints I was struck by a simple fact. I was not going to say something “new” to them. All of them had been Christians for decades before I was born!
My job was not to get these brothers and sisters to become more holy. I was in no position to speak to them in this way. As a matter of fact, I was there to learn about ministry and God trusted these saints open their small church to a young man who had no idea what ministry was about to learn some lesson in their midst.
Now, let me try and put this idea into context as it relates to discipleship. One of Jesus’ most important statements regarding discipleship is found in the closing words of Matthew’s gospel. That is where we find the following recorded.
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)
The word that can get lost in what Jesus was saying is the word “observe” in verse 20. Given the context, we should not take this to mean that we should be teaching people to use their eyes to watch Jesus commands. Although that is one meaning it is not the meaning here.
Jesus has given commands. Commands are directives that one person, in this case, Jesus, wants someone else to do, namely his disciples. Therefore, when Matthew records Jesus’ words, the implication of the text is that there is an action that Jesus expects to be performed by those who are being taught what Jesus commanded. The New International Version correctly translates this word as “obey,” as this is the implication of the text.
To say it another way, the process of making disciples is not just a process of giving instruction but also of requiring obedience to that instruction. We general understand this in our lives. We send children to school to learn how to do things, the most important of which is to read. However, while reading has many uses in a person’s life, in the end, learning to read is a means to another end. That end could entertainment, economic advancement, or personal growth. The reading itself is not the goal.
Discipleship should be understood just like this. We are taught what Jesus said as it is recorded in the bible, not so we can say, “I know what Jesus said.” Honestly, who cares if you know what Jesus said if you are not willing to do what he taught.
We have to see that the reason we study, memorize, and teach what the Bible says is so that we can become what Jesus was. While the cliqué has become tired, the truth it contained has not. If we want to do what Jesus did, we have to become who Jesus was.
Discipleship Is Hard because Being Like Jesus is not Cool
In the end, I think this is the main reason more people are not committed to becoming disciples of Jesus. We like being members of our churches. We like the programs and the fellowship. We tolerate the sermons and the offering. We offer “suggestions” about how the songs and services could be improved. We will do all of these things as long as no one starts asking about our reading the bible or our prayer time or our sharing the gospel with others.
It’s getting to the point that we (church leaders) are just happy to make budget. We don’t want to offend anyone. We want everyone to be happy so that the status quo is not thrown into chaos. The sad thing is that the longer we stay in this posture, the harder it is to be taken seriously. It’s not cool, or easy, to call people to holiness because what we may fear in the end is that we don’t want that finger pointed back at us. So, we just leave well along.
The church, the body that Jesus died to build, is not dying, as some people like to say. What is dying is the white-washed coffins of a bastardized version of the church. When the gospel is not proclaimed, when the truth is not upheld, when the love of God is not demonstrated there is bondage and death and despair. But, the opposite is also true.
If we claim to name of Jesus, we have to stop worrying about being liked. We have to start doing the righteous thing regardless of the consequences.
Now, you may be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with discipleship?” Let me tell you. If we do not understand that discipleship is the process whereby we become like Jesus, in every way that this is possible, we will never see what the Bible describes we should be seeing. There are too many people in the Church who want to believe the Bible, but who in fact do not believe the Bible. The difference between these two positions is wider than we really know and yet changing it is a choice anyone can make right now.
3 Reasons Lasting Disciples are not Made in the Church
Let me give you three reasons why disciples who last are not being made in our churches.
1. We are informed beyond our obedience
This is the first implication of the thought I shared earlier. We know so much more than we are actually living out in our lives. We hear so much each week in our churches, life/small groups, blog reading, or whatever other sources we engage in, that we do not take much time to meditate on or even evaluate it all.
In the church, we have become just as guilty of a sound bite culture as the secular world. We listen to just enough to be “encouraged.” Whatever that means. Just enough to feel informed. But we don’t take what we have heard and truly consider what it means for our own lives. We don’t stop to think about what it would mean to actually do what we have just heard or read.
When we spend more time looking for ammunition than for what will sustain us, we have lost our focus on obedience. Our obedience in living out what we are learning is the proof that we understand what we have been taught!
2. Obedience is the benchmark of discipleship.
I want to extend this discussion on obedience a little further. When we are talking about obedience, we have to be careful to be specific about what that means in the Christian sense. We have to take our cues from Jesus.
Jesus’ example of obedience is marked by humility, determination, and an unyielding commitment to God’s plan. All of this is exemplified in Jesus’ death on the cross. When Jesus was crucified he was consummating God’s plan of redemption, of that there is no doubt or question. But, Jesus’ death was a sign, a physical representation of what it means to obey. Obedience is most clearly seen when it calls us to do what we do not want because we know what the consequences are. And, let’s not kid ourselves, Jesus confessed that he would have preferred not to have died on the cross (Luke 22:42). And yet, he did it anyway. He submitted his own desires to the will of God.
So, when we are talking about obedience we have to draw our inspiration and our understanding on the subject from Jesus’ example.
Dr. John Piper, speaking during a missions conference, gave one of the most profound illustrations of this when he said,
Golgotha is not a suburb of Jerusalem. Let us go with him outside the gate and suffer with him and bear reproach (Hebrews 13:13). [Source]
When I heard this the first time, and every time since, I was sobered by what it would mean and what it does mean to truly and consistently following Jesus. We have to stop describing the gospel’s call to obedience as some kind of trial membership. To make discipleship anything less that total and unconditional surrender of our wills to God’s will is to distort what it means to be a disciple. I will grant that it may take some time to get our lives into compliance, but we should not pretend that obedience is the goal.
3. Being conformed into the image of Jesus is not a suggestion.
The crazy thing about discipleship is that it is exactly the process God wants us to go through. Paul said as much when we told the Roman Christians that God’s plan was for “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29 ESV).
God’s plan the entire time was to make us like Jesus. To conform us into Jesus’ image. Not to make better versions of ourselves. If God wanted you to become the best version of yourself, he would not require our death as the price!
God’s plan, desire, and intended purpose was to have more versions of Jesus walking around all over the world. What many in the church have failed to realize, both due to ignorance and miss information, is that the moment we are saved, in that very instant the conformation process has begun. The fact that our conformation into Jesus’ is stalled by our sin or disobedience, does not negate that the catalyst for transformation has been introduced into our lives, i.e., the Holy Spirit.
When we think about and talk about discipleship as a secondary step, an optional step even, we are undermining what God has said is his aim in redeeming sinners. There has to be a shift in the way that we think and talk about discipleship. That shift has to start by looking at what the Bible has said on the subject of discipleship and making the decision to conform out lives into the pattern of Jesus’ life.
When I realized that discipleship was the highest responsibility and the ultimate calling of every child of God, I was convicted. I have to take seriously that every person I encounter needs to know two things. First, I have to tell them about Jesus because sin is real and that the cross is the only remedy. I cannot escape this responsibility out of fear. I should have greater fear of what will happen to that person I do not at least try.
Second, I have to take ownership of that new life, if the are converted and foster a life-long commitment to obeying Jesus’ commands. This is not easy, but should not complicate it either. When we lead someone to Jesus we should not then abandon these new spiritual babies (I will say more on that some other time). The more we complicate it, the harder it will be to live in obedience. And, most importantly the longer it will take for us to fruitful disciples.
If we want to make disciples, we have to understand the need for obedience and not just information. If I do not obey, I am not accurately representing what discipleship is. Period.