“We’re not about making decisions, we’re about making disciples!”
It is a common refrain in church services nowadays. And that is the right attitude. After all, making disciples includes “teaching them all I have commanded.” We should be concerned about raising up people in Christ, about maturing Christians who are themselves disciples.
But here is my question for you: can you prove it? If your church is the type to declare during a worship service that you are more concerned about making disciples than making decisions, do you have any way to prove that statement is true?
What is a disciple?
Of course, in order to say our focus is making disciples, then we need to have at least some vague idea of what it means to be a disciple. Most churches who stress discipleship in this way, I am willing to wager, mean they are focused on equipping their own members toward spiritual maturity. We want full grown Christians, right? Too often, the narrative goes, our church-goers are not growing into maturity in their faith. Theirs is a shallow, theologically imprecise, and listless Christianity, blown around by every wind of teaching. This comes to us right out of Ephesians 4, where Paul reminds us that the body is equipped with diverse roles in order to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.
Unfortunately we can major in the minors here, if we are not careful. First off, making disciples means making new disciples as well. Discipleship is not a term reserved for equipping people who are already believers. When Jesus uses the term in Matthew 28, it is most certainly about making new disciples. He speaks to the group that are already disciples and tells them to go make more. That means evangelism. What your church is doing is not discipleship if it does not include evangelism of the lost, at least not in any biblical sense.
Second, we church leaders (especially those of us with seminary credentials) get all jazzed about the Ephesians 4 analogy of people being blown about by teaching. That word, teaching, is what so many of us love to do and if we are not careful, we miss the main idea: that these people are prepared for the work of the ministry. Too often, I believe, what we really mean when we say we are focused on discipleship is that we are focused on teaching in some roughly academic sense.
When asked about their discipleship, it is not uncommon for church leaders to point to some program. It is Sunday School, or a Bible study time. Perhaps the church has groups that meet to talk about a book or even books of the Bible. Perhaps the whole congregation is skilled in the ways of coffee shop discipleship meetings. And for those of us who say our church doesn’t use programs… small groups are a program. Your Sunday morning worship is a program. Even those coffee shop meetings can be a program. My point is that we have equated discipleship with some vaguely cognitive process or program.
How do you measure it?
Here is my concern: simply having a “discipleship program” does not equate to disciple-making. This brings me back to my initial question. Does your church have any way of measuring whether or not its efforts are, in fact, producing disciples? Do you have some means of examining your membership and determining whether or not they exhibit the qualities of a disciple: one who is a believer, rooted deeply in the faith, and prepared for the work of the ministry? I am afraid many of us assume that having some kind of curriculum in place is all that is required of us. Church leaders are not merely responsible for providing the option to become a disciple. We are to shepherd our people until they are disciples. Those are different things.
In my estimation, the way we measure the effectiveness of our disciple-making is to measure the fruit of our disciples. If disciples are fully equipped for the work of the ministry, then we should be able to tell if they are truly disciples as we see them doing the work. A disciple who does not feel prepared (or more likely encouraged) to be out doing the work of the ministry is no disciple at all. Regardless of the number of books ingested, despite the sheer amount of headspace consumed by theological jargon, a person is not a disciple unless they are discipling. The very word itself connotes movement; a disciple is someone who follows in the path of another. For us, this other is Jesus himself, who gathered his own group of disciples and charged them to go and do likewise.
To that end, if your church is really focused on discipleship, then you must hold your membership accountable to disciple-making. Does your church have a definition of disciple that includes sharing the gospel, that includes making new disciples? It should. I wonder how many church leaders assume their congregation understands that is part of the definition without it ever being made explicit. Also, we need to measure our own discipleship by the fruit of our disciples. Think of it this way, instead of giving the exam to the student, require the student to go teach it to someone and then give that person the exam. Does that sound fair? When it comes to discipleship it is, because the core of being a disciple is not some set amount of head knowledge, but a confidence in the work of the risen Christ that issues out in proclamation and equipping of others.
Processes, programs, Bible studies, and a curriculum are not bad. Do make sure a pathway is made available to those you disciple so that the real measure of their growth comes through the fruit of their labor. Find ways to look past the fact that you have a program as your measurement. Look past even the ability of your people to talk Christianese with ease. Instead, hold people accountable to making new disciples themselves, and measure those disciples to get a real sense of your church’s discipleship.