This post may contain links that generate commission for me. This costs you nothing but helps to cover the costs for this website.
We live in a unique time for the church. Church attendance across the Western world is dropping and the church in most places has long lost its grip on governmental power. For many in the church this has been a wake up call. A realisation that perhaps we need to revisit what it means to be church and relearn what it means to make disciples. These challenges have coincided for many with the current global pandemic where we have been faced with the fact that many have discovered that their faith is not as strong as they once thought.
So in the midst of this it has become clearer that in our desire to make disciples, certain strategies, which under normal circumstances sounded sensible have actually failed us. I think it is worthwhile to pause and reflect on what has not been working if we are to recalibrate for this next season.
The goal of discipleship is to grow us all into mature believers who are being transformed into the image of Jesus. Instead we see many Christians turning to tribalism, name calling and a love of conspiracy theories. If that doesn’t concern you… well it should. Our goal is to look like Jesus.
So what are we learning? What approaches to discipleship are not enough?
1. Attending A Church
As culture has shifted in the past decades one thing that has become clear is that cultural Christianity is on the decline. That is, those who attended church simply because it was a culturally good thing to do, no longer attend. In most cases you have to go back several generations here in the UK to find people who were raised on hymns and Sunday school. People who simply went to church because thats what most people did at the weekend.
So the cultural Christians, as distinct from those who have a living faith in Jesus, are no longer attending church. This is part of why we have seen a decline in attendance.
For those who do have a personal relationship with Jesus, there has been an assumption that the best thing you could do to be discipled was to attend church each week. For many church leaders this has formed the back bone of their discipleship strategy. If people attend church and worship and receive bible teaching then eventually they will grow up in their faith.
Now what makes this so attractive to church leaders is that, there is some truth to this strategy. For some people, attending church will grow them and see them flourish. There is even some biblical precedent for encouraging people to be together each week to worship and sit under teaching.
However many are now realising that simply attending is not enough. It is far too easy in our culture to see church attendance like a weekly gym work out. Another thing that if I schedule it will eventually produce health. However for most people attending church on a Sunday it can be a fairly passive experience, depending on the attitude we bring and the particular church culture.
It’s perfectly possible to sing the songs, even appearing engaged like everyone around you, listen to the sermon, maybe even learn something new and yet remain fundamentally unchanged. Our culture makes it too easy for us to receive what is happening as spectators, or keep it neatly in a ‘church’ box.
Now I’m pretty sure that over time, attending a church service will be better than not, however if we want to take seriously the call to make disciples I suspect we may need to be a little more intentional.
Attending church is no longer enough to help us face the challenges of our day. It’s just too easy for it be a passive learning experience for most. Hopefully most churches realise this and want to wrestle with this tension.
2. Learning the Bible
Now before I get lynched let me explain. I hold to the inspiration of the bible. I believe it is God breathed, I believe it is more than just words. The Spirit moves through it and its words are active and living. I believe in the power of the bible. Many have come to faith through reading it. It is as relevant today as it ever was. It is not just a collection of books like the other books on your shelf.
However there is a difference between engaging with the book as God’s words to us and simply engaging it as a source of information. No one tends to speak as starkly about their approach to the bible like this. However our culture has perhaps influenced us here.
There is a huge difference between learning about the bible, its historical context and the language it is written in and letting its words shape our lives.
Again to clarify – I am a huge fan of both. I have many books that help me unpack the information that helps me understand the meaning of the words on the pages of the bible.
Sometimes if we are honest we have hoped that simply learning information about the bible, or even God himself will be enough to change us.
Information alone will not transform us. There are sadly many biblical scholars who spend their life digging through historical documents and pouring over the biblical texts who have no relationship with the author.
So if we are not careful in our churches we can raise a people who can recite 50 memory verses, explain the history surrounding the exile to Babylon and articulate the nuances of biblical greek – and yet be cold and harsh to their families over Sunday lunch.
Maturity in the faith looks like love. In our culture of information overload where we have access to just about any fact ever on our phones, learning about the bible is not a strategy that makes disciples. If that were true we would be the most mature Christians ever. As Paul put it: knowledge puffs up but love builds up.
3. Another Course or Program
For many leaders when they think about discipleship and how to best serve the people in a congregation – the default option is to run another course or program. If people are not being good parents we need to run a parenting course. If people are not sharing their faith we need to have a new course helping them share their faith.
This is very much in line with the above point – the approach is to educate people. Now again, like my previous points – I’m not saying that educating people, giving them tools and skills is not part of the puzzle of discipleship.
However program driven approaches do tend to try and package issues into neat packages which can lead to a compartmentalised approach to discipleship.
That is to say, if I attend the parenting program, I can tick off that part of my discipleship journey. If there is an evangelism course then I can expect everyone who attends that to do evangelism on behalf of the whole church community.
Now of course not all courses/programs are equal. Some do go beyond simple education to enable space for us to grow personally, creating space for the Spirits transformation and for us to do deep soul work.
The goal of such healthy programs however is not complete when the course finishes. Transformation is supposed to continue beyond the 6 week study time. Courses where they work well are simply catalysts to a different way of living. Discipleship is more as Eugene Peterson described: A long obedience in the same direction.
The danger of a course approach to discipleship is that we see everything as a quick fix or just about applying the right knowledge to see transformation. It creates a “there’s a course for that” approach to our growth.
Again, courses and programs are not bad in themselves they simply come with risks. Risks that we think of our journey in neat and tidy compartments. Real discipleship is messy, it involves all of our lives. It doesn’t fit neatly into 2 hour blocks and it is much more than gaining skills and tools. It involves deeper soul work and it requires our whole lives. It also requires lots of practice and mentoring and time and space. In our online world it certainly takes more than downloadable course content.
It is difficult to imagine the New Testament church running a 4 week course on how to reach your neighbour. So perhaps we need to recognise how much these approaches are influenced by our current culture.
Beyond These Strategies
Meeting together weekly, learning about the bible and running courses will I suspect for most churches still form part of their regular activities. It is not that any of these activities are bad, they can be hugely helpful. It is just that for most people they are not enough for us to become fully mature. They don’t in themselves make disciples. They can’t carry that kind of weight.
As leaders it’s important we recognise their limitations and don’t place the entire burden of discipleship on these activities. Our plan for discipleship must look broader, deeper and more holistically at our lives.
What do you think? What have you found to be effective?
* Using this link means I receive commission to support the running of this blog and it costs you nothing.