Discipleship and The Local Church

Anyone that’s read the four canonical gospels knows that when Jesus began his public ministry, he also began calling people to follow him. This is where most conversations about Christian discipleship begin. As the conversation goes, most church leaders are aware that making and forming disciples of Christ is a challenge, to varying degrees, among churches in America.

Disciple-Making

Seeing the lack of discipleship has resulted in a renewed focus on making disciples, that is, forming people to live as followers of Jesus. This is a good thing. However, many times when a problem is recognized, attempts at correcting tend to swing the pendulum too far and in this case I wonder if the pendulum is swinging too far in focusing on making disciples.

The renewed focus on making disciples seems to imply that every disciple should make disciples. For example, David L. Watson and Paul D. Watson say in their book Contageous Disciple Making, “Making disciples is about having a relationship with Christ that results in a lifestyle of obedience to Christ commands, which requires disciples to make more disciples” (p. 48). Or Jeff Vanderstelt writes in his book Saturate, “Life on mission is not just about being disciples, but also making disciples who make disciples—and that can be learned only while on Jesus’s mission” (Kindle ed., L. 1477).

I agree that to be a Christian is to be a disciple, one who follows Jesus and obeys his teaching and that includes the teaching of scripture. That is the kind of relationship all Christians are to have with Jesus. But does that mean that all disciples will be people who make disciples?

Perhaps we need to better define what it means for disciples to be making disciples first. Francis Chan does write in his book Letters to the Church, “We want everyone trained to make disciples. No one should come as a consumer, but we need everyone to come as a servant using his or her gifts to build up the body” p. 176). If we are talking about an entire community of disciples (a local church) serving together as the Spirit has empowered each person, using their specific gifts and talents, then I agree and I think the apostle Paul would certainly agree as well (cf. Rom 12:5-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11; Eph 4:11-13). However, that’s not always clear. The quotes I shared above from Watson and Watson as well as Vaderstelt are somewhat vague. Do they mean disciples working together as a community making disciples or each individual disciples making another disciple?

I’m raising this issue because in a lot of conversation I encounter and even sometimes participate in, there are some who seem to believe true discipleship means ever single disciple is discipling another person in a one-to-one relationship. But that is just not the picture that emerges in the New Testament. In scripture the emphasis appears to be on the local church, as a corporate community, faithfully embodying the gospel.

Take for example Romans. In this letter the apostle Paul describes his appointment as an apostle “to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake” (1:5). Towards the end of the letter Paul says in 15:15-16:

Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (NRSV)

Then at the end of Romans Paul reminds the church again that the gospel he proclaims is to result in their “faithful obedience” (16:26).

If you’ve read this far then please know that I am not against making disciples. I am one who does believe discipleship, or the lack of, among Christianity in America is a problem. I just don’t see the way some tend to emphasize disciple making today as the focus in scripture. Instead, the focus seems to be on the faith formation of church so that the church, as we see in Romans, lives as a holy people unto God. Ideally, such a church will also be making disciples of the seekers, leading them into a relationship with Jesus that results in obedience to the teachings of Jesus. Then, as repentant believers who have been baptized into Christ, they too contribute to the churches participation in the mission of God as they learn to serve using their Spiritual gifts. So maybe instead of focusing on cultivating a disciple-making culture among our churches, we should just focus on the formation of faith in our churches and trust that as Christ is formed in our churches (cf. Gal 4:19) then the local body will function as her head, Christ himself, intends and organically make disciples.

Lastly, consider this blog entry as a thinking-out-loud con, something to consider but something that could undergo further nuance. What are your thoughts?

11 responses to “Discipleship and The Local Church

  1. Excellent thoughts on Discipleship and The Local Church.

    The community is required for disciples to be made. One on one relationships are ways we teach one another in community.

    My greatest fear about the current trend in discipleship is it tends to propose a making people into projects, rather than participating in healthy community.

    Churches who teach a “private/individualistic” approach to spirituality hinder a healthy and mature culture for the body of Christ. Of course, our spiritual life is personal. However we must learn to share more intimate details of our life with others in the church community.

    • Thanks! It definitely takes a community of believers, as well as the community of God the Father, Son, and Spirit, to form individual believers to live as disciples of Christ.

  2. Sandy Williams

    As far as I know, there is no word for “discipleship” in the NT. We load the English word with our ideas about what “discipleship” is—some emphasizing personal, one-on-one teaching and others insisting on a corporate, community emphasis. Perhaps we need to recover what the apostolic writers actually taught and emphasized—learning from, following, and obeying Jesus with others.

  3. Intersting to consider. I most appreciate your “thinking-out-loud” disclaimer. I for one am worn out by the supposed certainty many seem to offer. Our ecclesiastical understanding is tainted by much of what we’ve been taught in the modern church. It’s time to start questioning our assumptions on a lot of things since we seem to be “stumbling-out-loud” so much as the Church here in the West.

  4. Jeremy Hooper

    Good thoughts! What is your response to those who say discipleship groups (say 3-5 people, same gender) must include reading Scripture and journaling each day?

    • That’s a method and I don’t it’s wise to turn any method into a one size fits all. I also believe the point of departure for leadership is Jesus, who always led with a non-coercive presence. That means we can never impose discipleship and all of its trimmings on people, rather we must invite them into following Jesus by building relationships.

      • I think we often confuse making disciples with head knowledge.

        I think of my own immediate family. Did I make my children learn the Bible through tests, Bible bowl, and formal instruction? Or did I simply tell them Bible stories, live life with them, and show them how humans act toward others? Did they hear me praise Jesus as the focal point of life? Did they practice gathering with other “family” members in my presence as we did life together, eating, serving, and loving?

        Did they hear me teach a lesson on forgiveness or did they watch me forgive?

        As you mentioned above: just thinking out loud and asking questions!

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