Meaningful Discipleship in the Local Church: 6 Correctives

Discipleship is the call of the Church (Matt. 28.19), but is the Church really doing this job well? Can we honestly say that at least the majority of those who claim the name of Christ and darken the doors of our churches are intentionally in discipleship relationships that are moving them toward greater and greater Christlikeness? Yesterday I read Building a Discipling Culture by Mike Breen, and I was impacted by a number of insights on how churches could be doing a better at this all-important task.

  1. We must commit to relationships of challenge and invitation. Relationships that are all about challenge and lack invitation will spiral towards legalism and burnout. Relationships that are all about invitation without any challenge will lead to warm and fuzzy friendships without any meaningful accountability. Many churches today lack both challenge and invitation; they’ve become little more than a social event. Meaningful discipleship requires direct confrontation over sin, and loving invitation into real-life Gospel living.
  2. We must vary our approach to discipleship. Churches I’ve served in are usually very strong in their lecture-oriented, fact-based instruction, but usually offer little in terms of apprenticeship or immersion learning structures (e.g., Matt. 5.1). But these methods of discipleship are proven and effective tools! If we’re going to up our game in this area, we’re going to have to be willing to dust off some of these tools that have been sitting in the back of our garage. Discipleship includes distribution of facts (what we’re good at), but it also includes connecting truth to life in apprenticeship and immersion scenarios (what we’re not good at). Several additional thoughts:
    • A Caveat: Assuming that showing up at church or in a small group will count as “immersion” is assuming that the majority of the people in the church or small group have been discipled themselves. I think this assumption is unwarranted. I know a number of adult believers who have never been engaged in a discipleship relationship.
    • An Expectation: Apprenticeship is a substantial investment for both parties. But in this process, the rewards are always greater than the buy-in.
    • A Warning: Apprenticeship and immersion aren’t synonymous with cloning. We’re not trying to make a bunch of people like ourselves, we’re trying to make disciples of Jesus Christ!
  3. We must admit that the current structures that we’re relying on for discipleship are fundamentally broken. Most churches I’ve served in have relied on a Sunday School or small group structure for engaging people in the discipleship process. But there are a number of reasons why this structure (as typically implemented) may not be the best method for discipling believers.
    • Small groups are (and should be) open to visitors. This limits the intimacy and openness of dialogue amongst the members. Baring our souls is often a very difficult task. This only becomes more difficult with a number of strangers in the room.
    • Small groups grow in a linear fashion. As months go by, people come and go based on their church attendance. They lack a stability in membership and can grow too large. They also lack a natural step for members to go and make disciples on their own. This inhibition is due to their linear nature.
    • Small groups require facilitators or teachers. This kind of relationship lacks the authoritative and intimate “follow me as I follow Christ” kind of call of discipleship.
    • Small groups are primarily easy to join and easy to leave. They aren’t effective accountability structures. Attendance isn’t often an expectation to which people are held.
    • Small groups often rely on administrated content. In other words, they’re going to cover what someone on the church staff thinks the groups need to be studying. This sometimes misses the challenges and hurdles that the members of the group may be experiencing.
  4. We have to adopt a sound structure for doing discipleship. One such structure is what Breen calls “The Huddle” (oddly, the same name of the odd band of misfits being discipled that I was a part of in junior high). This group is made up of 4-10 people who have committed to a mentoring relationship under one individual. This group commits for roughly a year, at which point they should be prepared to start “Huddles” of their own. More people aren’t discipled by making the groups bigger, but by individuals preparing to replicate the groups in turn.  First-time leaders can start with groups of 4 in order to make the challenge less daunting. This vehicle for discipleship is powerful because it combines a two critical components of biblical discipleship.
    • First, it is an admission that discipleship happens best in a group scenario. Many churches do discipleship whenever a new believer comes along or one-on-one with people in a counseling environment. But this avoids the power of group learning that is evident in the ministry of Jesus with his disciples.
    • Second, it is admission that the plausible scope of discipleship is limited. While Jesus ministered to crowds, significant portions of his ministry were invested in his band of 12.
  5. We must call our people to allow greater access for their brothers and sisters into their lives. Only by allowing people into our lives in a more intimate way will we be able to achieve the kind of discipleship that God has called us to. Leaders tend to sit back and complain that church members aren’t rising to meet the challenge, but this kind of critique is unhealthy for the body. Rather, servant-leaders must begin by modeling the kind of discipleship that they want to instill in others. Leaders who get out of the air-conditioned office and into the dirtiness of a handful of peoples’ lives and then call on them them to do the same.
  6. We need to develop a language of discipleship that lends purpose and clarity to what we do. Breen offers a suggested series of terms with associated images and applications that serve as a quasi-curriculum for their discipleship “Huddles.” While I don’t see the writer’s structure here as incredibly helpful, it did give me some ideas for engaging others in the process of discipleship. My takeaways:
    • First, discipleship language needs to be memorable. Using word pictures (or pictures in general) can communicate biblical truth in a discipleship context far better than a massive and detailed curriculum.
    • Second, discipleship language needs to be fully-orbed. In other words, many churches are really good at teaching doctrines or Bible study, but few do a great job at discipling others in a holistic Christian life (which includes doctrine and Bible study, but so much more as well).
    • Third, discipleship language needs to promote discussion and engagement. However you do discipleship, it needs to be more than you just sitting back and talking. It needs to be something that others can relate to and engage with applications and questions.

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