I have been in many settings with church leaders where the question was posed, “What is your church doing for discipleship?” I am grateful that church leaders are asking questions about the church’s fundamental mission—making disciples. After all, a church can excel at anything and everything else, but if the church fails to make disciples, she has wandered from her fundamental reason for existence.
But the question almost always needs to be answered with a follow-up question: “What do you mean by discipleship?” People could mean at least one of these five common and current views:
1. One on One Mentoring
Some churches want to step more and more into “one-on-one mentoring.” The struggle will be scalability as developing leaders for small groups is already challenging enough. While a one-on-one mentoring model can be utilized, it would be a mistake to view discipleship as limited to that approach.
2. New Believer Follow Up
Some church leaders think “new believer training” when they hear the word “discipleship.” While pouring into new believers must be important to a church, discipleship is the lifelong process of becoming more and more like Jesus. It does not end 6-12 weeks after someone is born into the kingdom of God.
3. Education Classes
Some church leaders think “knowledge” when they hear the word “discipleship.” And so to them a discipleship problem means an information problem. The solution, then, is to provide more classes where people receive information. While disciples yearn to know more about Jesus, to dwell in His Word, and to feast on teaching, Jesus defined disciple-making as “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded,” not merely teaching them everything I have commanded. Thus, discipleship is much deeper than merely information.
Because community is absolutely essential in the process of becoming more like Jesus, groups are important. All of the conversations about discipleship will lead wise church leaders to conclude that their groups must become more important. As the discipleship conversation escalates, so should the group conversation. But a key question for leaders is “Are groups a part of your discipleship process OR are groups your sole discipleship process?” Because a disciple serves, lives on mission, reproduces, and worships, most churches will likely conclude that a group is part of a disciple’s journey and not the end.
5. Mission & Overarching Process
A church that embraces the reality that they are on the planet to make disciples views all they do through a discipleship lens. They view their worship gatherings, their groups, their service in the community, and their ministries to kids and students all as critical aspects in their “disciple-making process.” They haven’t reduced discipleship to an event, to a class, to something that is checked off a list. “Making disciples” is what the church is all about.
The dangerous downside of this view is that anything and everything can receive a “discipleship label.” Thus, we need leaders who constantly seek to shred anything that doesn’t help people in our churches become more like Jesus. C.S. Lewis stated it this way:
The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons… are simply a waste of time.
Without clarity, leaders could be mentally seeing different pictures and hearing different definitions when they hear the word “discipleship.” Church leaders are wise to bring clarity to how their churches are designed to fulfill their mission of making disciples.
Eric Geiger is a Vice President at LifeWay, leading the Resources Division. He has authored several books including the bestselling church leadership book, Simple Church.