by Pastor Shane Warren
Biblical discipleship has become a catch-phrase in the modern evangelical movement; unfortunately, in most instances a catch-phrase is all that it has become!
Amid our varied definitions and newly discovered methods of discipleship, statistical studies show an alarming decline in the modern church’s effectiveness in reaching and transforming the lives of lost humanity. A recent study released March 19, 2007, by the Barna Research Group states: “Life in America has changed greatly since 1994, with massive changes in technology, global politics, lifestyle choices and family dynamics. But one constant has been the proportion of adults in the population who are unchurched…one of every three adults (33%) is classified as unchurched–meaning they have not attended a religious service of any type during the past six months.” Tragically, this study reports that there are more than one hundred million Americans who do not attend church. America’s unchurched are the equivalent of the population of the eleventh largest nation in the world. What an indictment against the church!
The lack of revelation in the area of true Biblical discipleship is devastating to the body of Christ! We have focused so much on winning converts that we have not done a very good job of making disciples. Multitudes of people flood our church altars with the mindset of praying a magic prayer that will ultimately lead to dramatic life change. We rejoice over their response; and, somehow, they are convinced by the voice of religion that true salvation has occurred. In reality, Jesus’ altar calls were a little different. His view of what it meant to be saved was radically different from that of the modern church’s feeble definition. Jesus qualified the true heart of repentance by the test of discipleship! The rich, young ruler ran and stopped Jesus in the street. He inquired, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Lord responded by sharing one of His favorite sermons written by Moses. This young man replied, “I have done all of that ever since I was young.” Jesus then raises the bar of discipleship: “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor (Mark 10: 17-22).” The scripture is clear, this young man walked away sad. Obviously, he was willing to be a convert, but he was not willing to pay the cost of discipleship. He wanted a religion that was convenient for his lifestyle apart from the Lordship of Christ; therefore, this young man’s desire for convenient religion left him where it leaves every insincere person: sad and despondent. Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ. This type of discipleship becomes nothing more than an abstract idea, a myth that has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as a living Lord and Master. Without real discipleship there is a trust in God, but there is not a genuine following of Christ. Cheap grace is a deadly enemy of the Church!
Jesus understood the power and cost of discipleship. Real Christian discipleship began the day after the Lord was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River (John 1:35-39). One by one Jesus personally selected twelve men for whom He would daily model the character of the Father. By every religious definition of success, Jesus was a miserable failure. He held no credentials with the popular spiritual organization of His day; He never started a Bible school; nor did He ever establish a denomination. Multitudes flooded to His meetings only to reject Him when it came time to pay the price of commitment to faith. Only twelve men, the most common and humble of first century society, were chosen for the church’s model. It is in this model, the Biblical model, and in this model alone that we find the true method for making disciples. Pastor, there is only one approach to making real disciples–the Jesus way! Jesus did not use a conventional program to influence extraordinary life change in His ordinary followers. He simply modeled by the leading of the Holy Spirit the heart of the Father to them on a daily basis. As He faced the daily affairs of life, He used every detail to teach and train twelve men to become the disciples God created them to be. He so modeled the Father before them that He could say: “…he that hath seen me hath seen the Father…(John 14: 9 – KJV).” Herein lies the acid test for discipleship. Can you as a spiritual leader make that statement about your Christian walk? Can you say, “…when you see me, you have seen the Father…”? Are you a daily reflection of the Father’s heart? All programs and methodology aside, do people see the character of God working in your daily walk?
The word disciple in the Bible comes from a Greek root word matheo. From this root we get our English word math or mathematics. The Lord understood that the best mathematics for the church is discipleship. Was his view of discipleship effective? Yes, in the first week of the New Testament church, approximately eight thousand people were added to the company of believers. Throughout the scriptures we see church growth qualified by terms such as added and multiplied (Acts 2: 47; 11: 24; 9: 31; 12: 24). Why is our modern church math not adding up? Could it be that in the midst of our new, modern methods of church growth that we do not really understand real Biblical discipleship? What is required to effectively change the lives of hurting humanity? The Word of God is clear in its teaching of the characteristics of effective discipleship.
Discipleship Has A Person
Without the person of the Holy Spirit, all methodology of discipleship is vain. Jesus instructed His disciples to make their way to an upper room for the empowerment of the Spirit (Luke 24:49). When He gave this important instruction, at least five hundred people were in attendance (1 Corinthians 15:6); sadly, only one hundred twenty obey Him and went to the upper room. The ones who followed the Lord’s instruction received a supernatural empowerment to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). This small group of believers turned cities upside down, shut the mouths of lions, endured the fires of persecution and silenced the cynics of their day. You never read about the ones who thought it unimportant to make their way to the place of empowerment!
Many Pentecostal churches are now minimizing the importance of the Pentecostal distinctive in discipleship. For fear of loosing members or of confusing the unchurched, they have banned the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in public worship services, nor would they dare pray for people to receive the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Vexing the Holy Spirit, they unknowingly replace the power of discipleship with programs of man. Pastor, the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer can never be overstated. The empowerment that comes through the person of the Holy Spirit and His baptism is paramount in making potent disciples!
If you remove the person of the Holy Spirit from the discipleship process, you lose the power of that process. Peter walked with Jesus for three years. He lived, ate, slept and ministered with the Master. However, what Jesus did not do for Peter in three years, the Holy Spirit did in a moment. The coward who had denied the Son of God before a little girl stood on the day of Pentecost and boldly declared his faith. Nothing empowers disciples as does the Baptism in the Holy Ghost!
Discipleship Has A Plan
“According as He hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1: 4),” God had a plan for making disciples! If discipleship in the local church is going to be successful, it too must have a plan, a process. Methods are not bad as long as they are submissive to the Master. Pastor, what is your plan for making disciples?
When people answer the call to repentance, there must be a process to help facilitate spiritual growth. In our church (First Assembly, West Monroe, Louisiana), we have a system of follow-up and accountability. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter replied affirmatively. Jesus, in essence, said, “Prove it; take care of my lambs.” The heart of the Father is revealed to the believer through the process of discipleship!
Neglecting the newborns of the Kingdom is spiritual fratricide! They must be nurtured, and their spiritual maturity must be facilitated. Every church’s personality and size varies, but in each situation the local church must do everything in its power to capitalize on a young believer’s decision to follow Christ. Isaiah 26:18 declares, “We have been with child, we have been in pain, we have as it were brought forth wind.” The church is pregnant with destiny, but are we bringing forth wind? We go through the effort of service preparation and planning only to find our hands empty at the close of the day. If we do not facility spiritual growth for the babies of the Kingdom, we will find our labor has been vain and useless. The desire of God for each of us is that we “…bring forth much fruit (John 15:8)!” Where is the fruit of our labor in the Lord? For many of us, our fruitlessness is a result of our lack of planning in our discipleship process!
Discipleship Has A People
As good as our methodology is, it cannot take the place of the human touch. For discipleship to occur, your laymen must have a vision for it. Pastor, you do not have the ambidexterity of an octopus; therefore, your people must have a heart for the spiritual growth process. Until the body of Christ gets the revelation of their inter-connectedness, real spiritual formation or reformation will not transpire.
Accountability within the body of Christ is a powerful tool against the spirit of this generation; in fact, there is an explosive power in unity! When the local church unifies with the heart of evangelism and discipleship, dynamic growth is always present. We are our brother’s keeper, and to shirk our responsibility to one another in the body of Christ is a mortal sin against our own body.
Discipleship means following the discipline of another. Part of Biblical discipleship is Biblical discipline, a topic that is not discussed much in the church nowadays. Nevertheless, the local church must have clearly defined boundaries within the structure of its organization and within the intangible fabric of the community of believers. People long for relationships that require accountability; they desire to belong to a community! When you create a community in which the expectations of discipleship are believed and practiced by the entire congregation, it will successfully impact new converts as they come into the church. Your people are the net that helps you retain the new fish you catch. From time to time, use or misuse will create holes in the net; a good fisherman will regularly mend his nets. Psalm 133 states clearly that there is an anointing in our unity, and it is in the co-participation of the body of Christ that God commands the blessing.
Discipleship Has A Price
Make no mistake! There is a price for effective discipleship because there is no such thing as cross less discipleship! One of the great tragedies of our time is the watering-down of the Gospel to make it more palatable to hearers. In doing so we do not preach the Gospel at all; in fact, we preach “…another gospel (2 Corinthians 11: 4).” If we are not careful, our attempts to make the Gospel more relevant to culture will render it and us powerless to change culture. Contrary to some so-called teaching, Jesus had and has no problem being relevant in every generation. He is “… the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).”
Do not be afraid to communicate the price of discipleship and to require it. I have found that people desire to be challenged. Sure, some will write it off as religious; but you will find that when the cross of discipleship is borne, it will add value and validity to the believer’s life. Truthfully, sometimes there is pain in being a disciple; however, to endure the cross is not a tragedy. The suffering of the cross is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the Gospel into emotional uplifts that make no costly demands, we turn the cross of Christ into an ordinary, everyday calamity. When you take the price of following Christ away, you remove His Lordship from discipleship. Jesus insisted on being Lord of all. “No servant can serve two masters…(Luke 16:19).”
There is a price for the new disciple, but there is also cost to the spiritual leadership. It is not always easy to deal with a “baby” in the Lord. As do natural children, they make numerous mistakes and ask a plethora of questions. Sometimes we tend to forget that we were once in that spiritual place and that someone assisted us through the varied issues of spiritual transformation.
Unlike some pastors, my wife Pam and I treasure pouring into young believers who have a sense of destiny. Weekly our house is flooded with people who are hungry to know more and do more for God. In fact, we have two groups in particular with whom we meet regularly: Newcomers and what I call my Eagles’ Gathering. Every week we invite new believers and newcomers to eat dinner with us. We also meet with Eagles, people who feel a special call to some type of Christian service. Pam and I pour the Word of God and our life experiences into them. This practice has become the source of our greatest joy. Nothing charges my inner man as a pastor more than seeing young believers expand in their capacity for God and in service to Him. Often we are asked, “Why do you go to all this trouble? You pastor a relatively large church. You don’t have to do this.” My response is simple, yet profound: “You can’t change a life from an office!” You must be willing, as was Christ, to live with your people. In Luke 22:28, Jesus said, “Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations.” The disciples saw Jesus at the weakest moments of His life. In His humanity, Jesus was “tempted in all points” just as we are (Hebrews 4:15). The dramatic life changes of the disciples were the result of watching Jesus deal successfully with the inconsistencies of life. Unfortunately, some pastors remain untouchable to their people on this personal level. They hide in the safety of their offices only to appear like a superstar for a brief sermon or two weekly. Consequently, their people never see first hand the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the daily life of their shepherds; thus, they have not had an adequate example of coping with the conflicts of life. This practice produces pastors who only preach to their people instead of shepherding them into God’s best for their individual life.
Why did we enter the ministry? Hopefully, to help hurting people and to reach the world with the Gospel! Remember, God always anoints the one who is in the field with the sheep. When God needed a king, He did not look in an air-conditioned office. He looked in a field. His eye was upon the shepherd. When God wanted to announce His new move in the earth, the coming of His Son, He chose a group of shepherds tending their flocks by night. For hundreds of years the Shekinah of God’s presence had vanished; but when He wanted to reveal His Glory, He chose shepherds (Luke 2:8, 9). Jesus is called the “good shepherd (John 10:11)” who gives His life for the sheep! If you want the anointing for ministry, if you want to see the glory of God revealed, if you want to pastor as Jesus did, do the work of a shepherd. Live with your sheep! There is a price for discipleship, but discipleship is priceless!
Discipleship Has A Pastor
When it is all said and done, when the curtain falls on the stage of life and ministry, “everything rises and falls on leadership (John Maxwell).” Plainly stated, the Person, Plan, People and Price of discipleship are only as good as the pastoral leadership of the local church. “Where there is no vision the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).” There is no vision without a visionary! Everything great that God has ever done in the earth, He did through a man or woman totally surrendered to Him. Pastor, here is the candid truth of the matter: your church is a reflection of your leadership. The key to moving forward in the will of God is for you to locate yourself. Honestly evaluate yourself and your congregation using the following criteria:
Is the person of the Holy Spirit active at every level in your ministry?
Do you have a realistic, workable plan for spiritual formation in your church? Is it clear, can your leadership follow it easily?
Do your people have a vision for soul winning and the discipleship process?
Does your organization understand and cope well with the price of discipleship?
Are you, as pastor, actively setting the example of a disciple in your daily walk?
If you do not lead with vision and prophetic insight into the will of God, you and your people will fail to reach God’s destiny for your church. Your people are waiting for you to become their Joshua and to take them across their Jordan. You cannot lead them where you have not walked yourself. Pastor, you must take the initiative! Your role as spiritual leader in the discipleship process is imperative for it to be effective!