If you ask most pastors about the mission and purpose of the church, they will indicate that it is to fulfill Jesus’ great commission to make a greater quantity and quality of disciples. What fascinates me is that while we know we should follow Jesus’ command, we are less likely to follow His method. We are often so tied to our strategies and methods that we do not stop to evaluate them against the method of the ultimate Disciple Maker. Here are five common ways our churches don’t make disciples the same way Jesus did.
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1. Jesus didn’t have an ambiguous picture of a disciple.
When I’m working with church leaders on discipleship, one of the exercises I love to do is to ask them for their definition of a disciple. This is ordinarily a difficult question for people, so I might ask what they hope a new believer will become after five years of being involved in the church’s ministry. This question is usually met with a variety of fairly ambiguous answers that were made up on the spot. I would argue that Jesus had a very clear understanding of what it meant to be a disciple. There is not one place in Scripture where you see a complete definition, but it is clear from all of Jesus’ interactions that He understood discipleship that was working in the background as he engaged with people.
If we do not have a clear working understanding of discipleship, then we are going to be frustrated with the level of discipleship in our people. It is worth the exercise to extrapolate the things that make a disciple and then articulate the qualities that we are trying to produce within the people of our churches.
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2. Jesus didn’t assume growth could happen in a week.
A new believer asked me one time, “How much do you think people actually do what you tell them to do in your sermons?” He didn’t mean it as a criticism of my preaching or as a critique of the people in the church. Instead he was feeling guilty because he wasn’t able to implement all of the things I was telling him to do in my sermons. In my effort to make my preaching practical, every week’s sermon included something new for people to do, and he couldn’t keep up. His question was very helpful, and I realized I was surprised that this guy wanted to apply the sermons, and that I didn’t actually expect that of people.
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"...He focused on one thing at a time..."
I started to evaluate what we did in church and realized that if I were preaching a series on the fruit of the Spirit, for example, no one was going to get lasting peace by simply hearing one sermon and perhaps doing a take-home activity. A person would need to make a concentrated effort for a period of time in order to have sustained peace. In Jesus’s ministry, He focused on one thing at a time rather than trying to address all the ways a person fell short of the glory of God.
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3. Jesus didn’t just give information.
We know that information in and of itself doesn’t lead to transformation, but that a person needs a variety of inputs and experiences in order to grow deeply. One of my favorite phrases is “We act our way into a new way of thinking, rather than thinking our way into a new way of acting.” More information doesn’t lead to changed behavior. Instead we need to change our actions, which will then alter our thinking.
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"...He gave the disciples time to implement what they learned..."
Jesus incorporated this approach. He certainly taught, but most importantly He gave the disciples time to implement what they learned from and saw in Him. Jesus also gave the disciples time to reflect on their experiences. I love the times in Jesus’ ministry when the disciples were sent out on a mission and then reflected on their experiences with Jesus. In some cases, the disciples couldn’t believe the success they’d had, while in other cases they came back to Jesus with deeper questions because of their experience.
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4. Jesus didn’t assume there was a single linear pathway to becoming a disciple.
In our efforts to be systematic and efficient, we often want a series of courses and a process that people go through on their path to maturity. I would love to have a systematized process that produced disciples along an assembly line. But Jesus didn’t approach discipleship in this way. Instead He met people at their personal places of need and addressed the areas of discipleship where they needed to grow. Think of the rich young ruler, who was very pious. He would have passed all the morality tests that could have been given, but he had a core issue of coveting his material possessions. Contrast this with the woman caught in adultery, who needed to hear Jesus’ forgiveness and love and then be told to go and sin no more.
If we are going to make disciples effectively, the way Jesus made them, we must personalize the ways in which people grow. People need to be given the opportunity to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses as disciples and then focus on the areas in which it is most important for them to grow.
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5. Jesus didn’t just give answers—He asked questions.
Ironically, Jesus is the only person in the world who wouldn’t have to ask questions to gain greater insight into a person’s life. Jesus knew the answer to any question he was going to ask. When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) and later, “Who do you say that I am?” (8:29), He wasn’t gathering information. He is God; He knew what people thought of Him, and He knew Peter’s perspective. But He ordinarily asked questions to help the other person gain greater self-awareness.
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"People are often better at applying information they discover for themselves."
In ministry, we often want to take the position of experts who can share knowledge and insight. We assume that giving people this insight will lead to them taking our advice. However, people are often better at applying information they discover for themselves. This is likely why Jesus asked questions, so the hearer would gain self-awareness as they answered the questions and would be more likely to embrace and apply their learning. If we can ask questions to help disciples articulate their greatest needs as well as potential action steps, we will be much more likely to see them apply the learning to their lives and discipleship.
Rev. Dr. Dana Allin is synod executive for the Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). Dana formerly served as the president of the board of ECO, the pastor of Indian River Presbyterian Church in Fort Pierce, FL, and the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Lakewood, CA. He is an associate certified coach with the International Coach Federation. He lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Beth, and their three children, Micah, Peyton, and Piper.
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Originally published Wednesday, 02 January 2019.