In 2007 Willow Creek, one of America’s largest and most successful churches, made a major apology to its members. What was their mistake? Senior pastor Bill Hybels took to the stage of the church’s 7,000-seat auditorium to admit that their 30-year focus on producing church attendees had led them to miss the goal of producing disciples.
‘When people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become “self-feeders”,’ said Hybels. ‘We should have taught people how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.’
If a massive and well-resourced church like Willow Creek can get it wrong when it comes to growing disciples, then we could all do with checking that our priorities are in focus.
We certainly don’t lack awareness of the need. Matthew 28:19-20 calls us not to ‘make converts’, but ‘make disciples’, by immersing them in the life of God and teaching new believers to obey all that Jesus commanded.
MANY DRIFT AWAY FROM CHURCH BECAUSE FRANKLY, THEY ARE BORED
If you have found that your own discipleship is lacking, you are not alone. In a recent online survey of 1,744 people conducted by the Evangelical Alliance, just 26% said they feel they have been equipped to witness and share their faith with others. Only a third believed they are equipped to live for Christ in the working world.
My favourite definition of discipleship comes from Dallas Willard: ‘A disciple of Jesus is learning how to live their life as Jesus would live their life, if he were they.’ It stresses the ongoing learning, the need for the Holy Spirit’s help, and the very important context in which our discipleship must take place – daily life. As the apostle John put it, ‘whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did’ (1 John 2:6).
Whatever your definition, how will you know whether a disciple has been ‘made’ and you can move on to others? One north London church used the language of ‘saved, sorted and sent’ to evaluate their work. When someone was ready to be ‘sent’ (into ministry locally via daily work and/or charity, or overseas) they knew they had done their job.
So how do we go about creating disciples? Most churches have two vehicles for doing so: church services and small groups.
You may have heard the illustration of church life from the world of football. It goes something like this: ‘Football is a game of 22 men on the field badly in need of rest, watched by 40,000 people in the stands, badly in need of exercise!’
Many churches operate as if the game is the Sunday service, which spectators attend in order to be wowed by the superstar performers reminding us how good it is to be saved, forgiven and heaven-bound. A Sunday gathering is of course a vital part of a disciple’s life, but the church service is not an end in itself. The real ‘game’ is not the service, but the rest of the week.
Could small group ministry be the answer to disciple-making? I’m not so sure. Unless groups are strongly led, they are too diverse to serve the discipling purposes of those who attend them. Too often, small groups are gatherings where ignorance is shared and the clear commands of God watered down. ‘Let’s discuss what this means’ can mean, ‘Let’s collectively think up reasons why we don’t follow it and can feel good about ourselves’. It is very hard for fully committed followers to challenge the rest of the group in that kind of environment.
If services and small groups have a limited role in disciple-making, what can we do?
• Train leaders to be better coaches and mentors of those they lead. Unless leaders are focused on discipleship, it will be hard for anyone else to be. Ephesians 4:12 spells out that the duty of leaders is ‘to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up’. Assume that this will be a major part of your leaders’ role and provide resources to do this well.
• Create learning communities where topics can be focused on that benefit those gathered, organising these according to maturity, season of life and work status. This could be during the church gathering on a Sunday, but probably needs to be in addition to Sunday worship. Above Bar Church, Southampton, runs a ‘School of Missional Discipleship’, which takes attendees through 30 weeks of foundational material on a Tuesday afternoon and evening, for example.
• Consider the actual issues that church attendees grapple with, and seek to address them. Perhaps they face faith challenges from friends, specific temptations or ethical dilemmas.
• Set up lay mentoring, coaching and accountability relationships where the actual issues being faced 24-7 can be addressed in a grace-filled, loving environment. Gold Hill Baptist Church, Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, has developed and piloted a churchwide mentoring scheme in the hope that every church member will ultimately become both a mentor and mentee.
Are you part of the ‘silent majority’ who aren’t being stretched: either by a pastoral crisis, or by learning how to lead and minister more effectively? Many of us are tempted to keep our novice badges on and leave the real work of the kingdom to those who are paid as professional ministers.
Mike Breen writes in Building a Discipling Culture (3DM Publishing) of the way in which Jesus’ ministry steered a balance between invitation and challenge. He argues that too often we are high on invitation (come and join us at church) but low on challenge, creating a consumer culture where only a small percentage of people make things happen. Breen boldly says: ‘Put simply, building a culture of discipleship is the only way that you will produce the kind of community that Jesus and the New Testament writers would recognise as church.’ We’ve created a diagram (below) to help express Breen’s theory on what kind of church culture proliferates when the balance is wrong.
Many drift away from church because frankly, they are bored. What are those in your church being apprenticed for?
In the world of education, schoolchildren are sometimes given individual education plans (IEPs) with particular targets. Maybe it’s time we introduced something similar for our churches? Ask yourself:
• Do you have ministry trips that stretch people?
• Where are your developing leaders cutting their teeth?
• How are you helping those immersed in careers to think through their faith so they see their weekly working hours as kingdom-focused?
• How accessible is helpful information for your church members on recommended books/ DVDs/websites?
HOW ARE YOU MEASURING WHEN A DISCIPLE HAS BEEN MADE?
The mention of education plans may have already made you nervous. Church has always had an uneasy relationship with stats, fearing that using metrics might lead to the kind of pride King David was guilty of, when numbering his army. But just as education standards improve when we seek to evaluate methods, we are wise to look at ways of measuring how we are doing in church. What might be included in our assessment?
• Information: there is a knowledge component to our faith, what has been called catechesis, sometimes used prior to baptism. What are the basic truths of the faith?
• Character: There is an expectation that the fruit of the spirit is being developed in those who are filled with the spirit. The qualities of those required for leadership are largely character-focused (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).
• Action: A disciple will have learned some basic tools: praying, reading the Bible for personal growth, knowing the gospel well enough to share it with others, developing a habit of regular giving, praying for God to move in the lives of others, developing relationships with others who help us in our faith, being equipped to teach others (2 Timothy 2:2; Hebrews 6:1-4).
WILL YOU HAVE THE GUTS TO CHANGE?
Neil Hudson wrote in Imagine Church (IVP) of the need for some leaders to ‘renegotiate the contract with the church’. He discovered that the missional disciple-making role he believed he needed to exercise contrasted with the more pastoral role that the church wanted from him. The gap in expectations needed addressing. Many church attendees don’t actually want to be too much like Jesus, and so there may be initial resistance when you start getting serious. People may even leave your church if you put disciple-making on the agenda.
This stuff is not for the fainthearted; but if making disciples is part of your church mission statement – maybe it’s time to get started?
What discipleship looks like
Wendy sensed the ‘high invitation, high challenge’ of Jesus as a young woman. Following a gap year with Oasis Trust, she opted to get involved in community work rather than attend university and has kept a kingdom focus in mind ever since. She was involved in a Baptist church in east London, and a new church in Barnet. There she was especially drawn to people on the margins of society – particularly the homeless in The Strand area of London.
After 12 years, Wendy joined a team ministering to the nightclub scene in Tenerife using ‘The Living Room’, a neutral venue located close to the nightclubs. Six years later, she got involved in a ministry to women engaged in the sex industry in Thailand, providing opportunities to set up small businesses. She went on to work with an outreach ministry in Cyprus, with women who had been trafficked into the sex industry.
Now back in the UK, Wendy works with charity Stop the Traffik, training frontline workers to spot the signs of human trafficking. She has also set up a charity with friends to advocate for women who are exploited in the sex industry. She told Premier Christianity: ‘I’m a very ordinary person and I am wary of trying to make out that I am anything more than that.’
St Thomas Crookes, Sheffield
St Thomas Crookes, Sheffield is an ecumenical church with united Anglican and Baptist traditions. More than 20 years ago it made radical changes to its structure to facilitate discipleship. Under the leadership of Mike Breen, who came to the church in 1994, the church is arranged into seven areas, or ‘churches’: kids, youth, students, young adults, family, international and community.
Its website states: ‘Each of the seven churches is made up of clusters – missional communities of 20-30 people each with a common missional vision, under lay leadership, who reach out to a wide variety of ages and people groups. Within each cluster there are cell groups of 8-12 people who meet together regularly in homes, cafés/bars etc to pray, study God’s word and encourage one another…The churches come together each Sunday at our gatherings to meet God in worship, story and relevant life teaching from the Bible.’
This kind of approach has been adopted in other churches, in the UK, US and further afield. Breen now heads up 3D Ministries, an ‘organic movement of biblical discipleship and missional church’.
Nathan Ferreira was planning to take his own life but a prophetic word was to save him. Gripped by pornography, he knew he couldn’t live as a Christian with the shame of his parallel life on the web. A prophetic word from Pioneer Church leader, Gerald Coates, kicked off a series of conversations with Gerald and eventual healing for Nathan, which is outlined in their book, Sexual Healing: Identity, Sexuality, Calling (New Wine Press). The book triggered a Sexual Healing tour in 2014, which gathered men together to consider porn and how to get free from it.
God is using Nathan’s former battle with porn to release many Christians from addiction and provide opportunities for others, especially in schools, to break free and find Christ.