Discipleship is a bit of a buzzword right now, and that’s a good thing. As the church, and as followers of Jesus, we should be talking about discipleship. More than this, we should be doing discipleship.
But right there is the rub.
Because discipling people is hard. It takes time. It takes investment. It takes energy. It takes sacrifice. It takes wisdom. And did I mention time?
Here’s a confession: I spent years as a full-time evangelist (that’s not the confession part) bemoaning (here’s the confession part) the failure of many local churches to really disciple and grow their newly-baptized members who had been won through the series I (or some other evangelist) had just held.
The funny (and sad!) thing is that I’ve heard pastor after pastor complain that, really, it’s the evangelist’s fault that newly-baptized people don’t stick around. “They were baptized too soon.” “They weren’t adequately prepared.” “They should’ve been cleared more thoroughly.” And on and on.
So the evangelists blame the churches and pastors and the pastors blame the evangelists. I’ve seen this sequence dozens of times and heard it repeated by others (on both sides) more times than I care to remember.
It is impossible to fully disciple someone in four to six weeks.
And here’s the truth: blaming is easy, but discipleship is hard. My head elder is in the room as I’m writing this, so I decided to read him what I’d written so far. He listened, then gave it a moment of thought and said: “It’s definitely the evangelist’s fault.” So, yeah, there you have it.
It is impossible to fully disciple someone in four to six weeks. Not going to happen. Generally, modern evangelistic meetings last about that long. And, yes, all the doctrines may be covered more or less. And, yes, powerful and moving appeals have been made. But these do not constitute discipleship. They can get people on the path to being a disciple of Jesus, but these short-term successes can never take the place of the time, energy, and investment that genuine discipleship requires.
Perhaps more than any other verses in the New Testament, Mark 3:14-15 speaks to the essence of discipleship: “Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons.”
Did you see it? If not, read it again. Read it until you get it, I’ll wait…
So you saw it, right? Of course you did. Here it is: “that they might be with Him.” That’s it right there! The secret to true discipleship, as Jesus both understood and modeled, is to be with those you are endeavoring to disciple. At the risk of repeating myself: it takes time, investment, energy, sacrifice, and wisdom.
And it’s hard. I think I mentioned that already.
The secret to true discipleship…is to be with those you are endeavoring to disciple.
Why is it so hard? The short version is that people are messy and complicated. Not all people, just 99% of them. It’s one thing to say, “Happy Sabbath” while walking past someone in church, but it is an entirely different thing to really disciple and invest in another human being. And don’t miss this: the pastor cannot single-handedly disciple a whole church. Even Jesus, who was God incarnate, limited Himself to 12 primary disciples.
Presently, I find myself pastoring a church with between 400-500 on Sabbath morning. About 350 of those are members. Shortly after my arrival here two years ago, it became inescapably evident to me that, when it came to discipleship, I was in over my head. Way over.
So what’s the solution? The answer, I believe, is to create a culture of discipleship in the local church. For most churches, this will involve a complete reorientation of the church’s status quo. It centers on small groups and social connections. It prioritizes relationships and time, not just inspiring Sabbath-morning sermons and fiery short-term evangelistic meetings.
Here at Kingscliff, we’ve not figured it all out yet. Probably your church hasn’t yet either. But we’re trying, and I hope you and your church are trying too. This isn’t the pastor’s problem or the evangelist’s problem. This is the church’s opportunity and mission. It is your opportunity and mission!
And the essence of that mission is to spend time with others. Time praying, time studying, time laughing, time playing, time teaching, time eating, time crying, time witnessing, time crying, and time growing.
That is, time discipling.
Just like Jesus.