When it comes to the issue of discipleship, the American church is in desperate need of reform. I think we can all fairly easily agree on this.
We know that we have been ordered to make disciples. In Matthew 28:18-20, the command we are given by Jesus is not “to go,” but “to make disciples.” Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
American churches today desire to make disciples and are trying to do so, but are failing. We can easily see this by the large number of young people who graduate from high school and youth group, and then disappear from the church never (or rarely) to be seen or heard from again. It is also evident in the lack of biblical knowledge and holy living on the part of many/most church members today. Why is this happening? The reason is that the American church has strayed far from the biblical model for discipleship. What we see today in church is age-segregated Sunday School classes and (usually) Sunday evening “discipleship” classes. These are the primary means of discipleship within the American church.
What do we see in the bible? We must look to our Lord and our example in all things. Jesus spent approximately three years with his twelve disciples, teaching them all they would need to know for ministry after he ascended to heaven. Jesus spent time. Jesus exerted a great deal of energy. Jesus was intimately involved with his disciples. This is far different from what we see in churches today.
Another key factor we see in the scriptures is that the family should be the primary point of discipleship. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Similarly, we read in Ephesians 6:1-4, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
What is the pastoral role in discipleship? Is it the task of the leadership within the church to disciple the people? That is certainly part of it. However, a more important role seems to be the equipping of the body to do ministry, which would include discipleship. Ephesians 4:11-12 says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
Keeping the biblical model in mind, what should we do today to help our churches be more effective in making disciples? Here are a few ideas:
1) We must imitate Jesus Christ in all things.
2) We must model appropriate discipleship to others (time, effort, intimacy).
3) If given the opportunity, we should teach appropriate discipleship methods (time, effort, intimacy).
4) Older, more experienced Christians should be strongly encouraged to disciple younger Christians on a one-on-one basis.
5) Family should be emphasized as the primary location for discipleship. Age segregated classes for children must not be relied upon to be the sole or even primary discipleship for kids.
6) Instead of offering “discipleship classes,” the pastoral staff should teach the body how to disciple others. One critical point of emphasis would be teaching fathers that it is their responsibility to disciple their children.
7) Evangelism and discipleship must be viewed as tied together. New believers should be (and probably want to be) discipled by those who shared Christ with them.
8) We must exhort all believers to be both discipling others and being discipled at the same time.