If my New Year’s resolutions involved breathing regularly and consuming enough calories to maintain life you might suggest that my expectations are a bit on the low side. Rightfully so. But when it comes to discipleship, what is the expectation of our churches? Is our goal to simply get people through the doorway of the church building, or is it to make disciples?
When it comes to disciple making, I fear that it is often a goal to make sure that someone can barely live, but far from experiencing abundant life in the present as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Based on well-known passages such as Matthew 28, we know about making disciples. Yet, we set a very low bar for this discipleship. Our expectation is often to get someone to the place of a spiritual infant—accepting Christ as Lord and Savior. Rather than encouraging them to press on in their walk with Jesus Christ, we tell them that they have reached the apex of the Christian life until heaven. I fear that the church gives the impression that any movement past spiritual infant is extra credit, only for the spiritual nerds in the world.
In reality, churches need to paint a picture where new disciples grow within the family from spiritual infant to spiritual child to spiritual young adult, and ultimately to a spiritual parent (Gustafson 2019, 247-252; Peterson 1993, 55-67). It is through this growth within the family that congregants avoid retraction to nominal belief but continue engaging in a new/renewed vibrant faith in Jesus Christ. The goal is to encourage discipleship in a way in which our goal is to become the disciple-making spiritual parent. Every one of us.
Let’s put an exclamation point on this discipleship expectation conversation: “Typically speaking, most people experience the most spiritual transformation not when they are first being discipled, but when they start discipling people themselves.” (Breen 2011, 176) Do you agree with that statement? That is a game changer when it comes to discipleship. Think about this in terms of youth ministry: the discipleship opportunity is not simply towards the youth, but is dramatically with the adult leaders and helpers. In fact, it might be that the involvement of adults in youth ministry should be seen as a discipleship priority. The “passive recruitment” that takes place for spiritual parent roles in youth ministry draws parents, grandparents, and adults into the discipleship framework of a church (Ammerman 2001, 58). Rather than seeing youth ministry as discipleship for kids, it is imperative that we step up our game in realizing the discipleship goodness for all ages—raising up spiritual parents.
Notice the discipleship expectation that is being set: the journey of a believer is not simply toward spiritual maturity, but toward “spiritual parenthood” in which spiritual children are reproduced and nurtured (Gustafson 2019, 211). The pathway is not a strict sequential pattern, but something of a circular journey (211; Webber 2003, 23-24). Discipleship should be like the Apostle Paul’s run-on sentences: wandering all over the place but full of life and led by the Spirit.[i]
Upward, Inward, Outward
This discipleship journey therefore includes movement that is up, in, and out. First, there must be a passion to focus upward in relational growth with God. Second, there is an ongoing investment inward—connecting through relationships with other believers in our church community. Third, there is also an outward focus which looks to respond to the needs of a broken community (Breen 2011, 67-83; Breen 2013, ii-iii; McNeal 2011, 45). As churches, we know that there must be upward, inward, and outward dimensions to our ministry. But, what is our expectation? As a part of the discipleship process, are we expecting church members, more poignantly, are we expecting ourselves, to engage in all three dimensions? Our ministry leaders, our deacons, and our church members need to be expected to be reaching outward toward God, inward through deep relationships within the church, and outward through mission in the community. Are all three dimensions truly part of your church membership expectation?
Carl Greene, Executive Director, SDB General Conference of USA and Canada
Ammerman, Nancy, et. al. 2001. Congregation & Community. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Breen, Mike. 2011. Building a Discipling Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People like Jesus Did. Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM.
Gustafson, David M. 2019. Gospel Witness: Evangelism in Word & Deed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
—–. 2013. Leading Missional Communities: Rediscovering the Power of Living on Mission Together. Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM.
McNeal, Reggie. 2011. “Missional Communities—European Style.” In Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 39-64.
Peterson, Jim. 1993. Lifestyle Discipleship: The Challenge of Following Jesus in Today’s World. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Webber, Robert E. 2003. Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
[i] Thank you Luke Greene for providing this concept of discipleship as a run-on sentence.