I became a Christian after my first year of college. I did not accept Jesus in a church or walk down the aisle to pray a prayer. I did not follow any sort of church track that led me through a series of several steps throughout consecutive weekends or months. I did not even become a member of a church or actually attend any one church regularly for the first year or so of being a Christian. I accepted Jesus in the middle of the night while laying in my top bunk of a rundown motel in Panama City Beach, Florida because I had been attempting to memorize Scripture and God opened the eyes of my heart to see and understand Truth. I was blessed to be a part of a ministry that worked diligently to lay a solid foundation of biblical truths and practices in my Christian walk, and it would be years before I realized both how special and how rare my experience as a new believer was.
I was involved with Campus Outreach ministries all throughout my college years and will be forever grateful for the many lessons and blessings I received from that experience. Campus Outreach focused on discipleship and equipping college students to walk with God and enter the real world with a solid spiritual foundation. I spent the majority of time in college being discipled, learning how to pray and study the Bible, learning about and practicing evangelism, and just generally conversing about spiritual matters and God’s work in my life. This was my only experience and knowledge of Chrisitanity. I thought that my experience is what every Christian experienced, but I learned rather quickly that this was not actually the case. My experience was so radical that when I first joined a church on my own, I struggled to see where the Christians were.
I distinctly remember having a conversation with my spiritual leaders about joining a church but wondering where all the Christians were. I had been so engrossed in true and deep discipleship that my first Sunday school class seemed like a joke to me. I don’t say this to bash any church or discredit Sunday school classes. I just saw a massive hole in what the church thought it was accomplishing. At 20 years old, I had received more training and teaching than any Sunday school leader I came across at church, and I struggled to know and understand how this was possible if they had been faithfully attending church much longer than I had been a believer.
In my first experience as a devoted and faithful church member, I discovered that the church seemed to struggle with equipping the saints. Sure the Sunday preaching was great and other church members were faithful in attendance to Sunday morning worship, Sunday school, and Wednesday night fellowship and prayer meetings, but I questioned what sort of training and teaching was actually taking place outside of the sermon, in discipleship groups or one-on-one settings. The majority of the Sunday school classes were led by people willing to pick up a teacher’s guide to the curriculum and put in an extra hour or so a week to prepare for class, but I never learned of any actual training sessions for these leaders or who was discipling them. I met few people who were actively involved in the type of discipleship that I had been accustomed to. I began to experience first hand that church, for the majority of the people I knew, was mostly about showing up to events and playing nice with the people. I struggled to understand what was happening around me, and my passion often fueled my confusion.
Fast forward 15 years or so, and I still find my experience of church to be quite similar. What churches seem to do really well is get people involved in events and programs, but I often fear that these events and programs don’t offer Christians an experience of true discipleship. Multiply this by the vast numbers of people attending small groups and Sunday school classes and that equals many many Christians attending church events without benefitting from any true discipleship. It breaks my heart to see and witness these numbers knowing that so many are missing out on the discipleship process.
Discipleship is hard. It is not easy, and it takes time and commitment that runs scarce in this American society. This problem of discipleship in America goes hand in hand with the trends of the American church and where its focus seems to lie. The call to make disciples, though, does not change simply because a society’s way of life doesn’t seem to fit the calling. The calling remains the same; we are to adjust to the calling.
Jesus spent the majority of His three years in ministry with His disciples. They were literally called disciples because they followed Him around and He taught them everything that He knew. When Jesus commanded His disciples to then go and make disciples, He intended for them to teach other men just as they had been taught. The call to teach is specific, and it was carried on throughout the remainder of the New Testament. Years after Jesus commissioned His disciples to make disciples, Paul wrote to Timothy to do the same, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Discipleship has to be about a specific time of teaching and teaching for the sake of reproducing, and this type of teaching is not accomplished with a Sunday sermon. It has to be individual. My fear is that churches rely on a system of events that encourage participation but lack individual teaching and reproduction.
My experience of discipleship included intense times of one-on-one and small group settings that always included the same few devoted people. I was in a discipleship group with the same girls for three years or so. We were taught how to study God’s word and to pray in these intimate settings. We did these things together as we learned and continually challenged each other to go deeper. This kind of time and commitment together builds the unity and trust necessary to go deep and to be vulnerable. All things necessary in learning how to walk with Jesus. The time was intentional and specific, and most importantly, we were taught how to carry on what we were learning. Our Sunday worship experience was about corporate worship with a body of believers; our discipleship happened outside of that.
Eventually, during my time of struggle at churches that didn’t seem to understand discipleship, I figured out that the best thing for me to do was to at least be discipling girls on my own. I may not have been surrounded by a culture of discipleship, but I had been given the tools to know how to disciple girls. I learned pretty quickly that real life is just not as conducive to deep discipleship as college life was. We seemed to have all the time in the world to devote to one-on-one time and weekly discipleship groups while in college. Finding and maintaining this time outside of college was much harder. In some ways, it was more difficult because a discipleship group became one more thing on top of every other event happening at church. In addition to Sunday morning and night and Wednesday night services, I was asking girls (and sometimes parents if the girls were in high school) to commit to another nightly event. This proved to be difficult, and I had to continually fight for these meeting times. I often failed, but I was convinced that the fight was worth it.
Another difficult lesson I had to learn was finding faithful girls that would commit to discipleship. Paul specifically tells Timothy to find “faithful” men, not just any men, to entrust the gospel to. I learned this the hard way by inviting as many girls as I could and then expecting them all to commit as hard as I had. I am sure that there is an endless list of reasons why this commitment was difficult, but I eventually learned to find the faithful and committed ones before asking them to join a discipleship group. Over the last 15 years or so, there are only a small handful of girls that have committed and that I have actually been able to disciple. I reached for many, but only a few stuck with it. Those few were worth it when I look at their lives today.
Much like I expressed my thoughts on the American church last week, my concern with discipleship in America is less about pointing fingers and more about a desire to actually see the gospel reproduced. If our churches are only creating events that call for momentary participation, we are robbing those who would become great disciples by not taking them deeper. Sure, we can individually learn and grow, God does say “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13), but don’t forget the command from Jesus to make disciples. As Christians, it is our duty to make disciples, not create events.
I have spent years active in churches that did not do discipleship well. Most of them had their programs and events rolling and flourishing, but I saw little fruit. I still tried to continue to bear the responsibility that I knew was mine. I think I eventually settled into a place of complacently over believing that I would just have to continue doing my part despite what the church was doing or not. I am still getting to see the fruit of what God has done in the lives of girls that have been willing to commit. It’s a beautiful thing. Then, I met and watched my husband meet Jesus and hunger to know more with no one there to teach him. My passionate struggle of ten years prior rose up again to burn with a fury inside of me.
One of the things that attracted me to my husband was his sense of commitment and responsibility to the church. He came in as a new believer, with little background in typical “church life,” yet he dove straight in and got involved. He was faithful in serving in a few different areas. He was always there and willing to do what was asked of him. He joined a small group because that is what he was told to do. At the end of the day, though, he was still searching for someone to teach him how to actually do this new God and Jesus thing. What he wanted was someone to teach him how to read his Bible; what he got was a series of steps to follow to start serving at church. What he wanted was someone to teach him how to pray; what he got was a lot of church lingo with little explanation. What he wanted was someone to teach him how to apply God’s teaching to his life so he could be more like Jesus; what he got was a full schedule of service to the church. By the time we started dating, he knew there was more than what he was getting and he still had no clue how to get it. I fought for him, trying to seek out men to take him under their wing, but no one seemed to have the time. Everyone was too busy doing church to have any time to disciple a new Christian. This is my fear with the American church and American discipleship. We have made church so busy that we lack the time to do true discipleship, the last command that Jesus ever gave us.
My struggle with the church in America is deeper than simply wondering if we are adjusting too heavily to American culture. My struggle lies in the fact that we are missing what Jesus commanded us to do. I still believe that the responsibility is individual rather than institutional, though. If I know that Jesus has commanded me to make disciples, then I cannot wait around for a church to start doing it well and jump on board. I seek to make disciples regardless of what the local church is or is not doing, and I continue praying that church organization becomes rooted in discipleship rather than programs. The church cannot reproduce the gospel through programs. It can easily reproduce people to run the programs, and the programs can sometimes teach knowledge but lack practical application. It takes true, deep disciples of Jesus to continue living out the gospel and making more disciples. Making disciples takes time, commitment, and effort. It is not so easily packaged as a well-oiled church program, but it is worth much more in the long run. I have hope because I know that my God is able. I keep fighting and discussing it because I’m convinced we need to hear it. I write today simply to express thoughts and maybe start a conversation about your discipleship experience.