Church Programs Kill Discipleship

June 15, 2012 — 3 Comments


For many churches in America, discipleship is dying.

To substantiate this claim, let me first define discipleship. This is one of those words that people within the church frequently use, but rarely define. Simply put, a disciple is a follower.

Jesus’ disciples were young men who followed Jesus in every sense. They traveled where he did, they listened to his teaching, they ate with him, they associated with the same people he did – in short, they tried to emulate him in every way imaginable.

In a fascinating turn of events, at the end of Jesus’ life on earth, he commanded his disciples to make disciples of all nations. He asked his followers to create more followers. It is because of the dedication of these first disciples that Christians exist today.

Just like those first disciples, we have also been given the task of making disciples from all nations. In fact, every Christian is called to be a disciple, and to make more of them.

To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus. Anything less is a distortion of our understanding of the Gospel and the calling Jesus has placed upon each of us.

Here’s the rub: when we compare the way the first disciples lived with the way many Christians live today, it becomes clear that we don’t understand discipleship as a church. Most Christians’ lives don’t match up with the distinctives of the early disciples.

I recently read Greg Odgen’s Transforming Discipleship in preparation for a two-week sermon series I’m preaching at church. In his book, Ogden describes seven marks of authentic discipleship. They are:


1. Disciples are proactive ministers.

2. Disciples live a disciplined way of life.

3. Discipleship affects all aspects of life.

4. Disciples are a countercultural force.

5. Disciples form an essential, chosen organism – the church.

6. Disciples are Biblically informed people.

7. Disciples are people who share their faith.


Unfortunately, most Christians don’t embody this list of traits. Our churches aren’t raising up authentic disciples of Christ. Instead, many churches produce great church members, church attendees, committee chairs, choir singers, potluck bakers, etc… We can’t safely assume that years of church membership imply a deep commitment to Christ.

Why is this?

1. We try to grow our church wide, but not deep. In an effort to meet the manifold needs of our communities and churches, we plan programs to attract large crowds of people. A pastor or church leader disseminates information to people who sit in a chair, largely unengaged. The underlying assumption here is that we need to influence as many people as possible. Therefore, the bigger, the better.

2. We don’t implement long-term disciple-making strategies. As we see needs around us, we try to fix them as quickly as possible. So we implement a program to meet that particular need. But in so doing, we ignore the fact that true life-change takes time to develop. It took Jesus three years of constant attention to prepare his disciples. If it took God in human flesh three years, why do we think we can change lives in less?

3. Relationships are messy and hard to quantify success. Programs provide clear data. This event attracted 300 people. That service motivated 14 people to respond to the message. We feel like we are accomplishing our goals when we can report numbers like that, yet, people’s lives often aren’t changed.

4. Programs don’t ask very much of people. It is easy for somebody to attend an event, think about it, and leave without any sort of follow-up. Their life goes on the same way it did before.

Contrast this image of our ministry to the way that Jesus ministered.

Jesus spent the majority of his earthly ministry hanging out with a ragtag group of teenage guys. In Matthew 4, we see that one of the first things Jesus did in his ministry was call his disciples. He did everything with them. Every moment of his ministry was a teaching moment. And in three years time, he took a group consisting of fishermen, a tax collector, a doubter, a religious terrorist, and an impulsive guy, and transformed them into a group that changed the course of human history.

Jesus understood the power of intentional relationships. He began with the end in mind, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Covey. Jesus knew that he wouldn’t always be around, so he spent his time reproducing himself in his disciples.

It’s easy to overlook the significance of this. Think of all that Jesus, as God, could have done in three years of ministry. Think of all the starving people he could have fed, the lepers he could have healed, the teaching he could proclaimed, the empires he could have toppled, the wars he could have stopped. And, how did he spend his time? Hanging out with some dudes. And we’re all here because of it.

His gamble paid off.

But Jesus now places his bets on us. He has left the fate of the church in our hands. How will we handle his calling? Will we make disciples using his relational method or will we fuel the ministry program machine?

If we wonder why we don’t see disciples like those who followed Jesus, we need to check if our methods are like his.

Are you purposefully investing in the spiritual well-being of somebody? Is somebody doing that for you? What could be the benefits of doing this? How about the challenges?



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I'm a pastor, writer, speaker, husband, father, and follower of Christ, to name a few titles. You can find my contact information in my About page.
  • scrhill

    I wonder if a pastor tried what Jesus did… How long before s/he were fired? Numbers matter SO much nowadays. As a solo pastor, I get a raise if I bump up my average worshipping attendance, to say nothing of the quality of faith of those people.

    • I think that says something about also about the quality of faith among the decision makers within our denomination if greater numbers = greater salary.

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