Avoiding the unintentional pitfalls of discipleship

Churches love to talk about discipleship. Pastors preach on it, parishioners celebrate it, and everyone wants to be a part of it. But few people do it. Most people expect discipleship to be the pastor’s responsibility or the duty of their Sunday school teacher. Although they love to theorize about discipleship, few, if any, make disciples.

Jesus modeled discipleship with His disciples. The four gospels describe how Jesus would invite people to follow Him, show them how to minister to others, and preach the kingdom of God to those who were far off. Matthew’s final chapter of the gospel tells the story of Jesus commissioning His disciples to continue making disciples in the future (Matt 28:18-20).

The point is that discipleship is not a theoretical concept the church holds dear. Making disciples is an act the church carries out as the core of its mission. The church must move beyond discussing discipleship and get to the work of making disciples.

Pitfall 2: Knowledge-driven discipleship

We have all been to churches that call their Bible studies “discipleship classes.” Churches love Bible study. Bible study is incredible. I love spending time with the Word and diving deep, growing my knowledge of Jesus, but Bible study is not the only element of discipleship. Discipleship is not just an increase in Bible knowledge or transference of knowledge. Discipleship includes life transformation.

Think about Jesus. Jesus led His disciples to change their lives and know more about God. When Jesus called His disciples, He did not allow them to remain living their old lives and study his ministry from afar. Jesus called them to cast off their old life and to live as He did (Mark 1:16-20). Jesus required his disciples to live differently and think differently.

Churches would do well to process the life transformation factor of discipleship when planning their approach to making disciples. Churches were commanded to teach people how to live like Christ and learn about Christ should cause churches to implement habit-forming teaching elements into discipleship.

Pitfall 3: Activity focused discipleship 

I love celebrating big wins at a church. I love the excitement and feeling we get when expectations are met or exceeded for the glory of the Lord. A few weeks ago, I saw a church celebrating a big win that many churches celebrate. They had reached an all-time high attendance for their Vacation Bible School. That was great!

At the same time, it caused me to wonder about what the church celebrates. Are we content with celebrating people showing up or should we seek more?

As I look at the ministry of Jesus, I know that He celebrated His the progress of His disciples, but I never see Him celebrate the crowds. He would encourage his disciples when they would answer his questions correctly or act as they should. But the text never says anything about his response to preaching to the multitudes on the sea’s shore. From this, I think Jesus was more concerned with taking His discipleship to maturity than the crowds attending.

When it comes to discipleship in the church, churches can learn something from Jesus’ actions. Instead of focusing on the activity caused by an event, churches should focus on the spiritual depth produced by the event. The church is not a place to appeal to the masses. The church is the place that makes mature disciples.

Pitfall 4: Product-pushing discipleship 

Think about the way churches market their discipleship classes for a second. What I hear most often is, “Come to this class as we work through (insert author’s name here)’s new Bible study (insert Bible study name here).” Although we mean well, it would seem that we are basing our proposition on a product and not a process.

Jesus’ example of discipleship was a process. He was not worried about the latest popular rabbi teaching series or other supplemental material. He was intentional about meeting His disciples where they were spiritually and encouraging them to maturity. He was concerned about the process of building them to maturity.

I wonder what it would look like if churches began to think this way. Instead of worrying about who wrote the book and promoting studies on the names of the latest authors, they looked at their people’s needs and encouraged their congregation to get involved because the gatherings would change their life and help them walk with Christ.

Church, let’s get to the work of making disciples. Let’s lead our people to live like Christ. Let’s celebrate when our people grow in faith, maturing in their relationship with Jesus. Let us seek life change in our people and take them through the process of discipleship.

Pastoral Ministries Associate
Anthony Svajda
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
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