Intentional Discipleship

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll

Jesus was intentional about discipleship. For three years he invested himself in the lives of twelve men who would eventually take up the work he had begun. He gave them a call (follow me), a command (love as I have loved), and a commission (make disciples).

From the Sermon on the Mount to the Emmaus Road, they received instruction, object lessons, and discipline to prepare them for their disciple-making work. Eleven completed the program and, after Pentecost, began preaching the gospel, living the revolutionary way of life they had learned from their Lord.

The rapid growth of their numbers and the peculiar quality of their community captured the attention of skeptics and curiosity-seekers alike. In an early second-century letter to “Diognetus” -- a well-placed pagan desiring to learn about the Christian faith -- the author shares: “Christians are distinguished from other men . . . [by] their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” The author goes on to describe, at some length, the attitudes and behaviors of a community that exhibited a moral standard that was odd and unfamiliar, yet winsome.

Fast-forward nearly nineteen hundred years.

Sixteen percent

In 2007 George Barna found that born-again Christians were “statistically indistinguishable” from their non-Christian neighbors in 15 moral behaviors (including lying, gossiping, substance abuse and extramarital sex). Two years later, Barna observed that 66 percent of American adults are what he terms “Casual Christians.”

Casuals are self-identified Christians who “do not view matters of faith as central to one’s purpose or success in life.” Casuals want a low-demand faith, one that helps them feel religious and be better people, without having to take a stand on moral issues. Barna calls it “faith in moderation.” I think “lukewarm” was how Jesus put it.

By contrast, “Captive Christians” are believers whose lives “are defined by their faith.” They have a high commitment to “serving Christ and carrying out His commands and principles.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, theirs is a faith of costly grace established on the cross of salvation and the yoke of discipleship. Sadly, Barna reports that Captives are only 16 percent of adults. Sixteen percent!

The United States is the most Christianized nation on the planet in terms of per capita churches, clergy, religious education, and educational resources. It has the most Christians -- nearly twice as many as the next highest country, Brazil -- and yet, only 16 percent could be considered followers of Jesus Christ.

Are we surprised, then, that there is little difference in the moral behaviors of Christians and non-Christians? Are we shocked when yet another denomination adopts heterodox theology or endorses unbiblical practices? Are we stunned that mainline churches are in decline and that youth are heading for the exits at record levels? Are we dismayed that the Church has lost its moral voice in an increasingly secular culture? If we are, we shouldn’t be.

Course correction

As lamentable as these things are, they are the predictable fruits of decades and generations of non-discipleship Christianity. Although mission one of the Church is (and always has been) to make disciples, most churches have not made discipleship a priority. Dallas Willard calls this our “Great Omission.”

Few churches give their congregations any compelling vision of discipleship. Fewer put discipleship expectations on their members beyond regular attendance and giving. And fewer still have a discipleship process that includes spiritual health assessments and monitoring; personal spiritual growth plans; needs-related resources for spiritual development; and teaching, preaching, and programs structured around discipleship outcomes.  Continue reading here.

Originally published June 17, 2011.

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