“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” – Matthew 4:19
“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” – Colossians 1:28
Why does there seem to be such a gap between the over 200 million men, women, and children in the US who profess Christianity and the lack of tangible fruit evidenced in our daily lives? What’s missing between our earliest confession of faith and the trumpet call of God? In this series on discipleship we will begin by diagnosing the disease. From there we will move into the Biblical definition and the scriptural underpinnings of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Next we will unearth what motivates Christ followers for the journey before them. As we proceed through the series we will carefully consider the Spiritual Disciplines, Confronting our Disobedient natures, and the importance of Christ centered Doctrine, (Growing in the Knowledge of God and Our Identity in Him.)
Diagnosing the Disease: When Christian friends on social media seem to behave just like the world… when a lack of kindness, lack of humility, and lack of goodness permeate our national cultural dialogue…when an increasingly secular postmodern culture seems to enjoy distancing itself as far as possible from the ethics and worship found in Christianity… when within the church there doesn’t seem to be a zeal for following Christ… and when even in your own life you realize you are ‘floating’ along with no recognizable markers for growth… We, the Church, have a discipleship problem.
Read the following diagnosis from J.T. English, pastor & author:
“Over the past several decades the Western church has noticed alarming symptoms of our discipleship disease. Some of these symptoms include people leaving the church; students dropping out of church after high school; attendance dropping; and perhaps most important, a lack of seriousness among our people about what it really means to be a follower of Christ. From an examination of these symptoms, we’ve come to think that our disease is that the church has become increasingly irrelevant and requires too much from people who want to get involved.”
“The church seems to think that our disease is that we’ve gotten too deep.”
“In order to treat this disease, we have sought to develop ministry strategies that require less of people, not more, strategies that focus on keeping disciples in the church rather than growing disciples in the church, and that view has the pastor more as a marketer than a minister. We are on our heels, and we just want the bleeding to stop, so we have lowered the bar, and we have settled for the lowest-common-denominator discipleship.” (J.T. English, Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus, Nashville B & H Publishing, 2020)
More and more people are becoming frustrated and disillusioned with “church as normal”. As we head into the second decade of the 21st century, the coronavirus exposed the massive ‘discipleship gap’ that exists in nearly all church in America, regardless of size, geographical location, or denomination. Churches across America as still suffering a 30-50% drop in attendance some 18 months after lock-downs. Are we truly satisfied with a ‘lowest-common-denominator’ approach to discipleship?
“Our ministry disease is not that the evangelical church is too deep, but that it is far too shallow. The symptoms of people and students leaving the church, or the lack of maturing disciples, or decreased attendance are symptoms that should tell us not that we are too deep but that we are too trivial.”
How do you react to the above comments by author J.T. English? Do you agree that the Church has a discipleship problem? Are you convinced that lowering the bar is a mis-diagnosis of our discipleship disease?
Your Answer: _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Two Challenges to Deep Discipleship
Toward the turn of the millennium David Wells, Professor of systematic theology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, wrote a description of the evangelical church entitled, No Place for Truth. He argues that the church has suffered from “the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith.” This major shift fuels our bent toward Christian consumerism and its’ ever increasing appetite. It’s a shift that has us buying into human-centered needs that dictate everything from the way we live out our faith (it’s all about me) to how we view God (God is a means to an end to help me flourish in life). It’s a journey dictated by our desire for the things God can give us without desiring God himself.
Challenge #1: Recognizing our Self-Serving Spirituality and the Self-Sufficient Mindset
“We have replaced transcendence of God with the transcendence of self…Salvation, according to self-centered discipleship, is not found in knowing God but in knowing self. We are being told everywhere that truly finding ourselves is the antidote to our stress, anxiety, and confusion, but biblical discipleship says knowledge of God is the only true antidote.”
English describes what this Christianity looks like without mincing words: “So, what does it look like on the ground when we succumb to the lie that discipleship is about being true to yourself? This is when our churches and ministries begin to offer people what they want instead of what they need. This is when disciples have a greater, more exhaustive knowledge of the Enneagram number [a modern self-discovery tool] than the attributes of God. This is when disciples are more inclined to read generic spirituality books than the Gospels. This is when disciples don’t have firsthand knowledge of their sacred text, or basic Christian beliefs, but have exhaustive knowledge of politics, sports, or entertainment. It is when disciples are more shaped by the practices and habits of digital secularism than basic spiritual disciplines.”
In contrast to a shallow self-serving spirituality which promotes human autonomy and independence from God, J.T. English writes that “true discipleship can only be measured by a disciple’s ability to connect all of reality to the Triune God.” (p. 22-23)
Challenge #2: Spiritual Apathy (“Becoming Bored with Jesus”)
Is it possible to be filled with great enthusiasm for the local church stub still be filled with tremendous spiritual apathy? One of the dangers facing the western church is that churches can tap into American volunteerism and our activist spirit (AKA: “do, do, do!” and “keep busy”) but have countless people in the pews (and in leadership) becoming increasingly bored with Jesus.
Here’s how English describes the situation: “In the church we are more concerned with apostasy than we are with apathy, but both are deadly to a vibrant walk with Christ… Becoming bored with the true Christ is impossible… The message of cultural Christianity is that God is merely good to us. The message of biblical Christianity is that God is good for us. The message of cultural Christianity is that we should seek God’s goods. The message of biblical Christianity is that we should seek God’s goodness. The message of cultural Christianity is that we should seek God so that he might provide for us. The message of biblical Christianity is that God is our provision. The message of cultural Christianity is that we should seek God in order to get things. The message of biblical Christianity is that we should seek God to get the highest thing – namely himself.”
Ponder these two challenges to deep discipleship: “No Need for Jesus” (a self-sufficient mindset leading to a self-serving spirituality) and “Becoming Bored with Jesus” (spiritual apathy.)
Which of the two are you most prone to face in your life? Why do you think that is the case? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Apostle Paul’s description of a radical ongoing transformation in the Christian life seems to ring hallow for many. And we all, who with unveiled faces, contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 (NIV)
Would you describe your experience as a Christian as Transforming?
Simply put, many disciples are “stuck” in the Christian life. Too many believers are paddling in a stagnant pond – Joyless. Exhausted. Fearful. Anxious. Too few reflect adjectives from the Christian life bound in the Bible: Awestruck. Joyful. Alive. Purposeful. Growing.
Our savior once told a story about a man who discovered a treasure buried in the field. He was so filled with joy that he sold all that he had and bought the field (Matthew 13:44). In this parable, Jesus paints us a picture of what a disciple of his looks like! Someone in hot pursuit of the kingdom of God because nothing is more important… nothing is more satisfying!
Why do you think people get stuck? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
In the Gospels, we are presented with the polar opposite of the man who sold everything and bought the field in the example of the Rich Young Ruler. Here is a man who is seemingly doing the right things day-to-day… A man familiar with the Bible Jesus read. Yet he was living in the shallows of a religious life where HIS OWN desires were his chief motivation.
Read the Main Text: Matthew 19:16-30
Our attention is usually drawn to Jesus statement, “Sell your possessions”, but have we missed the incredibly awesome and satisfying invitation from Jesus, “Come, follow me”? The rich young ruler was being offered a front row seat to hear first-hand the life changing teachings of God in the flesh! Earlier in Jesus ministry, a Gerasene man who had been healed from demons that possessed him then begged for the privilege of going with Jesus to the next town. But Jesus tells him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). The rich young ruler hears the very words Jesus spoke to the twelve disciples. The earth shattering beautifully glorious invitation: “Come, follow me.” We aren’t given the record of what happened to this young ruler. Perhaps he woke up in time to experience the Greatest Revival in Human History (Pentecost in Acts 2). Perhaps not… At the moment of his personal invitation he was so filled with the Kingdom of Self that he turned down the opportunity of a lifetime.
In what ways are we like the Rich Young Ruler in this respect? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Read Matt 19:28-30 Again
A case can be made that this rich young ruler suffered from both challenges to deep discipleship. His wealth and privilege and power probably afforded him the luxury of having a self-sufficient mindset. Apparently, he saw no ‘real need’ for Jesus in his life. You can imagine this man weighing his options: “My wealth or Jesus?” – and ultimately thinking: “My riches are way more interesting and bring way more satisfaction to my life than Jesus could ever provide.” At the same time, he also suffered from deep spiritual apathy to the person of Jesus. Jesus was not exciting enough for his life: he was “bored with Jesus” even in his face-to-face encounter.
How does Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Ruler serve to warn us about the inherent tendencies of the human heart as we seek to love God and follow Jesus?
Upcoming: Session #2 – What Is A Disciple?