The world needs healthy churches. Without them, the world would hear little of their message and feel even less of their impact. And by the way, the church has a great message–the best there is in the world. It is called the good news of Jesus Christ. It is a life changing message and there are countless people that can testify to its transformational impact upon their lives and their communities.
So, why are churches having difficulty getting this message out today? Let us go back to the early church for a moment. How did the early church go from 120 people in an upper room to more than 50% of the Roman Empire in about 250 years? Simple. They had a way of reproducing the life of Jesus in disciples (in real, flesh-and-blood people) who were able to do the things we read Jesus doing in the Gospels.
When I look around, there is certainly no shortage of churches that are busier than ever. Yet, in spite doing a lot of things, they seem to be having little effect. Unfortunately, the church’s busyness might just be the cause of the problem. Churches that are doing a lot of things are like people trying to drive a car without an engine. So, what isthe engine of the church? Discipleship. Without this “engine”, churches will always be living below their optimal vitality and health?
Here is the truth of the matter: If you take seriously our Lord’s mission to make disciples, you will always get a healthy church. But if you try to build the church by any other means, you will rarely get a healthy church, let alone any disciples.
Whatever you do, don’t think numbers in your church are an indicator of true health. A lot of hockey arenas are full of people, paying big money, to see someone beat around a little black disc. I wouldn’t say everyone in the stands is a great hockey player by virtue of being in the arena. The same can be said of all those that are in church on Sunday. They are not great disciples just because they showed up at church.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves. If the church is good at making disciples, you’ll get more leaders than you’ll know what to do with. If you make disciples like Jesus made them, you’ll see people come to faith who didn’t know Him. If you disciple people well, they will go the distance with Jesus–even to their own deaths in following him.
You can market your church in every social media context possible, get crowds to come and check you out, but if you are not bringing people into discipleship with Christ you are not growing a healthy church, you’re just filling an “arena”.
The truth about discipleship is that it’s never hip and it’s never in style. It’s counter–cultural. It’s a call to come and die. It’s a call to put ourselves last and not first. Making disciples is messy. A quick look at the life of Jesus as he interacted with his own disciples will remind us of this. It’s humbling. It requires a lot of forbearance and it’s something the church must see as its utmost priority and be committed to for the long haul.
If we take a serious look at the health of churches today, we would have to admit that in more situations than not, churches are failing in health. They are pretty bad at making disciples. If a church doesn’t have a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional attempts to reach our culture will be completely unsustainable.
If a church sends people out to do mission without seriously discipling them first, then they need to realize that they are sending them out into a spiritual war zone. Discipleship is not only the boot camp to train them for the front lines, but the hospital when they get wounded and the off-duty time they need to rest and recuperate. When we don’t disciple people the way Jesus and the New Testament talked about, we are sending them out without spiritual armor, weapons or training. This is mass spiritual carnage waiting to happen.
If your church is not yet competent at making disciples who can make disciples, please don’t send your members out on mission until you have a growing sense of confidence in your church’s ability to train, equip and disciple them.
A disciple is someone who, with increased intentionality and passing of time, has a life and ministry that looks more and more like the life and ministry of Jesus. They increasingly have his heart and character and are able to do the types of things we see Jesus doing.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve changed our criteria for producing disciples to match the kind of fruit our communities are now producing. Many are now fine with Christians who show up to our churches, are generally nice people, do some quiet times, tithe and volunteer. Maybe they even have a little missional bent to them. These are all good things, but I don’t think this is the kind of “fruit” Jesus was referring to when he talked about fruitfulness in John 15.
Dallas Willard says that every church should be able to answer two questions: First, what is our plan for making disciples? Second, does our plan work? I believe most churches dabble in discipleship and are haphazard in their approach. They may have a plan of some sort, but is that plan producing real fruit? If we are creating “disciples” who are far from the people we see in scripture as the rule and not the exception, we must ask ourselves why this is the case and how we can change that reality.
Undoubtedly, one of the important aspects of being a disciple is to produce fruit. That is why Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Apart from the active work of Jesus in our lives we cannot produce Kingdom fruit.
I have observed churches that have a discipling culture that focuses mainly on the transformation of the individual self and other churches with a missional culture that focuses on the transformation of the community around them. If churches have one emphasis without the other they will always be an unhealthy church. Discipleship is about beingand doing. If we do both of these well, we will have healthy disciples and churches.
If you are wondering about how your church is doing at discipleship, why not check out this link. https://tda.lifeway.com.