Addressing the Elephant in the Church: Seven Necessary Components of Integrated Discipleship

With the shifting we all feel under our feet in the church in North America, we need to pursue honest self-reflection and candid communication. We have nothing to gain by tightly closing our eyes, plugging our ears, and pretending that Western culture isn’t changing or that everything is okay with the church. In the enduring words of Bob Dylan, let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.

More than 20 years ago, Dallas Willard wrote in his landmark work The Divine Conspiracy:

Nondiscipleship is the elephant in the church. It is not the much-discussed moral failures, financial abuses, or the amazing general similarity between Christians and non-Christians. These are only effects of the underlying problem. – Dallas Willard

Moral failures haven’t gone away. Financial mismanagement continues. Pastors regularly lament the reality that large numbers of our church members aren’t “getting it.” Secularism continues to sandblast the distinctiveness from the lives of Jesus-followers. Non-discipleship is still standing in the middle of our sanctuaries, and it’s time to talk about this elephant in the church.

An Integrated Discipleship

I wrote By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus to keep this conversation going and provide a resource for churches to make disciples of the Jesus way. I’m not the first to answer Willard’s call to address the lack of disciple-making in our churches. I’ve benefited from the countless discipleship books and strategies that have been developed to help make disciples.

However, from my experience, what has been missing, and what I humbly offer in By the Way, is an integrated form of discipleship. Some discipleship initiatives are more educational, focused on the mind, or more formational, focused on the heart. Some are rooted more in individual practices, while others are grounded in communal practices. In light of all of these complementary polarities within the Christian life, I’m offering a balanced approach, featuring seven integrations:

  • Salvation and discipleship
  • The reception of the gospel and living in the gospel
  • Cross and resurrection
  • Theology and practice
  • Critical thinking and spiritual formation
  • Corporate worship and personal disciplines
  • Inward community and outward justice

Here is a closer look at each of these:

1. Salvation and Discipleship

“Billy Graham”-style evangelism has conditioned us to view salvation as somehow different than discipleship. We first “get people saved,” and then we follow up and try to convince the “saved” to buy in to some form of discipleship. But Jesus didn’t tell us to go into all the world and “get people saved.” Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations.

Disciples are those who are following Jesus, learning from Jesus, and experiencing life with Jesus. In this way, we don’t invite people to ask Jesus into their hearts, but to follow Jesus with their lives. In their active pursuit of Jesus, they experience salvation and a complete renovation of their heart and life. We don't invite people to ask Jesus into their hearts, but to follow Jesus with their lives. Click To Tweet

2. The reception of the gospel and living in the gospel

The gospel is the big news that the God of Israel has become King in Jesus Christ. We read the gospel story as the climax of the big story the Bible is telling. We experience the power of the gospel when our story intersects with the gospel story. When we receive the good news, we repent, rethink, and begin to realign our hearts to the truth of gospel.

Kingdom language connects the reception of the gospel with how we live in the world the gospel is creating. The gospel announces King Jesus is Lord. Living in the gospel is shaped by how we live as kingdom citizens. As I write in By the Way, “Going to the cross is how Jesus became King. Taking up the cross is how we live in that kingdom.” [2] Going to the cross is how Jesus became King. Taking up the cross is how we live in that kingdom. Click To Tweet

3. Cross and resurrection

Christian spirituality has historically fluctuated its focus from the cross to the empty tomb, from the death of Jesus to the resurrection. On one hand, Roman Catholic crucifixes remain a fixed piece within their sanctuaries. On the other hand, Southern Baptists affix an “empty cross” in their places of worship because, as they say in critique of Catholic worship, “Jesus isn’t up there anymore.”

As we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we need both the cross and the resurrection. We reenact this integration through the sacred act of baptism. As we are lowered into the water, or as water is poured on our heads, we identify with Jesus in his death. As we rise from the water of baptism we identify with the resurrection of Jesus. We need both the dying to self of crucifixion and the vibrant life of resurrection as we follow Jesus.

4. Theology and practice

The division between what we think about God (theology) and how we live (practice) is itself a bit of a false dichotomy. As Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun argue in their recent book For the Life of the World, “Flourishing life should be the encompassing purpose that all theologians endeavor to serve.” [3] Theology at all levels ought to be articulating a vision of the good life shaped by the person and work of Jesus, but too often theology remains only a mental exercise.

The intellectual effort given to the work of theology is important, but it must also affect how we live. Christian theology is the foundation for our discipleship. It gives form and shape to the kind of lives we aspire to live as followers of Jesus. Without a Jesus-centered theology, our walk in this world meanders off course.

5. Critical thinking and spiritual formation

Perhaps the most pronounced division in discipleship methodologies is between those that lean towards the renewal of the mind and those that lean towards the renewal of the heart. We need both. Jesus told us in the words of the Hebrew shema that the greatest commandment was to love God with all of our hearts and all our minds.

We cannot faithfully follow Jesus if we do not both think clearly in Christ and experience hearts shaped by the Spirit into the image of Jesus for the joy of God the Father. In fact, thinking in Christ is the catalyst for spiritual formation into the image of Christ. As N.T. Wright notes, “Thinking clearly and Christianly…is a vital part of the motor which drives the rest of the process.” [4] Serious followers of Jesus need minds alert and hearts ablaze. Serious followers of Jesus need minds alert and hearts ablaze. Click To Tweet

6. Corporate worship and personal disciplines

As much as Dallas Willard has helped to draw attention to the elephant in the church, he emphasized the practice of personal spiritual disciples over the role of the local church in shaping us and empowering us to walk in the ways of Jesus. Willard’s massively important Renovation of the Heart offers a compelling vision of spiritual formation, but sadly it’s one that makes participation in the local church tangential.

An integrated discipleship includes both corporate worship in a physical, local church and personal spiritual disciplines. We cannot become mature followers of Jesus if we don’t regularly gather with the saints for prayer, scripture, fellowship, and most importantly the celebration of communion. These public practices combined with our own personal practices work together to form a holy habitus, an inward disposition, within us.

7. Inward community and outward justice

Our participation in a local church gives us the opportunity not only to gather with friends, but also to gather with people with whom we would never associate if not for the work of Jesus in the church. In Christian community we are able to serve one another and encourage one another as well as learn how to bear with one another.

If all we do is look inward towards our local gatherings of Jesus-followers, we miss the very mission of God for the church. Jesus prayed that we would be one as followers of Jesus, not for our sake, but for the sake of the world:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21, NRSV)

As I have written elsewhere, the biblical word for God’s mission in the world is justice. [5] Justice is the mission of God. It’s the task of the church to make disciples fit for this mission. Justice is the mission of God. It’s the task of the church to make disciples fit for this mission. Click To Tweet

All seven of these necessary pairs find their full integration in love. God is love. Jesus comes as an embodiment of God’s love. The Spirit is the essence of that love. While other components of discipleship have a matching pair, love stands alone because God is love plus nothing. The character of an integrated discipleship is likewise experienced by love plus nothing.

Check out Derek’s new book, By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus, available now from Herald Press.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), 301.

[2] Derek Vreeland, By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2019), 70.

[3] Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019), 61.

[4] N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: Harper-Collins, 2010), 158.


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