Discipleship Doesn’t Work

Discipleship is rightfully becoming a central concern for church leaders in North America. Collectively, we are waking up to the great omission (as Dallas Willard put it) in our vision for being on mission as Gospel witnesses. This is great news.

Yet, I wonder if we are jumping on the discipleship bandwagon too hastily, with eyes glazed over like a hoard of shoppers on Black Friday. We just might be running the risk of getting the “what” right but applying it in completely the wrong way.

One of the key places I see this happening is how “equipping organizations” are pitching and selling discipleship strategies. This is happening by peddling the notion that there exists some method that, if understood and implemented rightly, will finally relieve the anxiety church leaders regularly experience.

Where did we get the idea that discipleship works like this? I wonder if we're jumping on the discipleship bandwagon too hastily... Click To Tweet

Haven’t We Seen This Before?

In some ways, discipleship (and missional living) have begun to function like the church growth movement. A generation ago, conferences and publications were being churned out from the belly of evangelicalism in order to assuage the fears of church leaders worried about declining attendance. The product that was packaged and sold was a way to appeal to those seeking a church experience that was more relevant than the stuffy spirituality of their parent’s generation.

Although the “discipleship package” is a bit different, the levers are much the same, and so is the underlying corporate anxiety: “Are you dissatisfied with how things are going in your community or congregation? Do you lack confidence in your leadership skills or ministry strategy? Do you worry that your ministry efforts are a waste of time or that you’re going nowhere? Well, you may have a discipleship problem, and we have a solution – a way to increase your discipleship effectiveness.”

We desperately need to get this right.

Into this desperation, a bit of indirect guilt is sprinkled too: How could you have missed the Great Commission? Jesus calls us to make disciples, so what the heck are you doing in your church? This strategy bears resemblance to confrontational evangelism. The goal is to tap into people’s fears, apply a little Law (have you broken any of the 10 Commandments?), and then offer ladder to climb out of the hole we (arguably) just dug.

Not only are the levers similar, the solutions are too, though the content of the solution has shifted from growth to discipleship and mission. Most of these solutions are pre-fabricated rather than context-specific: “Five tips every leader needs to know about making disciples and living missionally.” And they usually come with a guarantee about how dependable they are when applied (“All you have to do is … and you will have…”) or how proven and tested the strategy is.

Amid these levers and fix-it solutions, I am learning to lean into the good news that discipleship doesn’t work. Discipleship (and missional living) have begun to function like the church growth movement. Click To Tweet

Discipleship Doesn’t Work

I’m leaning into the reality that leading in the way of Jesus so that others can experience the life of Jesus will most certainly involve ruining the life/career/ministry I always wanted. Most likely, this process will not lead where I initially wanted it to lead. In fact, discipleship might be the most ineffective journey on which I/we could ever embark. Discipleship might be the most ineffective journey on which I/we could ever embark. Click To Tweet

As I cultivate discipleship and seek to live missionally, I will fail; tools and techniques will let me down. I will be misdirected at times, even while heeding the best advice from the wisest counselors.

I’m learning to expect that this discipleship stuff is quite difficult to control. It’s hard to make guarantees about the shape or speed of a process that is both self-emptying and Spirit sourced.

Transformation almost never looks like I imagined it would. This reality requires a radical resetting of my expectations. It also means I have to deal with the fear of what might happen if I can’t produce well-defined outcomes.

True, I could tinker with the definition of “work” and “effective” – nuance it to mean something a bit softer (e.g. effective = fruit bearing). Even still, the way those words are used to pull levers of anxiety and fear to sell a strategy that promises to make leaders do better or feel better, belies more nuanced definitions.

It’s also true that what counts as “work” or “effective” depends, of course, on what I want. And that’s gets to the heart of the issue. Peddling effective discipleship methods leaves no space for exploring why I am so anxious about the perceived failure to make disciples and live missionally or why I so desperately need to get this church stuff right.

Hands Off the EJECT Button

Coming out and admitting that discipleship doesn’t work might be the healthy dose of overstatement we need to face the reality that many of us fear. The vocation of ministry in the way of the crucified and risen messiah trades with a different currency than the commodity-drunk world we inhabit.

And that means leading in the church might not give us what we had hoped it would give, or look how we hoped it would look. Owning that reality can open space to deal with all of the anxiety lurking beneath the surface – the insecurity about having what it takes, the desire to make a name for ourselves, and the need to be validated and seen.

When we offer strategies as solutions that will (finally!) fix discipleship deficiencies, we bypass the space for reckoning with the deeply buried and often unexamined assumptions that lead us back to effective strategies over and over again.

If we are joining the ministry of the crucified and risen messiah, then the space that opens when we forsake effective discipleship strategies and instead lean into our insecurity and fear becomes a place where God’s light breaks through desperation.

The good news hidden (in plain sight) is that the assumptions beneath the surface (scary as they may be) are actually doorways of hope and peace. In Christ, God is already declaring blessedness over our fear and insecurity. Surrendering to the present reality of God’s kingdom of love rightly begins here, through the doorway of those assumptions.

Generic fixes and panaceas temporarily relieve the tension – get us over the hump, until next time. At times, we all want to push the EJECT button and get relief from the angst we feel about doing a better job.

But in the ministry of the crucified and risen messiah, we no longer need to fear what might happen if we fail to produce certain outcomes – we no longer need to get it right. When desperation sets in, we can simply face reality, trusting that God’s love has already been poured out, and therein lies a hope that does not disappoint. In Christ, God is already declaring blessedness over our fear and insecurity. Click To Tweet

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