I am a big Dallas Willard fan, HUGE fan.  He is on my list of the top five people, still alive, who have shaped the way I think about ministry. (Yes, I do have separate lists of living and dead people.  Maybe I will share them in a post some day.)  But I have read in his writings, on more than one occasion, that he is unaware of any church in the Western world that is actually fulfilling the final mandate of Jesus to go and make disciples.  If you were to boil down all of Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching into just a few statements I think it would be 1) Love God.  2) Love People.  3) Go make disciples.

Now, I am not sure if Dallas Willard is using hyperbole to make a point, or if he really is unaware of any church with a solid discipleship strategy.  But, I do think that he has a point.  I think that many churches have lost sight of this call to make disciples.  We are pretty good at “doing church,” but I am not sure we are incredibly effective when it comes to making disciples.  Kind of ironic since this is the thing Jesus tells us to do, huh?

I do think there is a lot of merit to the point Willard is making, however, over the last part of 2011 I came across a group of people who, I believe, are hitting the ball out of the park when it comes to making disciples.  And after encountering this group of people it has actually caused me to push back (with great respect and humility) on Willard’s assessment of the church in the West.  If you read this blog with any sort of frequency you have probably heard me mention this group (3DM), but if not, you can find out more about them here, here or here.  And as our church has been working with this organization it has caused me to ask the question, “Why aren’t more churches taking the call to make disciples seriously?”

Over the next few posts I would like to offer a few reasons why I think this is the case.  As we get going, I would like to suggest that one of the main reasons churches don’t make disciples is because we have lost the biblical concept of what a disciple is.

The Greek word in scripture for ‘disciple’ is mathetes, which means learner, pupil, or the word I think best captures the idea of discipleship, apprentice.  In an interview with Leadership Journal Willard said, “I like the word apprentice because it means I’m with Jesus learning to do what he did. When you look at the first disciples, that’s what they were doing. They watched Jesus and listened to him, and then he said, ‘Now you do it.'”

My brother is an electrician.  He has been an electrician for about ten years.  However, the first four years of his job he was an “electrician’s apprentice.”  That was his title.  His job at that time consisted of shadowing a licensed electrician every day, looking over his shoulder while he worked, trying to do what he saw the electrician doing.  Sometimes my brother got it right, other times he got it wrong.  And it was only after four years of apprenticing that my brother could go off on his own and work independently.

Like Willard said, when reading the gospels we find Jesus doing the same thing with the disciples.  They shadowed him, looked over his shoulder while he worked and then tried to do what Jesus did.  Sometimes they got it right other times they got it wrong.  And when they got it wrong, Jesus used those moments as teachable moments to further their training (the second half of Mark 9 comes to mind).  And it was only after doing this for three years that the disciples were able to go off on their own and continue the work of Jesus without him physically present.

I think this picture of apprenticeship has been completely lost in our understanding of following Jesus.  Instead, we have replaced apprenticeship of Jesus with church consumption.

One of the biggest critiques of the more recent history of the Western church is that it has adopted a consumeristic mindset that runs parallel to our culture.  This means that the church has turned into an experience we consume.  And just like we consume a theater, restaurant or coffee shop experience, along with consumption comes critique.

“It was good, but I didn’t think the seats were all that comfortable.  And the guy who did the opening should have been more funny.  And there should have been at least one more upbeat song, etc…”

What ultimately ends up happening is that those in attendance begin to look to the pastor and his staff as dispensers of religious “goods and services.”  And if the clientele isn’t satisfied with their experience, they go else where.

The tragedy in all of this is one of two things.  Either, the notion of discipleship (apprenticeship) isn’t even on people’s radar screen, or if it is, they equate discipleship with church attendance.

And maybe we’re happy with this?  Maybe ignorance is bliss?  But the result in all of this is that church attendance and engagement is in massive decline and no amount of hype, attraction or innovation is going to bring people back through the doors of church.  However, what I think will re-engage people is the power of the Spirit and the breaking in of God’s kingdom in their lives while learning to live in the way of Jesus for the mission of Jesus.

Are you making disciples?
Would you consider yourself an apprentice of Jesus?
Or are you satisfied with church attendance?


4 Responses to “Why We Don’t Make Disciples”

  1. kj

    You should really check out the C.S. Lewis Institute; their “slogan” is discipleship of the heart and mind, and they see a “Decade of Discipleship” on the horizon. Read about this grand vision in which they’ve partnered with Ravi Zacharias and Alpha USA here: http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/blog/2011/12/encouraging-news-about-discipleship-movement/

    But more than that, they provide tremendous resources and have been making disciples for quite some time and have really helped a lot of people see exactly what you’re saying (myself included). In fact, Michael Ramsden, the European Director of RZIM, speaks strongly for them here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwUr7TYXTkI

    Now, I don’t bring this up to necessarily promote CSLI…that’s not the point. I bring this up because they are a group of people who have spent the better part of the past 15 years attacking this problem head on and there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. We can all learn from one another and build on each others’ work. We’re a body, right?

    I appreciated your post greatly. Please continue to “pound away” at this message because I believe that the Church is missing this vision that you have articulated so well. Thanks!

    • bryanmarvel

      KJ – I have heard of the CSLI and I have heard good things about them. It is great to hear about organizations like the CSLI taking discipleship seriously. And I think that the church has a lot to learn from different organizations like CSLI on how to implement a discipleship strategy and culture with different local churches.

      I also think that in the future we are going to see a resurgence of people and churches who are burnt out on the consumer driven mindset of church and will desire to make disciples in the way of Jesus for the mission of Jesus.

      Grace and Peace to you. Thanks for reading and responding.

  2. Melissa Martin

    “One of the biggest critiques of the more recent history of the Western church is that it has adopted a consumeristic mindset that runs parallel to our culture. This means that the church has turned into an experience we consume.” Agreed.

    I think that we have largely become a people who ask “what can the church offer me?” “what do I think the church’s responsibility is to me?” and rarely ask “what can I offer the church” or “what is my responsibility as a believer in church/worship/etc.?” I am eager to see this change on a grand scale, and I think you are right on target re: discipleship. I don’t really have the time to develop my thoughts futher in this response, but I’m hoping (and pretty sure) that you catch my drift.


  3. PaulDz

    Ok, just reading your discipleship series now. Have to admit that I read, “The Greek word in scripture for ‘disciple’ is mathetes” and thought, is he really going to talk about Mathletic Competitions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathlete) but happily you did not. I would never have been considered for the team, not even as an apprentice.

    I do like the idea of apprenticeship. A number of denominations do this kind of thing with the folks they will eventually ordain, but it is not something that churches do officially with members. The drawback is, of course, that you never stop being an apprentice of Jesus. You cannot ‘graduate’ and become a Master since that has all kinds of theological problems :-).

    As a result I have always wanted some other term or concept. But I am ok with being a perpetual apprentice or disciple of Jesus.


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