The State of Discipleship in the 21st Century Church

Recently I was involved in a delightful Facebook discussion with some serious followers of Jesus. The initial question posed in that forum was this: “How do we solve the discipleship crisis that is crippling the Church? What does the Church of the future look like? How do we re-engage the Church with mission? Our 22-year old kids who are disciples of Christ are asking these questions. Can you relate to them, or is this a mystery to you?”

As discipleship is a great interest of mine, I decided to join the conversation. What follows is an edited and expanded version of my comments – I trust it will provoke some healthy thought and dialogue. Here are 10 thoughts on the exaltation of the concept of discipleship in the church today (my primary experience is with the American church though I have visited many other places and observed discipleship or its lack in other cultures) combined with the simultaneous struggle of the church to actually “make disciples.”


Bob (pseudonym), your question about the absence of discipleship is one I have been thinking about. I believe the actual problem may be multi-pronged, so it may be difficult to nail down THE reason. Here are some possibilities:

(1) Painting with a broad brush, I would say that discipleship has not been taught in the past in Bible college and seminary. Thus, church leaders have little foundation for it in practicality.

(2) Profs in Bible college and seminary have tended to lecture about key issues (like discipleship) while often having little training in those topics and/or perhaps little practice in the disciplines themselves.

(3) Discipleship requires flexibility, availability, a knack for relational interaction, humility, good listening skills, and adeptness with handling Scripture. Instead of focusing on cultivating these abilities, pastors are all too often pressured by other demands (e.g., church growth as a goal rather than discipleship as a process). The push for a managerial approach to pastoring also adds pressure to pastors lives.

(4) Pastors often hire staff to do certain things, and discipleship can be one of those things. Thus, it can easily happen that the lead pastor (unintentionally) distances himself from discipleship by assigning the responsibility for a crucial priority to someone else while he goes about the work of leading the church.

(5) When discipleship is a task assigned to church staff, it is easy for the pastor to not model it since he has a staff member who is responsible for it. Further, it now is easier for members to view discipleship as “one of the things that the church does” (maybe the church has a missions pastor, a youth pastor, a worship pastor, etc. Adding a pastor of discipleship to the menu, then, may render it just one of many cafeteria options).

(6) There is often a confusion between “discipleship” and “building relationships” (friendship). While friendship is important, having a relationship with a person is just one dimension of discipleship. Having a cup of coffee may be relational and a good thing, but discipleship cannot be reduced to drinking an occasional cup of joe with a friend.

(7) The fact that the verb “make a disciple” only occurs four times in the New Testament (Mt. 13:52; 27:57; 28:19; Acts 14:21) and in varied contexts renders it difficult to work out a thoroughly biblical sense of the term “discipleship” (though we have Jesus’ example of how to do it). This is where Coleman’s “The Master Plan of Evangelism” is invaluable as a starting place in formulating a biblical discipleship worldview.

(8) Which leads me to suggest that perhaps we may be using the same term (“discipleship”) to refer to different things. We evangelicals have a penchant for using “feel good” Christian words (e.g., love, blessing, glory, redemption, propitiation, salvation, heaven, hell, etc.) with little to no serious thought as to the meaning of the words we bandy about. Further, if pressed to explain biblically what any of these terms mean, we might lapse into drooling down the fronts of our shirts while stammering senselessly. How do we end up talking like this? Is it because we like the sound of those particular words, assume everyone knows what we’re talking about, and are not serious enough about the topic to read, study, and think broadly about it.

(9) Our failure to think wholistically (integrating the whole of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments) about biblical concepts has rendered us stunted in our comprehension of discipleship in Mt. 28:19-20. After all, “The Great Commission” is an echo of Gen. 12:1-3 and reminds us that God’s heart throughout the entirety of the Bible is on his followers penetrating the nations with the Good News. It matters not whether we call it “blessing all the families of the earth” or “making disciples of all nations.” The functions are nuanced differently but the processes are similar and the intended results are identical. Perhaps we will view discipleship differently when we accept the premise that the Living God of the entire Bible is a Missionary God who has (from Genesis 12 on) called his followers to disciple the nations.

(10) Finally, it is often assumed that small groups in the church will be the context for discipleship to occur. In my experience, I find that this rarely happens. The same problem can surface in small groups that occurs in churches. Just as pastors may not do discipleship because they are not trained for it and/or are busy with many other responsibilities, so it is unfair to assume that small group leaders who are untrained and are busy with many things will do what the pastor is not really doing.

Dave Shive

One Reply to “The State of Discipleship in the 21st Century Church”

  1. I think the question runs deeper than whether discipleship is happening or why not. If it happens, or is attempted, what is it that happens? For example, If am discipled by someone for whom the faith is very intellectual, I will probably become like them; my time and energy will be consumed with acquisition of knowledge rather than becoming more missional. Frankly, if someone needs to be told that they should be discipling others, I’m not sure I want to be discipled by them — or have them disciple other people, especially a new believer! The disappointing results of discipleship is a reflection of the shallowness of the American church. It’s been said “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one”; there are far too few lives that bear watching.

    So, what’s the solution? Let’s start with hitting the sidewalks. Less talk and more going. In the typical evangelical church, there are very few ministries that have any contact with unbelievers (think about it!) – that needs to change. More training needs to be ‘on the job’, or ‘on the street’. When Christians start going, engaging with unbelievers, they will begin asking the hard questions of scripture, and our Bible studies will come to life – “demand driven”, rather than “supply driven” discipleship.

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