A New Paradigm For Discipleship In The Church

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” ~ Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)

Compared to some of you out there I have not been in ministry a long time. I began participating in church leadership teams from grade 8 onward and progressed to full time ministry in 1996. From there I have been in various stages of pastoral ministry and schooling. Throughout all that time one constant remained: we are called to make disciples for Jesus. But what does that mean? How does one do that? I can say I never felt like I was purposefully discipled as I grew up in the church. Nor was I purposefully discipled as a pastor in training or throughout my schooling. Now, I find myself as a lead pastor staring at the Great Commission and wondering what it should look like.

Books, articles, blogs, conferences, and special leadership study teams have all come my way and I really haven’t left any of them feeling content. Greg Ogden’s material has been the closest I have seen to something that points to what discipling looks like. Some have said that the “go” in the Great Commission means we always need to be outward focused and “find the lost sheep.”  In finding them your church will grow numerically.  I have heard many leaders discuss “conversion growth” vs “transfer growth” in churches. This means your church grows by people OUTSIDE the church coming to faith and then coming INSIDE the church versus people outside YOUR church leaving THEIR church and then coming to yours. When we take this and look at the Great Commission one might begin to believe that in order for any church to make disciples they need pure conversion growth (as previously defined) otherwise they really aren’t “going and making” disciples. This ends up with leadership scratching their heads regarding what they are to do with those already in their church. Transfer growth often has a negative connotation to it and if leaders concentrate on helping develop those inside the church they feel accused of being “inward focused” instead of “outward focused.” Perhaps we need to create a new paradigm for understanding discipleship in the church with new measurements? What if discipleship is in fact both an inward and outward focus?

Here is what I have been pondering. Our church has gone through a Church Health Assessment process and we are beginning to take the information now and review it. The questionnaire our people filled out covered some good areas to measure church health (preaching/teaching, leadership communication, vision and direction, etc.) but seemed skewed towards churches that have programs for everything. If you have a program for adult ministry people would score the church high because we “have that covered.” In our church we have tried to be less about programs and more about developing people as disciples who would listen to the voice of God, pray about what they should do, and then act in obedience. We have focused on individual relationships in the church, leadership development, people empowerment, preaching and communication. This translated into low scores in the some of the areas that would have been covered by programs. No, we do not have specific evangelism programs. No, we do not have an adult program, etc. The big question we asked ourselves as leaders was, “But have we seen discipleship growth?” We all agreed we had indeed and as we reviewed our church family we discovered some had been in the church for years and were now branching out into other areas of ministry. There was mentoring happening. Some of our young men committed themselves to full time ministry. Other people were pursuing full time mission work. Some became baptized. Some committed to go on short term mission trips organized by our church and all the extra training involved. New young leaders were coming onto the Board. People were going out from our congregation to other places to pursue eduction or engage in different ministries. And, we found many of our people participated in community events and other ways to care for people that could never be tracked by a survey.  Is that NOT growth in discipleship?!

We were so encouraged! For me the paradigm has shifted. People inside AND outside the church need to become disciples. People transferring to your congregation have been sent there by God and they too need to be discipled.  In the Great Commission it says we are to teach people to obey the teachings of Christ and that is what it means to make disciples.  So we are to teach everyone who enters into our atmosphere of influence as a church family. Here is what I propose the new discipleship paradigm should look like: A church knows it is making disciples when it sees movement in lives (in particular those who are attending): it sees an increase in the prayer life both corporately and individually, missional hearts reaching out to others beyond the group, open hearts receiving those who come into the group, missional action moving forward in obedience, an increase in thirst for the Bible, new people coming to faith through the various vines of contact and ministry of the church family, and decisions for the future based on Kingdom call instead of personal comfort. Some seeds may lay dormant in the heart for a long time but then the light of the Gospel shines on them, springs of living water flow over the seed, and the Spirit breathes new life. It doesn’t matter how small or large your church family is. What matters is faithfulness to the Great Commission and helping those closest to you grow as disciples in their love for God and their neighbor and beyond. May God bless us with conversions both of those who are currently “outside” and those who are “inside” and may the fruit of the Harvest abound!

It’s all about Jesus, it’s only about Jesus, it’s always about Jesus.