Can We Become Better Discipling Churches?

By Derek Duncan

One of the challenges of living the corporate Christian life is discovering how to connect individual principles with organizational behavior. How do we make disciples outside the realm of interpersonal relationships? Or should we?

What kinds of programs help in the conversion, training, and equipping of people to become reproducing disciples? How do we use the current church model to make as many disciples as we can? Can we be more effective in helping people become like Jesus Christ, transform their own hearts and their neighbors with the love of Christ, and courageously proclaim the hope of Christ to the rest of the world?

In other words, how can we become the best discipling churches possible?

The Issue

There is a cultural problem that celebrates quick, drive-in style, low-accountability relationships. Rather than teaching people they need to consistently be in life-transforming relationships, churches often create programming that runs counter to the goal.

Go to a movie, be entertained for a while, feel good about life, and never pursue a deeper sense of relational engagement. Go to a church service and receive everything you need to be a growing disciple in one, simple, hour-long package.

This certainly is not our intention! Churches have worked very hard to create adult and children’s programming that is excellent in many ways. We don’t say, “Here, take this pill called ‘discipleship’ and we hope you make it!”

However, by not developing clear relational pathways for growth, we often infer that the weekend service is not only the most important aspect of ministry, but the only program necessary for growth. Couple this with the fact that people are reading less, are becoming more isolated by technology and living arrangements, are less committed to an absolute truth, and believe personal growth isn’t a responsibility, but rather should be spoon-fed. All these factors together lead to a drift into a potentially drastic, confusing, and unproductive situation.

We have a mentality in our churches, I believe, of coming and receiving the gospel rather than going and telling. Attracting people to the church building seems to be the main strategy. Some people grow up with the idea that church attendance, preaching, singing, and going to Sunday school would change the world.

It’s true that God has blessed and advanced his kingdom through many of these approaches. This model of church should not be abandoned, but adjusted to make it more effective in disciple making. People should leave the weekend church setting inspired, feeling ready to engage others and to take personal responsibility to grow and fulfill the Great Commission.

Conveyor Belt to Discipleship?

What is the best way to make the weekend service the best conveyor belt for leading people to relational discipleship? Churches hope that people move through big events to small relational environments. But it is easier to believe in an idea than to execute it.

The issue is compounded because usually there are not enough mature disciples willing and able to initiate relationships with new people. Likewise, when a relationship is established, it often struggles because people don’t live near one another. A neighborhood framework could be used to foster and organize people into relationships.

Worship services are defined mainly as an event, rather than a lifestyle. Church service on the weekend should not be an end in itself, but a driving impetus to serve out in the community. Pragmatically, people will always spend the majority of their time at work and at home. Why not craft a strategy that says lifestyle service is at least as important as a weekend worship event?

Evangelism has the same problem. We ask people to come to church to see Jesus, rather than equipping them to take personal responsibility to reach and grow others where they live. Maybe it would help if we started thinking of ourselves as RV Christians rather than single-home believers. Everywhere we go, wherever we “park” our lives, for whatever amount of time, we have an opportunity to be in relationships with others.

Some Ideas for Change

If the primary concern of the church is to make disciples, through both converts and growing believers, we must develop, change, and create ministry efforts to make this happen. We must radically shift our emphasis to a leadership development culture that will produce self-feeding, multiplying disciples.

Are we willing to pay the price? Can we measure our success based on how many leaders are equipped, how many community environments are changed, how many people receive Christ and follow him in baptism, and how many people get engaged in Christ’s mission to the world? Can we create a staff structure that serves our lay leaders in the area of their giftedness, rather than doing the work of the ministry for them? Can we develop and hire staff members who primarily shepherd and develop leaders to do the same with others? Can we align resources to make this ministry lifestyle a reality?

I can’t answer these questions for you, but God is faithful and wants to help us make disciples. Let’s walk in faith and courage, trusting that the Holy Spirit will show us how to answer these questions in our own local contexts. Even though I don’t have all the answers, I still believe Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.

Derek L. Duncan serves as senior pastor with East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.

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