The Discipleship Challenge




The Discipleship Challenge 

By: Winfield Bevins

Jul 18, 2008

Series: Gospel

There is a lack of biblical discipleship in the North American church.  Dallas Willard calls, “Nondiscipleship the elephant of the church.”1   The problem is many churches focus on evangelism at the expense of discipleship by seeking to win converts and not making disciples.  This is despite the fact that the Great Commission in Matthew chapter 28 is to make disciples not win converts.  When Jesus said, “make disciples” the disciples understood it to mean more than simply getting someone to believe in Jesus and they interpreted it to mean that they should make out of other what Jesus made out of them.2   The answer is that we need to focus on keeping people as much as we do reaching people by creating an organic discipleship process that leads people from conversion to becoming fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.  
With the rise of the modern evangelical movement in North America in the 20th century, came an over emphasis on evangelism at the expense of discipleship.  Bill Hull addresses this issue by saying, “The church has tried to get world evangelization without disciple making.”3   The church must once again make discipleship a priority for a new generation of believers.  The consequences are evident.  Statistics show that the average church in North America losses 74% of people between the ages 18-24.4   According to one of the most recent statistical surveys of the top 25, many of the denominations in North America are in decline rather than growing.5   Not only are churches not growing through evangelism, they are not keeping believers through discipleship.  Lack of discipleship and not just evangelism, is one of the growing contributing factors for church decline in North America.
Not only are churches in North America not growing through evangelism, they are not keeping believers through discipleship.  One example is The Southern Baptist Convention.  They reported more than sixteen million members.  Only 6,024,289 or 37 percent of their membership are present for the average Sunday morning worship service.6   Where are the other ten million people?  Lack of discipleship and not just evangelism is one of the growing contributing factors for church decline in North America.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to discipleship is that churches have become complicated and over programmed.  If we are not careful, the multitude of distractions and programs will keep the church from fulfilling the call to make disciples.  The reality is that 70 to 80 percent of churches in North America are stagnant or in decline.7   Thom Reiner & Eric Geiger demonstrate in Simple Church that one of the major factors for church decline is that many churches lack a simple, straightforward, and strategic discipleship process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.  Simple Church offers a basic model for discipleship in the local church.8   When churches need to simplify their discipleship programs in order to effectively make disciples.
There is a clear difference between being a convert to Christianity and a disciple of Jesus Christ.  A convert is someone who changes from one faith to another.9   Simply changing one’s religion to Christianity does not mean that someone has become a fully devoted disciple of Jesus Christ.  A convert is someone who has changed his or her faith but not his or her heart.  The result is a cheap grace that cost us nothing.  Dietrich Bonheoffer first defined cheap grace in his most famous work is The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1939.  This book is a rigorous exposition and interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew 9:35-10:42.  He described cheap grace as, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”10
In contrast, the word disciple comes from the Greek word Mathetes, which is found 269 times in the New Testament and means an apprentice, learner, or a pupil.  In the ancient times of the Bible, a disciple was a person who left everything that they had to follow the teachings of a master.  The word ‘disciple’ implies much more than a learner or a pupil, it is someone who has totally committed his or her life to the training and teaching of a master or a school of thought.  According to the New Testament, a disciple is a born again believer who is obedient, bears fruit, glorifies God, has joy, loves others, denies themselves, and  is committed to fulfilling the Great Commission (John 15:7-17; Luke 9:23-25; Matthew 28:19).  In Growing True Disciples, researcher George Barna reports that the church in America is comprised of “many converts, but shockingly few disciples.”11   Another survey concludes that only 25% of Evangelicals meet the biblical standard for a disciple.12

Discipleship should be the goal of every Christian and every church in North America.  Discipleship is simply the process of assisting others in the Christian faith to become and to continue to be “disciples” of Jesus Christ.13   We should spend as much of our time, resources, and energy focusing on discipleship as much as we do on evangelism.  Christians need to revaluate the New Testament model of discipleship for 21st century ministry.  Likewise, individual churches should seek to develop organic discipleship models that are biblically faithful and culturally relevant to their particular context of ministry.
Discipleship is essential for the health and survival of a new church.  Statistics show that 80% of church plants fail within their first year.  Even though discipleship is essential, it is also a challenge for a new church in several ways.  First, church growth experts agree that a church planting is one of the best ways to reach unchurched people.14   Therefore, many of the people who come to a new church will reach have not yet been discipled.  Discipling new believers requires countless hours of counseling, time, and energy.  Second, a new church lacks that mature systems and structures that are needed for effective discipleship to take place.  It takes several years to develop mature church systems, which can result in loosing new believers.  Third, as a new church grows it will inevitably outgrow its old systems and structures in order to continue to grow.  Lastly, many of the books on the subject of church planting do not address the subject of discipleship in a new church.  Many of the books written on church planting do not discuss the issue of discipleship after the launch phase.
The conclusion is simple, church planters need to think critically about creating a discipleship process that leads people from conversion to becoming fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.  This process should seek to connect new believers to the church and grow them into disciples who will reproduce themselves by making future disciples.  If you do not start your church doing the hard work of creating disciples, it will destroy your church in the end.  Let us answer the call of Jesus Christ to, “Go and make disciples.”  


  1Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy.

  2Bill Hull, The Disciple Making Pastor. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 58.

  3Bill Hull, The Disciple Making Pastor. 23.

  4Rainer, Class notes.

  5National Council of Churches’ 2008 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

  6John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2005. 109.

  7Ed Stetzer, Comeback Churches.

  8Eric Geiger & Thom Rainer, Simple Church. Nashville, TN: B& H Publishing Group, 2006. p. 68.

  9Donald McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1996. 62.

  10Dietrich Bonheoffer, The Cost of Discipleship. trans. R.H. Fuller, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 30.

 11 This conclusion is based upon two years of research Barna conducted regarding the current state of discipleship, and how churches might enhance the effectiveness of their discipleship ministries. George Barna, Growing True Disciples.

  12Bill Hull, Disciple Making Pastor. ,55.

  13 Donald McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1996. 78.

  14See C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990. 11.

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