This essay is a personal one. It is my effort to cultivate and strengthen my own sense of calling. My goal is to be reminded of why I do what I do; why have I focused my pastoral life on leading a church to a singular focus: to become like Jesus. As the essay will show, most churches give lip service to such a goal, but research shows there are hardly any churches actually doing it intentionally in the United States.
My need to be reminded is because these questions are before me: is the cost worth it personally and corporately to become a disciple-making church? Am I willing to not compromise on what must stay central even at the expense of ‘upsetting the apple cart’? In the church-world of expectations, what should be my focus pastorally? Can I keep my joy?
I need answers to these questions so that I am fueled by expectant faith, and not bitterness. I need answers so that I have them to give. I need answers to be faithful to Jesus with the gifts he has given me. I share this with you so that you can see how calling in my life is cultivated and so you can see what it means that I am (your) a pastor. So this is the framework of the essay:
- I want to give a working definition of discipleship.
- Survey recent research on the state of the church.
- Share Dallas Willard’s reason for this chasm between the purpose of the church and what we produce.
- Hopefully, a renewed sense of calling, focus and purpose will emerge.
What is discipleship?
The goal of the local church is to make disciples. A disciple is a person who professes Jesus as Lord. He sees in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection both the means of redemption and a call to pick up his own cross and follow Him. A disciple has been moved from death to life—he has been born again. As he receives mercy and follows Jesus, the expectation of the New Testament is his life will increasingly look like the life that Jesus lived. The local church at its best will produce men and women who intimately and lovingly know God through Jesus, is growing in Christ’s character and is on gospel mission. This is discipleship.
What is going wrong?
The church—fueled by the Spirit—has one purpose: make disciples. Unfortunately, the American church is not producing disciples. Based on the latest research from Exponential, 95% of churches in the United States are not what their study calls ‘disciple-making churches’. A disciple-making church has as its aim making disciples who make disciples. These churches barely exist in the US.
There is more bad news. 55% of Christians have not shared their faith once in the last 6 months to an unbeliever. Approximately 75% of those who consider themselves Christians have no intentional relationships where the goal is discipling or being discipled.Perhaps most startling, research shows a great apathy in Christians desire to grow. Only 1 in 5 Christians participate in a discipleship activity. The church is filled with apathy and research shows that most Christians are ok with it. All of this does not mean that there aren’t disciples in these churches. No doubt, these churches have authentic followers of Jesus, but it is not because of what these churches are doing. They have found the narrow path in spite of the local church.
The results of non-discipleship can be seen in the moral lives of professing Christians. Consider this: 69% of evangelicals think that looking at pornography is not adulterous. The same study reveals that 63% of evangelicals think that going to a strip club is not ‘cheating’. Further, Christian men and women view pornography only slightly less than non-Christians.
It doesn’t stop with sex. On average, Christians lie the same amount as non-Christians. Christians lose their temper about the same amount as non-Christians. Curiously, 68% of Christians think that losing your temper has little bearing on the Christian life. How can this be if loving one another is the primary mark of salvation? Then there are realities like over-eating, social media, gossip, bad stewardship of money, procrastination, anxiety and worry. Here too the lack of discipleship is obvious. Many Christians either don’t think being a Christian means becoming like Jesus or they have no idea how such transformation comes about.
Why is the church failing at discipleship?
Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart, states that it is distraction that cripples the local church. We are distracted by our programs, worship styles, leadership styles, buildings, liturgies, dress, preferences and the opinions that come from all these distractions,. Dallas writes,
Now you might ask yourself, Why does the New Testament say nothing about all those matters to which the usual congregation today devotes almost all its thought and effort? Answer: Because those matters are not primary and will take care of themselves with little attention whenever what is primary is appropriately cared for. ,
A little further he writes, “To fail to put the focus on those principles and absolutes [of discipleship] … is to wander off into a state of distraction, which is where most of our local congregations actually are”.
This distraction is no neutral thing. It creates the ground for conflict, coldness and meanness. It cultivates the life of the flesh. This life of the flesh will destroy God’s work in the local church. Willard writes that Christians
are routinely taught by example and word that it is more important to be right (always in terms of their beloved vessel, or tradition) than it is to be Christlike. In fact, being right licenses you to be mean, and, indeed, requires you to be mean—righteously mean, of course. You must be hard on people who are wrong, and especially if they are in positions of Christian leadership. They deserve nothing better. This is a part of what I have elsewhere called the practice of “condemnation engineering.”
The lack of discipleship, the character that flows from it, and the focus on distractions has paralyzed the American church. Add in cultural shifts, attendance declines and the ever growing list of leaders failing to live up to the gospel they preach, one might be discouraged.
I am not discouraged. I believe what we are doing at Calvary is important gospel-work. We are seeking to be light in the darkness. More then ever, I have personal clarity. As I consider my calling, I will focus on four things in this next season:
- Proclaiming the good news of Jesus and the accessibility of his kingdom life.
- Modeling discipleship by being a disciple and discipling others.
- Raising up leaders.
- Beating the drum of the only thing that matters—enabling others to live the life that Jesus lived.
These four things are my vocational life and give me joy. This is what it means for me to be a pastor. I feel like my 24 years of following Jesus has been preparing me for this season. I have carried in my heart a vision for the Christian life that I have experienced and continue to do so. It’s time for resolve; I cannot give up because what we are doing is important.
I leave myself with words from John Calvin:
It often happens that not only censure, but open condemnation, is pronounced on godly men who are convinced in their own consciences that what they do is agreeable to the command of God. Furthermore, they are accused of pride if they ignore the false judgments of the world and rest satisfied with being approved by God alone. Since this is a difficult temptation and it is scarcely possible not to be shaken by the agreement of many people against us, even when they are wrong, we ought to maintain this truth that none will ever be courageous and steady in acting properly unless they depend solely on the will of God.
May I trust upon the will of God. May I show my thankfulness to the hundreds at Calvary who desire this as much as me (if not more). May I bless and pastor those who don’t understand, see it differently or who leave frustrated.Most of all, Lord May Calvary be a place where we by design and effort—in partnership with you—help people live the life Jesus lived.
 Willard, Dallas. Renovation of the Heart, pg. 236.
 Willard, Dallas. Renovation of the Heart, pg. 236.
 Ibid. 236.