The Church Has Neglected This Most Important Goal

Yesterday in my own church, a visiting retired missionary told the story of a missionary he knew that was hampered in his own efforts to disciple believers because he said that he was never discipled himself.

Discipleship is simply learning to do the things that Jesus said to do.

American church culture has created a world where discipleship is an add on. Not a bad thing to practice and work on but not essential to the life of the believer or the good of the church. So efforts at Growing Up get pushed to niche times and places and become largely ignored by the majority of the church faithful.

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How have we gotten to this state?

“What you present as the gospel, will determine what you present as discipleship.” This quote by Dallas Willard has much to say about the modern church and why there is a significant lack of discipleship.

The 3,000 people that first joined the infant church at Pentecost were presented a Gospel that was Jesus focused. Peter, in his talk that day, stressed the arrival of Jesus, the work of his ministry, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. The Gospel story was Christ centered and began with Jesus, not with us. If our Gospel starts with us, then we are in trouble. Jesus gets reduced to an instrument for our personal use rather than a King destined to rule the Earth for all of eternity and transform us into Children of God.

The baby believers at Pentecost were not making a transaction that required little of them, they were entering a new existence that quickly began to be evident as a peculiar community sprung up around them. They shared their life together (including some of their possessions), they shared meals together, they had glad and sincere hearts, and they praised God as one. Everything changed because of the Gospel.

Ruth Haley Barton says that churches oversell and under-deliver two things, transformation and community. Could it be that the gospel we are presenting is contributing to our inability to create true disciples who are radically changed and urgently busy at the work of God’s kingdom?

Start with Jesus and his story of life, death, resurrection, and future return and see if that doesn’t produce a different result. This was the gospel of Acts and this good news started a global spiritual revolution.

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2 thoughts on “The Church Has Neglected This Most Important Goal

  1. “What you present as the gospel, will determine what you present as discipleship.” This quote by Dallas Willard has much to say about the modern church and why there is a significant lack of discipleship.
    The 3,000 people that first joined the infant church at Pentecost were presented a Gospel that was Jesus focused. Peter, in his talk that day, stressed the arrival of Jesus, the work of his ministry, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. The Gospel story was Christ centered and began with Jesus, not with us. If our Gospel starts with us, then we are in trouble. Jesus gets reduced to an instrument for our personal use rather than a King destined to rule the Earth for all of eternity and transform us into Children of God.

    Scott, I think I understand your intentions with the words above. You believe the modern church often misses the opportunity for transformation because its Gospel focuses on its King more like a Genie, refusing necessary subordination while using the King as its servant. If I am interpreting you correctly, this is certainly an all too common problem.

    My concern, however, for why the modern church so often experiences a lack of discipleship, goes in a different direction. I believe our Gospel almost never starts with us for the explicit reason of avoiding pain. We want to say, “I believe. I’m in. Now, on to the other poor soul that needs my wonderful help.” It’s a clever strategy to avoid the painful surrender of our selfish selves. “We need to pray for John, God bless him. He’s really screwed up.”

    Frank Laubach (see Wikipedia for a quick overview) created a literacy program that has been practiced by millions. It is a wonderful example of a Gospel where one of its servants – subject to its King – ruled a portion of the earth and transformed the children of God. But this Christ centered action came as a result of a deep internal struggle where Laubach realized he lacked love for the people he served as a missionary. He then began what he called “practicing the presence of God.” And from this practice love grew within him until it spilled out to millions.

    I am saying that the initial action of selfless surrender is very hard and extremely painful. And, in this way, the Gospel really does start with us – in us. Until this work of Christ is accomplished, we are of little good to others. This, I believe, is how the modern church most often lacks true discipleship and explains its reason why. Surrendering is painful and we will avoid it at all costs, even it means putting the cart before the horse. Opportunities abound to serve others in our well thought out programming, but, only if we are an alcoholic or a drug addict can we find opportunities to surrender on a daily basis in the modern church.

    In this way, if we don’t start our Gospel with us, then we are in trouble. Jesus gets reduced to an instrument for our personal avoidance of pain rather than surrendering to a King destined to rule the Earth for all of eternity and transform us into Children of God. And it was the Peter who denied Christ three times and experienced the painful, embarrassing surrender of his will that proclaimed a Gospel that 3,000 couldn’t resist at Pentecost.

    I love this Gospel. And I love you Scott Jeffries. May we both Grow Up by first Giving Up.

    • Great words Kris. You are right about how hard it is. What if the difficulty and the challenge and even pain of transformation through Christ was front and center instead of ignored in most Gospel presentations?
      In the seeker sensitive church environment, many are afraid to present the costs of discipleship for fear that people will run away and think that it is too hard. By not addressing that we are being called to a rich, deep life that requires all of us and maybe even our lives, we are doing people a disservice. People are drawn to a challenge and difficulty. Thousands sign up for marathons, do CrossFit, and P90X primarily because they are so difficult. There is something in us that wants to be devoted to something that requires sacrifice and pain. So, on the surface, like you say, we will avoid pain at all cost, in our heart of hearts, we are longing for something to devote our everything to.
      So, the Gospel starts with Jesus, and then we count the costs whether we are willing to devote all of ourselves to him because of what he has done for us. The problem is that modern gospel presentations never get to the count your costs section and so we are left with shallow and pain averse believers.

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