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The church’s dirty little secret

April 18, 2011

I’ve started to say it quite a bit. Perhaps you’re already sick of reading it. But I think it’s one of those things that really hasn’t hit home yet.

We don’t have a leadership problem in the church in the United States.
We don’t have a missional problem.
We have a discipleship problem.

If we make disciples like Jesus made disciples (i.e. the way we’re supposed to!), we get more leaders than we can handle and more vision and action for mission than we will have ever seen.

That’s the way Jesus did it.
That’s the way his disciples did it.
That’s the way the early church did it.
That’s the way every missional movement has done it.

And yet we are in a full-fledged discipleship crisis in the United States.

A few days ago an article came out that pointed to this that I think is really worth a read, if for no other reason that it reiterates this overarching point. It’s a great post by Rick Wood. Here are a couple of highlights.

  • If we as a church succeed in every area, but fail to make disciples who can spiritually multiply, then ultimately we have failed. Yet if we fail in every other area, but succeed in spiritual multiplication, then ultimately we have succeeded.
  • The dirty little secret of missions is that we are sending missionaries all over the world who have not demonstrated the ability to make disciples who can make disciples.

And because I think it’s worth a good read, here’s the majority of the article.


In the 2000 years since Jesus came to Earth we have made great strides in technology. Our ability to communicate the gospel to huge numbers of people all over the planet has never been greater. We have a greater wealth of resources than ever before for proclaiming the gospel to every person, tribe and tongue. Yet many unreached peoples still await a fair opportunity to know and follow Jesus. At the same time the Church in the West is at best stalled. In Europe the Church is in serious decline. We are forced to ask ourselves, “Have we missed something? What is keeping us from making the progress we would all like to see?”

For 32 years now Mission Frontiers has been identifying the systemic problems and obstacles that hinder us from bringing the gospel to every tribe and tongue. We have sought to highlight the mission strategies that can help us overcome the obstacles and bring the love of Christ to every person regardless of their location, language or culture.

In this issue of MF we focus on one of the most troubling obstacles to world evangelization facing us today: the failure of the Church (especially in the West) to equip most followers of Jesus to reproduce their faith in the lives of others. The vast majority of Bible-believing followers of Jesus are not regularly sharing their faith nor investing their lives in helping to bring others to maturity in Christ. And those who are concerned about this donít seem to know what to do about it. We are not simply pointing fingers here. Both the guest editor for this issue and I are convicted that we need to figure out how to be more successful in this area ourselves.

Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church in Texas wrote (see p. 21 of this issue),

If we as a church succeed in every area, but fail to make disciples who can spiritually multiply, then ultimately we have failed. Yet if we fail in every other area, but succeed in spiritual multiplication, then ultimately we have succeeded.

Our churches in the West seem to be succeeding at lesser things while failing at Jesusí core strategy for world evangelization. We are succeeding in collecting tens of billions of dollars each year to gather large crowds into beautiful and expensive church buildings on Sunday. We have succeeded in putting on a great show and developing programs that attract people to our churches. In the process we have put an unbearable burden on our pastors to do nearly all the ministry while failing to activate the laity. As a result many pastors are skating on the edge of burnout, while the majority of church members do not see that God has any other role for them except as spectators.

In short, we are largely failing to develop mature followers of Jesus who are able to make disciples who can make disciples.

The people in our churches are not growing to spiritual maturity where they are able to carry on the work of spreading the gospel within our own culture, not to mention cross-culturally to every tribe and tongue. This is having a devastating impact on our ability to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.

The dirty little secret of missions is that we are sending missionaries all over the world who have not demonstrated the ability to make disciples who can make disciples. Most have not seen or participated in effective models of church-planting or discipleship at home, but we send them out in the hope that going cross-culturally will turn them into effective church planters and disciplers. This is wishful thinking at best, and it has to change.

We must learn from and refine effective biblical models of doing church and discipleship, both at home and abroad, where the focus is on spiritual reproduction and multiplication of mature disciplers and discipleship teams. The often overlooked secret of Christian maturity is that we learn and grow the most when we are involved in sharing our faith and discipling others. Until believers have demonstrated their ability to produce reproducing disciples, we must provide mentoring and peer coaching aimed at helping them learn to succeed in this fundamental task as we deploy them into ministry here or abroad. Otherwise we are only sending people out to replicate a failed model of doing church. Overcoming this failure of the church to equip believers to make disciples who can make disciples is one of the most critical needs in the church today. What we need is a Discipleship Revolution that transforms the way we do church and mission, and vastly multiplies the number of disciplers who can disciple all peoples both near and far. This will require effective disciplers to go cross-culturally to every people to begin a discipleship movement within each people.

Simply working harder at the current model of church will not succeed in bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. God ís strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission requires reproducing disciples.

Why Not Use the Model Jesus Gave Us?

Jesus preached to crowds, but didnít leave the fruit to rot. He balanced public ministry with roughly equal attention to the development of 12 individuals, rather than simply attracting larger crowds. During the latter part of his ministry, He withdrew increasingly from public proclamation to change the lives of 12 men. Eleven of them would go on to change the world, even without modern technology. Jesus was intentionally relational in discipling the Twelve. He shared His life with them and used stories and parables to embed the truths of His Kingdom in their hearts. His focus was not on simply communicating a message or filling their heads with knowledge, but on guiding them to maturity as spiritual reproducers. That should be the focus of our churches today as well.

We will never bring the gospel to every tribe and tongue if we continue to rely on professional clergy to do ìdisciplingî as a transfer of knowledge. As followers of Jesus, we must all aim to become disciples who can follow Jesusí example in making disciples. None of us is excused from active duty in the service of our King.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. David Wild permalink
    April 18, 2011 3:40 pm

    I keep going back to a small piece in Rick Joyner’s 1980’s book The Harvest titled the Fishnet. In it he talked about God creating strong network of believers, the fishnet, that would have worldwide reach and which God would use to make a resilient and flexible church he could form into groups as needed (this was before the days of the internet!). There would be people whose entire job was to repair and strengthen the network connections. I feel we not only need to build disciples, but to do it in such a way that they are equipped to independently plug into this net and connect into it wherever they are, not critically dependent on one church organization. So many people start to be discipled in one church, then move (or the church dissolves, splits, etc) and they are left spiritually orphaned. Lifeshapes, etc., is a good first piece of this – it’s generalizable and usable in any situation.

  2. April 18, 2011 4:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing this article Mike, and all I have to say is a hearty “amen”. As we’ve been implementing MCs in a large church context, The Master Plan of Evangelism has become my rallying cry for the foundation of effective MC training for all the reasons listed above. This kind of multiplying discipleship forms the very backbone of healthy missional community life, and quite honestly cannot be replaced. Relational proximity trumps any sort of teaching/preaching environment every single time. The most effective MCs that are producing disciples in our context have all come from this kind of training.

    At the same time, we’re committed to utilizing more systemic forms (teaching, curriculum, etc.) of training in our body because we quite simply don’t have the capacity to disciple the volume of leaders and communities we have. Presenting the idea of discipleship and teaching methodology to men and women sets a foundation for the future which we’ve found to be good tilling of soil, readying folks for this kind of discipleship.

    Lastly, much of what we’ve found is that people need consistent “permission”, not just a one time commissioning. Most folks in our body who we’ve trained in this way need a consistent reminder that multiplication is expected of them, and they have all they need to train and equip in our body, as they tend to default back into non-multiplying mode after one iteration of making disciples. Once they try making disciples this way, they realize how difficult-relationally and time intensive-this is, and need constant encouragement to continue in persevering in this kind of ministry.

    Anyway, thanks a ton for sharing this…very helpful!

  3. Ian Campbell permalink
    April 18, 2011 5:31 pm

    Mike- this is such a powerful prophetic word! keep bringing it on and maybe we’ll finally get it (yes, me too!)

  4. April 19, 2011 12:15 am

    Thanks, Mike!

    From the same issue of “Mission Frontiers” Mike shared from:

    “Real Life Ministries (Post Falls, ID) uses readily understandable biblical stages: spiritually dead, infants, children, young adults, and parents. The inspired linkage of understanding these stages with a practical process for moving a disciple from one stage to another gives disciple makers a common language and understanding for how to disciple someone at each stage. The Share, Connect, Minister, and Disciple (SCMD) grid overlays the stages of spiritual growth and provides a road map for the disciple-maker.”

    Similar to 3DM, RLM has developed a discipleship pathway with a shared “language”. This pathway is lived out in small to mid-sized groups. It’s so cool that for years God has been speaking similar things to pastors and churches around the world, many of whom are meeting for the first time! The upcoming Exponential Conference will only confirm this grace phenominon!

    Excellent Article –

  5. Laul permalink
    April 19, 2011 2:28 pm

    A wee bit from ReJesus ~ Frost & Hirsch page 50-51

    That discipleship is foundational to Christianity and its mission therefore goes without saying. If we fail here, we will fail everywhere. But the critical role of discipleship in the mission of the church once again highlights the role of the radical Jesus in the life of faith. And this bond cannot primarily merely involve a cerebral, objective, indirect understanding of Jesus and the Christian faith. This substitution of thinking about Jesus for existential encounter with Jesus is a constant temptation of the follower. This is partly because a living relationship with the Lord of the universe is a risky, disturbing and demanding experience. We never get the better of him, and it is a whole lot easier, and less costly, to think than to do. It is not good enough that we just follow his teachings or religious code developed in his wake. Discipleship requires a direct and unmediated relationship with the Lord, and the loss of this immediacy is catastrophic to the movement that claims his name.


  1. The Discipleship Problem – Mike Breen | Together Canada
  2. Best of April 2011 | Brimming Over
  3. Even Greater Things Than These « Mike’s Musings

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