The church’s dirty little secret
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.