David and I were standing on the sidewalk after church. He was a growing leader in the church who was passionate about his faith. He shared his desire to stand in front of the church and preach, but confessed that he wasn't very good at speaking. The thought of it turned his stomach. I asked him why he wanted to preach.
"That's what really mature Christians do, isn't it?"
When Jesus left the earth he told his followers to go and "make disciples." Discipleship is an essential part of God's plan for the church and the world. But like David, we often limit discipleship in our minds or in our practice. It can become just preaching. Just teaching, or evangelizing, or "doing justice," or whatever your church's ministry emphasis is. And this leads us to the crux of our problem: our conception of discipleship is often so unclear it's difficult to know if we're succeeding in Christ's mandate.
As pastors, we know that making disciples is central to our call and one of the things that brings us the most joy in ministry. That is why we must remove barriers from doing it effectively. In my experience, these fall into two common categories. First, our focus is too narrow, and second, we don't use common language.
1. Our Focus is Too Narrow.
At a recent seminar I attended, a businessman was asked how evangelism fit into his work. He replied, "Often we have the opportunity to share our faith, but while evangelism is important, so are compassion, service, justice, and discipleship."
I cringed. Too often, discipleship is seen as one thing among many in the life of a Christian, instead of our central organizing directive. One pastor told me he appreciated discipleship but wasn't passionate about it. He felt God calling him to focus on worship—discipleship was relegated to other pastors at his church. But that's crazy! Discipleship is not one item on a list of disciplines to choose from—it is essential to all Christians.
Viewing discipleship as one item on a list has consequences. Though we'd never admit it, it marginalizes following Jesus and finding new life in him (the core outcome of discipleship). Not everyone is a worship leader. Not everyone is a teacher. Not everyone works daily with the poor. But every Christian is called to discipleship, and all of our ministries relate to this central endeavor.
The way we go about making disciples is also too narrow. Mostly, we just give people information and pass it off as discipleship. There aren't many who would claim discipleship is only about learning, but our methods tell a different story. When people aren't serving the poor, we preach on how much Jesus cared for them. When they don't love their neighbors, we distribute small group curriculum on being a good neighbor. By and large, we take the robust call to discipleship and reduce it to the transfer of knowledge.
In Romans 12:12 Paul says, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Renewing our mind—growing in knowledge and changing the way we think—is essential. Without learning we can't know what it looks like to be transformed. At the same time, we cannot assume that people will be transformed just by learning enough. It may lead to growth, but not necessarily. Some people are content to soak up knowledge without practicing any of it. That is not discipleship. Successful discipleship requires moving from narrow definitions and methods to holistic ones.