When Discipleship Fails

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a leadership seminar at our church. This seminar was designed specifically for Community Group leaders and focused on the topic of how discipleship takes place in and out of the church.

The discussion leader developed this seminar around a central principle that discipleship begins not only with our desire to build disciples within the church, but with those we meet outside of the church. What? How do you disciple someone who isn't a follower of Christ?

The speaker reminded all of us about the "marching orders" Christ gave to believers at the end of Matthew 28. Often given the paragraph title of "The Great Commission," Jesus commands us to make disciples first by “going” and then by “baptizing” and finally by teaching them to “observe the commands” of Christ.

One of the repeating phrases I heard during the discussion was that we need to remember that God is inviting people into Jesus’ story. As important as we might think we are, we only serve as the go-between. We are called/commanded to go out and live on mission. As we live as missionaries in the world, we find those people that God is inviting and then we connect them to His story.

I remember the first time I heard this passage of Matthew explained the same way. Suddenly it was not a passage about evangelism anymore. It quickly became a passage about discipleship.

I have been noodling this around in my head for the past month or so and I have been thinking through my life in the church. The typical model I've seen is to get people to buy into the grace God extends through Jesus (evangelism) and then tell them everything they must do as believers (discipleship)! What a crappy model! Not only is it wrong, but it sets people up for a life of bondage to religious behavior.

The more I thought through the ramifications of Matthew 28 as a verse on discipleship, I also thought through some other methods we often choose to use. Along the way, I see three ways we try to reach people for God and fall absolutely flat.

Connecting People to Our Story

This is an easy one for any of us to do. I did it for years. We love to talk about ourselves, so telling people our own story is almost the default approach we will take. It's fun to share how we came to put our faith in Jesus. I’m not saying that we do it deliberately. Not at all. When we tell people about our faith in Christ, it just becomes easy to make the story center on us and what God has done in our lives.

I've written and spoken about that often on theMangoTimes, it is what I like to call:  Lifestyle Evangelism. Instead of telling others about Jesus, we tell them about what we do. It’s natural to tell others "how we do family” and “how we do school” or “how we do church.” There are so many people looking for practical answers, so telling them “how we do life or how we do culture” is an easy response for us. But often we don’t share Jesus, we share a lifestyle. 

One other way I think we do this is when we put the emphasis on OUR personal testimony. There is nothing wrong with sharing our story, but ultimately we are not trying to connect people to OUR story and we fail to connect people to Jesus' story.

Connecting People to the Disciple’s Story

Do not miss what I am saying here. Peter’s story. Paul’s story. They are great stories. What the apostles said was really good and it is important to share what they have said. The epistles of Paul and the letters of the other apostles is the Word of God. We must share their words, especially when they preach and teach about the gospel and the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the story!

However, if we are not careful, we CAN forget to share Jesus.  Like my first example above when we focus on our story (lifestyle evangelism), we can stop short here too. We can find ourselves focusing only on theology with other people. I guess what I really am describing here is a type of Theology Evangelism.

There are many Christians who do a great job teaching theology. There are many others that attach theology to evangelism and discipleship (aka apologetics). I TOTALLY AGREE that it is important to know God and know what He has to say about Himself and the world we live in. I'm not talking about teaching theology or the use of apologetics. I'm referring to people who teach others everything they know “about God” but they fail to simply introduce people to Jesus. Theology is wonderful, but on it’s own it will not save one soul. 

Connecting People to the Church’s Story

The third way we can fail in discipleship is when we focus our discipleship on the Church’s story. It doesn’t matter which era of church history appeals to you the most. Whether you focus on the history of the Orthodox church, the Roman Catholic church, the Reformed Church, the Anglican Church, or any splinter of the church that followed throughout the centuries, if you are emphasizing the church’s story in your discipleship of others, you missed it again.

The history of the church and what the church believes and how the church practices the faith is important. Like theology , doctrine helps to protect the church from error and keeps people from straying into cults or worshiping a form of Christ. Keeping with my theme, Doctrine Evangelism will do nothing to convert sinners to salvation. Like Theology Evangelism, Doctrine Evangelism falls short.

Consider this: Doctrine and theology will often lead us to focus on telling others what they must avoid or accomplish, but often fails to mention what has already been done for us as believers.

Connecting People to Christ’s Story

Here is a good test: If you feel like your church has fed you a steady diet of 'being told what to do," then chances are you have not been discipled into Christ’s Story. If you are carefully walking a tight rope and trying not to fall off due to right/wrong behavior, you are probably not living in Christ’s Story. As a believer, if you are constantly worried that failure negates you're acceptance by God, you are not living in Christ's story.

If you are living in a church or family or belief system that tells you over and over how to behave better, let me encourage you to dig a little deeper into Christ’s story. See if you will agree that your very best behavior is rejected by God. Discover how God's answer for you was the perfect life of Christ lived out on your behalf.

I bet you will find that you may need to stop focusing on behaving better and give a lot more credit to believing better.

Quietly making noise,