Writing on this subject is not easy for me, actually I am somewhat frustrated. Why! Looking back over the years I have observed too many Christians who began their spiritual journey “on fire” for Jesus, but somewhere along the line due to various circumstances these believers moved however gradually away from a deep commitment to our Lord. These same men and women received solid teaching on discipleship that they themselves in the beginning put into practice. Sad to say, for too many Christians, a creeping and often subtle spiritual lethargy sets in, leading to a lack of dedication to Christ and their local church body.
From personal experience, I know that living a committed Christian life is not easy and it is even more difficult to encourage others to live as dedicated disciples. I clearly remember one Sunday after a worship service in the first church I planted in Michigan. I was speaking to a lady and accidentally I let the word ‘commitment’ drop into our conversation. I never did see her again! As one pastor from the Stuttgart area told me, he is just happy if someone “makes it” to church two Sundays a month. I know where he is coming from. It is sad to think that many Christians in the western world equate discipleship with “showing up” from time to time for a church service.
The challenge of making disciples in the local church is similar to what happens in a football stadium. You have a small group of individuals who are very committed, running around on the field until they’re dead tired and they truly need a rest. The we have on the other hand, thousands of spectators sitting in the stands who desperately need physical exercise. Discipleship is completely ‘other’ than a spectator sport. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “Christianity without discipleship means being a Christian without Christ.”
The first important question to ask; “Am I a true disciple of Christ?” I can not make disciples as Jesus commands unless I know in my heart and not just in my head that I am his disciple. The last words Jesus spoke on this earth before ascending into heaven are well know by most Christians. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
The last part of this scripture “I am with you always” speaks comfort, that is why you find it written on countless Christian cards and bookmarks worldwide. However, this promise comes with a condition; be a disciple as well as make disciples. If you are reading this article and consider yourself a disciple but have not followed the command of Jesus to be baptized, wait no longer. Baptism is an important first step to take after surrendering your life to Christ.
Obeying all that Jesus teaches remains a lifelong learning exercise. To be a true follower of Christ is not a spiritual sprint but a rather a long enduring, sometime tiresome marathon that lasts throughout our entire life, until we see Jesus in all his glory. Jesus does not just give us “light insights” in spiritual matters but declares: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)
Daily, means no matter what comes, no matter how we feel, we intentionally put everything in back of us that would hinder us, and truly follow Christ. There is no such thing as a “Cross-less” discipleship! Billy Graham writes: “Salvation is free, however being a disciple will cost us everything.”
The great thing is; everything Jesus asks us to do as a follower means he will give us the power to perform. The Apostle Paul went to prison because he followed Christ and his words should reassure you and me today: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength…For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 4:13 and 2:13)
Jesus, in His infinite wisdom, did not prescribe a specific method; but rather, He gave us a mandate: make disciples! He didn’t suggest a specific methodology; He left us with principles. The process of making disciples in a local church in Hamburg might be different than in Munich, but the principles never change.
I like what Steve Pike writes: “Discipleship begins when people know you are a Christian and they still want to be your friend.”
Even though your friends have not yet made the decision to follow Christ, hopefully they see what a disciple looks like. Paul understood this concept: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1) People should not look to someone like Mother Theresa to see what it means to be a Christian. They should be able to look at our lives as an ‘open book’, to be read, showing our victories as well as our struggles. No disciple, including the apostle Paul is perfect but hopefully others see us exemplifying an authentic life with all its’ challenges, as we grow in grace.
How do we make disciples?
- It is important that every local church define, in their context, what it means to be a disciple. The local church can not approach discipleship in a haphazzard manner. Church leaders must be proactive in assuring that new converts do not slip through the net. I personally try to find mature Christians to accompany new believers one on one. ‘New believer’ courses are good, but I have discovered that individuals come from so many different backgrounds in terms of family, ethnic and education, that it is better they be coupled with a mentor, one who gives the individual attention they need. Also, this approach avoids the problem of finding dates and times that all can agree on.
- Church leaders must be intentional about helping disciples to study and obey God’s word. As parents we know the difference between mere knowledge and practiced obedience. We desire to help men and women discover the exciting adventure of daily following Christ and living for him. It is important that believers grasp the “whole counsel of God” and do not get caught up with one-sided teaching extremes. For example, we cannot just teach about miracles and healing and ignore all that the Bible says about suffering and pain. Balanced teaching results in a balanced Christian life experience.
- Church leaders must provide opportunities as well as encourage disciples to be accountable to other believers, whether in a home group, ministry group or some other setting within the local church. Again Steve Pike points out, “Because of relationships people come to church. Because of relationships people stay in church and grow in their faith. Sad to say, also because of relationships gone wrong people leave the church. Local church leadership has the monster task of sustaining and maintaining a healthy relationship culture within the body as taught by Christ.” By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
- We need to be intentional, encouraging disciples to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is imperative through teaching and the laying on of hands, that followers of Christ personally experience the Holy Spirit as Helper and Comforter.
- We must be intentional to encourage disciples to teach others and work to reproduce the life of Christ in others around them by example. Again the word of Paul: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timonty 2:2)
We cannot force people to be true followers of Christ, even though our church may offer well planned discipleship programs. Some disciples who were with Christ after awhile thought it too difficult to be his follower. “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”(John 6:66) In spite of the many challenges and set-backs we may face, the mandate to make disciples is a priority.
Looking back over many years of ministry I am encouraged to see how many men and women continue to bear the fruit and make disciples. Granted, making disciples is very hard and exhaustive work, but it is worth the effort. Be courageous, develop a plan and continue to make disciples!