The Church and Discipleship

by

When I was fourteen years old, I had my first summer job: historical tour guide. I led tours through a well-known historical site in a small, quaint town in the upper Midwest United States.

On my first day on the job, my boss handed me a large manual and said I needed to learn all of the historical facts of the site to be ready to give tours. The problem was, I didn’t have a lot of interest in learning the facts. So, I skimmed through it just to get enough basic information to start giving tours.

I ended up being a poor tour guide as a result. People started asking me questions on my tours—a lot of questions, the kinds of questions that history buffs love. What did the people eat? What did they wear? What was a typical day like? And I didn’t really know the answers, so I just started making things up. People seemed to like the answers I was giving, so I just continued on with my half-truths to pass the tours and to pass the time.

One afternoon, my boss told me that he was going to come on my tour the following morning. I was scared to death. I knew that I had been telling half-truths and didn’t know the manual. And one evening would not be enough time for me to learn everything I should have already known. I was in trouble. And since I had been lying on these tours for so long, I was confused about what was really true and what was a lie. I didn’t even know the facts anymore. In essence, I had begun lying even to myself.

The following morning, my boss went on my tour. That same day, I was fired.

Sometimes our discipleship efforts in the local church mirror this experience. Someone is converted in the context of our local church. Perhaps they even seem to have had a powerful encounter with God. We hand them our manual (a Bible), and we assume that this is sufficient for their long-term development. We don’t check in with them to see how they are doing. We don’t walk with them. As long as they are attending church services and performing their religious tasks, we assume everything is OK.

Yet, when we look a little closer, we see that they have not learned the Word, that they have not applied the Word, or even that they don’t know the Word. And often, they have begun to lie to themselves about basic truths of Scripture. They needed discipleship. But what we gave them was a service opportunity, something just to keep things running at our church. We just left them alone until something stopped working.

The Great Commission calls us to make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). All power on heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, who gives power and a call to us. Making disciples means that we embrace this call by accompanying people along their way. Some churches call this “doing life together.”

But true discipleship is not just about hanging out. True discipleship is about embracing gospel truths in the context of a biblical community that results in life change. It’s about visibly seeing sanctification in the life of a new believer. It’s about progressively becoming more aware of our sinfulness and of God’s holiness. It’s about the cross’s looming larger and larger in our lives as we embrace gospel truths.

Gospel-centered churches understand this. The true measure of a church’s success is not its size but whether it is making disciples. We have a vast problem in our churches, not only in American churches but in churches around the world. We have many “conversions” but few disciples. We have many “conversions” but few who embrace the lordship of Christ.

Sometimes, under the guise of “leadership training,” churches try to stimulate some form of holiness in new believers. Often, they teach business principles sprinkled with Scriptures that are taken out of context. But leadership training is not the same as discipleship. Many churches talk about vision, potential, and human flourishing endlessly, but it is not true discipleship unless we are teaching gospel truths about sin, confession, and repentance. It is not true discipleship unless we are leading people to the cross.

The Apostle Paul calls us to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). Disciple-makers understand that people need help putting on the new self.

True disciple-makers are not just interested in developing leaders, or superficial tour guides. They are interested in seeing the cross loom large in the life of a new believer. They are passionate about sanctification. They are passionate about teaching gospel truths. And the result of this kind of biblical discipleship is amazing—people and churches whose testimony truly reflects God’s character, bringing much glory to Jesus.

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