Contributed by Rev. Paul Lawler
While making disciples is not a new idea, it is encouraging to see one of the primary commands of Christ getting fresh attention. As we as Christ-followers seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, here are what I have termed Twelve Axioms of a Discipleship Resurgence.
Axiom #1: A Church is only as Strong as Her Disciples.
It is possible to become content in the bustling activity of our present expression of Christendom and yet fail to develop people into fruitful and mature disciples of Jesus Christ. We have ample evidence of this possibility in North American churches through the past studies of George Barna, Willow Creek’s Reveal Study, and other research projects.
The writer of Hebrews illustrates an example of a local church in which discipleship development may have been weak. The writer describes the hearers of this letter in the following fashion, “...by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” Hebrews 5:12 (ESV)
For several years I taught at a historically United Methodist conference center where thousands gather every summer. Despite the majority of participants being active in local churches for decades, I was saddened by how many did not know basic teachings from Scripture or basic teachings out of the Wesleyan corpus. A high level of biblical anemia should not be the case for people who have spent decades in church.
Jesus connects the command for the church to make disciples with our responsibility to teach each disciple all that He has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Thus, as the process of discipleship goes, so goes the church. A church is only as strong as her disciples.
Axiom #2: People Learn Better in Circles than in Rows.
People learn better in circles than in rows. I don’t know who first utilized this phrase, but it is worth noting.
While the preaching of the Scriptures is vital in any well-rounded expression of church, sermons are not solely sufficient in fully seeking to develop disciples. This is the way of Jesus. Jesus spent more time pouring His life into a few, than He did standing before large crowds preaching. Jesus took time to equip, empower, and then release His followers into ministry.
One approach many utilize in disciple-making is through training and mentoring people to lead small groups effectively. Many reproduce disciples and-disciple making movement by requiring every small group leader to have an apprentice they are training and equipping to lead new groups of people. A very simple approach for the leader-apprentice relationship is as follows:
While these four steps may appear over-simplified in this format, this was also very similar to the way Jesus developed His disciples. Thus, discipleship development was optimized in circles, not rows. For additional reading in this area, I would suggest Mark Nysewander’s book, No More Spectators, or Robert Coleman’s books, The Master Plan of Evangelism and The Master Plan of Discipleship.
Axiom #3: Discipleship not Defined is Discipleship Malpractice.
No corporation functions effectively without clearly defining its mission. Yet while many local churches have included the word disciple in their mission statement, many have not taken the time to adequately define the word disciple in their respective church cultures. If a local church has a fuzzy definition of discipleship, the local church will have a fuzzy expression of discipleship. A ministry culture that enables nebulous understandings of discipleship makes a commitment to nebulous expressions by default.
Because discipleship is central for a New Testament church, discipleship not defined is tantamount to ministry malpractice. There is too much at stake to leave the word disciple clouded in etymological fuzziness.
Many have defined a “disciple” merely as a learner, simply because this is one of the literal translations of the Greek word, manthentes. We must also look at the broader context in which Jesus utilized this word. When Jesus gave the church The Great Commission, He shared that learners should also be “teaching all that He commanded.” Jesus also instructed that this teaching should be done among all nations (ethne: ethnic groups). Thus, learning was never intended as being unto, “forever learning,” but for learning and applying and propagating.
In the local church where I serve, we define a disciple in the following manner: A disciple is a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. We define discipleship in this manner: Discipleship is the process of developing fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ who develop fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. These definitions create an environment of intentionality, measurability, and responsiveness, in seeking to be faithful to Christ’s command to “make disciples.”
Axiom #4: A Discipleship Resurgence Will Involve a Resurgence of Our Roots.
In the originating impulses of the Wesleyan movement, Methodism was a great force because Methodism was a great discipleship movement. People’s lives were deeply changed, and because of the deep change in people in the midst of the dark morality of 18th century England, the movement grew in attractiveness and participation.
John Wesley knew disciple-making involved a specialized focus on smaller gatherings, rather than a maximized focus on large crowds. This is why Wesley formed class meetings, which were gatherings focused on high levels of biblical accountability, the practice of biblical patterns, and the study of Scripture. As pastor-teacher, Mark Nysewander states:
“In the early 1800’s, Methodism was the fastest-growing Christian movement in the United States. Fueled by the camp meeting revival, there was rapid multiplication through the class meeting. It was a hot house for new leaders. A person could start out as a class member, become a class leader, then become a circuit rider. There was no limit. Even the first Methodist bishop in the United States, Francis Asbury, had come up through this disciple-making track.
By the late 1800’s, however, at the general conference two subtle decisions were passed. These decisions exposed a significant plate shift in Methodism. It was changing from a disciple-making movement into a church of spectators. The general conference decided that attendance at class meetings should no longer be obligatory. To be a Methodist you just needed to attend the worship event. They shifted their base community from a group of a few to an event of the many. The second decision was to start a theological seminary. The primary form of leadership was shifting from everyone a leader to only a few educated leaders who governed the many. The disciple-making discovery of John Wesley to aim for a few and enable the few to lead was quickly unraveling.” —No More Spectators (Sovereign World, 2005), p. 63
The genius of the Methodist movement was expressed in our roots of intentional discipleship. If we are to see a discipleship resurgence in our future, it will require a rediscovery of the life-giving patterns of our discipleship roots.
Axiom #5: True Discipleship is Obedience-Based.
JESUS: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” Luke 6:46 (ESV)
Many western expressions of Christianity shy away from the word obedience. This is both an anomaly in Christian history and an anomaly to discipleship movements taking place around the world today. This was not true in the originating impulses of the Wesleyan movement. Deep accountability around obedience to Christ and Scripture was normative in the intentional development of disciples.
For those who may wish to get started with obedience-based discipleship patterns in the Wesleyan Way, check out Kevin Watson’s book, The Class Meeting – Reclaiming a Forgotten Small Group Experience available at Amazon.com.
Axiom #6: Classical Classroom Experiences Seldom Produce Disciples.
While some traditional classroom experiences can be transformative, people can be conditioned to believe that the intention of the Sunday school or classroom is simply the expression of “faith for discussion” rather than faith for integration, application, and propagation.
Jesus did not develop disciples in a classroom setting alone. While Jesus did give instruction, He wed instruction with sending the disciples out on mission (Mark 6:7-13). Jesus commissioned His followers to take steps that would require the development of their faith at greater levels (Matthew 10:5-42). In the process of wedding both teaching (didactic) with practice (praxis), discipleship development was enhanced experientially and exponentially.
Axiom #7: Discipleship that does not Reproduce Disciples is Sterile Discipleship.
It was Curtis Sergeant who once said, “It is natural for some in a marriage to choose not to reproduce; it is not natural for a Christian to not reproduce.” Every disciple is born to reproduce (Matthew 28:18-19). Because every disciple of Jesus is commanded to make disciples of Jesus, there is a sense in which you are not a disciple until you are a disciple-maker. Discipleship that does not reproduce disciples is sterile discipleship.
Axiom #8: Church as we know it can stand in the way of Church as Christ intended it.
Churches in North America are notorious for sponsoring a wide variety of programs. Aerobics, yoga, karate, sports leagues, knitting, reading clubs, supper clubs, travel clubs; all make up the landscape of the offerings available in much of our present expression of Christendom. In the process, many would say we are bordering on mirroring a consumerist mindset that is a mere reflection of the surrounding culture. We do not live like the resident aliens* we are. Consumerist cultures prevalent in many churches will always have tensions with the servanthood necessary for the development of a discipleship culture.
If we are not wise, programs, contentedness with healthy numbers in church attendance, and “lots of activity” can overshadow the lack of intentional discipleship that should be normative for a New Testament church. As we engage in these critical days when United Methodism stands in need of renewal, Howard Snyder pulls from our history and reminds us of a day when intentional discipleship was once a life-giving priority among a people called Methodists:
“The class meeting (intentional discipleship)...became the sustainer of Methodist renewal over many decades. The movement was in fact a whole series of sporadic and often geographically localized revivals which were interconnected and spread by the society and class network, rather than one continuous wave of revival which swept the country...Without the class meeting, the scattered fires of renewal would have burned out long before the movement was able to make deep impact on the nation.” —The Radical Wesley (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1980), p. 57.
Jesus’ command was to “make disciples” and not merely make church attendees. If church as we know it is standing in the way of church as God intended it, then may we have the courage to take the steps necessary for a discipleship resurgence.
Axiom #9: You are Not a Disciple if You Are Not a Missionary.
Making a profession of faith, reading your Bible for years, and then not joining Jesus in mission is a symptom of disconnectedness (Colossians 1:18). To make a profession of faith and have little or no expressed ministry to the poor, the unreached, or in expressing social justice, is symptom of being disconnected from the Christ (Ephesians 1:22).
Discipleship not tethered to living missionally is an illusion of vague spiritually. Thus, it is an imperative of the local church to equip, empower and release the saints to creative works of expressing Jesus’ mission as an intentional expression of being Jesus’ disciples. Lest we become a people who would say, “The parish is my world,” rather than “The world is my parish,” every local church should regularly tether opportunities for missional expression with every small group discipleship experience. Disciples of Jesus share in Jesus’ mission.
Axiom #10: Discipleship Cultures Receive Jesus’ Promise and Receive Jesus’ Command.
We are gloriously thankful Jesus gave us the promise that He is with us as the New Testament church. We take His words to heart when we hear, “I am with you...” This is a promise most Christians receive and believe However, far too many receive Jesus’ promise, and reject Jesus’ command connected to His promise. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV)
A healthy disciple-making culture receives Jesus’ promise and Jesus’ command to “make disciples.”**
Axiom #11: Leadership Development Does Not Trump Discipleship Development.
Numerous Christian authors have written books on leadership. We have regular conferences all over America centered on developing effective leaders.
A number of years ago I started noticing something unique within our own church culture. Our lay leadership teams, which are responsible for calling forth persons in the church to serve in offices of ministry, were not calling forth the persons who regularly attended the church leadership seminars, but they began calling forth persons out of our intentional discipleship engines. I was mindful they were noting Christian maturity in these persons, and felt confident in calling them to places of serving as leaders. This led me to the following axiom: When you develop disciples, you get leaders. When you develop leaders, you may or may not get disciples.*** Thus, leadership development should never trump discipleship development. You will always get leaders if you will develop disciples.
Axiom #12: A Life-Giving Discipleship Pulse Thrives Via a Life-Giving Prayer Pulse.
There is a direct correlation between prayer and the level of effective disciple-making. It was the late Christ-following Methodist, E.M. Bounds, who once said, “When prayer fails, the world prevails. When prayer fails, the church loses its divine characteristics, its divine power; the church is swallowed up by a proud ecclesiasticism, and the world scoffs at its obvious impotence.”—E.M. Bounds on Prayer (Whitaker House: 1997), p. 68
It is an imperative to teach small group leaders and participants to become a people of prayer. Where there is much prayer, there is much power. Where there is little prayer, there is little power. When a disciple-making movement is fueled by prayer, the movement moves forward in God’s power and supersedes human limitations.
As we consider the twelve axioms of discipleship, let us be mindful that Jesus commanded His church to “make disciples.” Let us, by God’s grace, grow to be as intentional as is indicated in our historical roots. With the realization that much is at stake, may God awaken us to the reality of the following axiom: As discipleship goes, so goes the church.
Paul Lawler serves as the Lead Pastor of Christ Church UMC Birmingham (www.christchurchtv.org); and Founder, along with a very talented team, of the Rejuvenate Conference, a church renewal conference hosted in Birmingham in February of 2015. He also serves on the North Alabama Conference Adult Discipleship Team and is active in several disciple-making and church plant movements around the world.
*Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon first utilized this term. The term Resident Aliens is built upon the premise that the church should place its highest focus on developing people in the Christian life and in Christian community. In the process, the church should see itself made up of “resident aliens” in a foreign land when compared to the surrounding culture.
**I first heard Curtis Sergeant share this axiom, but it has been shared by many others.
***I am mindful Mike Breen made this phrase popular through his discipleship conferences associated with 3DM (www.3dmovements.com). Nonetheless, it was an observation being noted in several circles of influence before Mike and his associates at 3DM popularized the phrase.