Discipleship

Brian Hathaway

 

I've been wondering about discipleship recently. Actually my wondering started when I was arranging the last VISION New Zealand Congress in 1998.

I HAD BEEN CONCERNED for some time about the level of disciplship in many of our churches. Several people had also talked with me expressing their disquiet about this area and so we decided to run a session on discipleship at the Congress. As I rang around about two dozen pastors of successful churches, places where I knew people had been coming to faith in Christ, and asked them about their discipleship programmes and whether they would be prepared to share with others at the Congress what they were doing, almost without exception there was a poignant pause on the other end of the line.

I would get hesitant answers such as, "well we put our new converts into . . . er . . . home groups," or " . . . yes . . . we take our new Christians through a series of Bible studies." When I asked if this was discipleship there was often another embarrassed silence.

I found it exceptionally hard to find anybody who was prepared to deal with this topic at the Congress. I have come to the sad conclusion that there is a huge gap in the discipling programmes in most evangelistic churches in our nation and the level of disciple-making is abysmally low.

 

JESUS PLACE TWO IMPERATIVES in the great commission - evangelise and disciple. It seems to me that evangelism is only the first step in discipling. Evangelism is simply part of the process of discipleship. Evangelism is the door, discipleship is the pathway.

Have we focussed too much on evangelism alone over recent years in New Zealand? How many conferences on discipling have been held here over the last 20 years? How many on evangelism? I can't remember any on discipleship, but I have heard of several featuring evangelism.

Now don't get me wrong, we need all the encouragement we can get to evangelise, but we've disconnected the two areas of Christian mission - evangelism and discipleship. Two areas which Christ said go together. We've done evangelism reasonably well but discipleship very, very poorly. Keeping them together is a huge challenge.

At a recent conference held in England to discuss the topic of discipleship, about 400 theologians, ministry leaders, pastors and lay leaders took part. At the conference David Howard, past International Director of the World Evangelical Fellowship, said "We've done a great job of getting people in the doors of the church, but we've found that too many of them are exiting out the back door".

 

MOST PEOPLE WILL IMMEDIATELY realise that several serious issues flow from inadequate discipleship. Lack of adequate discipleship will create a dearth of leaders in the next generation. Lack of adequate discipleship will produce superficial Christians - Christians who can be easily sidetracked and deflected from Christian faith. Lack of adequate discipleship means that society will not see quality Christian living and this will accelerate the moral and ethical slippage in our nation. Lack of discipleship will see people leaving the church.

One of the problems with discipleship is that it is a long, painful and costly process. You can't just 'count heads' as you can in evangelism, and it takes years to assess in terms of results.

It reminds me very much of fishing: it's easy to catch fish, cleaning them is the problem. We have often overlooked the fact that the New Testament has a lot more to say about the kind of community the church ought to be before the world than it has to say about its mission to the world.

If we add to this the concern many have about the evangelistic message that we preach, we have double whammy. We have made the evangelistic message palatable to modern people. However it is a radical message and calls for the conversion of heart, mind and will. The gospel demands constant repentance - a willingness to constantly be changed, to be discipled.

 

I BELIEVE THAT THE MAIN ISSUE facing New Zealand churches today is not evangelising, the main issue is discipling. Maybe better discipling would mean more evangelising. A serious question needs to be asked, "If a person is not a disciple, have they been evangelised?"

In the American Presidential election prior to Bill Clinton's first presidential term Clinton coined a very telling phrase. Cutting through all the words and political rhetoric he declared, "It's the economy, stupid!" I think a statement like that needs to be placed on every Christian leader's study wall. I suggest it should be, "It's discipleship, stupid!"

 

Brian is National Principal of Bible College of New Zealand. His particular interest is encouraging congregations to integrate evangelism, the ministry of the Spirit and social concern. Brian can be contacted at [email protected]


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