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by Stephen Lim

We are tempted to substitute more easily and quickly achievable human goals that offer visible impressions of success to validate our ministries.
Of course, my people are being discipled, I had assumed for years. They attend services and Bible classes on Sunday. They participate in small groups and fellowships during the week. With all of this spiritual nurture, they must be growing spiritually. Yet, as the months and years passed, I finally had to admit that, except for newer Christians, for the most part I could discern little growth in discipleship among the members of my church.

In this respect the church I pastored did not differ from most. “Stunningly few churches have a church of disciples,” concluded George Barna,1 even while he recognizes that most churches have programs for this purpose. While most pastors fail to see the need, this could be the greatest problem in the church, negatively impacting everything it does.

Presently, 46 per cent of Americans claim to be born again. Gallup, however, found that only 13 per cent evidenced behavioural and attitudinal differences compared with the general population.2 Barna found that only five per cent of adults — and less than 10 per cent of churched youth3 — possess a biblical worldview.4 Dallas Willard bluntly states, “Nondiscipleship is the elephant in the church.”5

Why this dismal state? In researching the lack of discipleship and reflecting on my pastoral experiences, I found many factors that leaders must address. In this article, however, I will focus on the nearly universal problem of flawed ministry paradigms — over which churches have direct responsibility — and how those very paradigms sabotage their efforts at disciple making. These fall into two categories: inadequate goals and defective approaches to disciple making. Churches can create a culture of discipleship by replacing these flawed paradigms with biblical paradigms for ministry.

In our culture, fulfilling the twin goals of the Great Commission — evangelism and disciple making — to any significant degree requires strenuous spiritual and practical effort. Clear, lasting results require time. We are tempted to substitute more easily and quickly achievable human goals that offer visible impressions of success to validate our ministries. Because these goals have deeply rooted themselves in church culture, we need courage, wisdom and perseverance to replace them with biblical paradigms that reflect Jesus’ calling. Contrast four popular but inadequate ministry goals with biblical ones.

Growing numbers versus life change
As a pastor, even when I knew better, I was tempted to use growing attendance as a measure of success. In a culture that prizes size, ministers and churches strive for this visible sign of accomplishment. Barna’s studies consistently indicate that churches measure their success by attendance, income, building size, and satisfaction of members.6 In this age of residential mobility and consumer Christianity, however, 80 per cent of church growth results from believers changing churches. Churches become adept at collecting crowds by offering desirable ministries. Through this means — especially in large or growing population areas — new churches can reach an attendance of hundreds, and even thousands, within a few years. While outstanding exceptions exist, Carl George concludes that megachurches generally sustain growth by being receptor churches for believers from smaller feeder churches.7
Instead of simply seeking numerical increase, we need to aim at life change. Jesus said that His followers should be so positively different that they flavour a bland culture and illumine a dark world (Matthew 5:13–16). The Apostle Paul said that a Christian becomes “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Willard suggests, “Instead of counting Christians, we should weigh them ... by focusing on the most important kind of growth — love, joy, peace ... — fruit in keeping with the gospel and the kingdom.”8

Sin management9versus lordship
Christians have confessed their sins and accepted the forgiveness God offers through the cross. They become God’s children and have the hope of eternal life. Surely this summarizes the essence of Christian faith----or does it? When we have dealt with the sin problem, how to live our lives under His lordship should become our central focus.

Today a large percentage of adults who become Christians do so because they realize their inadequacy to cope with life’s challenges using their own resources. A variety of long-standing problems culminated in their cry for divine rescue. They require the ongoing healing and shaping power of God’s Spirit,along with a supportive community of believers, to live healthy and obedient lives.

The Los Angeles International Church specializes in reaching out to people in extreme physical, emotional and spiritual need resulting from personal dysfunctions, wrong choices and abuse. One staff member commented, “Everyone likes to fish. No one wants to clean the fish. That’s what we do here: clean the fish.”10

Serious evangelists and disciple makers need to emphasize the lordship of Jesus. Otherwise, we continue the scandal of millions professing faith without living it.

In his book, Mere Discipleship, Lee Camp bluntly asks, “Could it be that ‘Jesus is Lord’ has become one of the most widespread Christian lies? Have Christians claimed the lordship of Jesus, but systematically set aside the call to obedience to this Lord?”11

Compliance and zeal versus maturity and fruitfulness
We tend to produce members who support the church instead of disciples who impact their world. During 30 years in ministry, I have observed that most pastors settle for appropriate behaviours and a zealous spirit on the part of their members. Much of the time I did the same. If members regularly attended church activities, accepted its basic doctrines, served in a ministry and did not create waves, I felt satisfied. If they also tithed, contributed to missions, attended prayer meetings and occasionally witnessed or invited people to church, I practically jumped for joy.

Yet believers can do all of these and still live a self-centered way. They can endure miserable marriages, display unchristlike behaviour at church, and irritate their neighbors and co-workers — while making little difference for the kingdom of God. Too often we equate compliance and zeal with maturity. Compliance may be external, without transformation, and zeal simply human enthusiasm instead of deep conviction. Even when genuine, zeal without maturity fails to produce the fruit that it could. We cannot settle for less than continuing growth toward mature and fruitful discipleship.

Full programming versus mission-driven strategy
“We offer a full range of activities for every age group,” churches boast. Unfortunately, secondary activities divert our focus, crowding out time, energy and resources for the Great Commission. Thom Rainer’s research finds that simple churches which eliminate these activities are more effective in evangelism and discipleship than activity filled churches. 12

Busier means less effective. This mission must drive the ministries of the church. Unless an activity contributes effectively to evangelism or discipleship, leaders need to consider eliminating it. In retrospect, one of my failings as a pastor was to focus on creating and managing programs instead of concentrating on the mission of the church.

Too many activities and programs arise in the course of a church’s life, each with vested constituents. These continue even when ineffective or only partially effective. More is not necessarily better. The late Peter Drucker urged organizations to assume a policy of abandoning yesterday to release resources for strategies that work today.


Following Jesus should make a difference in every aspect of our lives if He is fully Lord. Most discipleship materials, however, focus on spiritual aspects such as right beliefs and practices. These include: Bible study, prayer, stewardship, witness, resisting temptation, and the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. While essential, these scarcely comprise the whole of our lives. The New Testament clearly shows the centrality of the spiritual in the believer's life. Many other areas must be considered in a holistic discipleship for all of life.

Consider facets of daily living such as work, money, possessions, entertainment, and relationship to culture. These form important arenas in which we honour God. Understanding the way money affects our lives, Jesus taught more about money than prayer. We also need to address relationships, including the meaning of Christian community, relationships with nonbelievers, family and marriage. We must provide intelligent biblical guidance about romantic love and sexual morality because these have been badly distorted by our culture.

Following Jesus should also lead us to embrace servanthood and mission. We need to adopt His concern for the spiritually lost, the materially needy, and those for whom justice has been denied (Micah 6:8; Amos 5:24).
Spiritual growth and personal maturity are closely related and affect one another.

Spiritual resources not only produce spiritual growth, but also enable personal growth. Those who do not grow personally seldom make much progress spiritually.

Discipleship that honours God and produces maximal fruit requires growth in all five areas above. Failure to grow in one category negatively impacts our growth and effectiveness in others. I have known Christians, for example, who possess a strong commitment to God, yet they make little apparent difference for God. Why? Weaknesses in their relationships and personal immaturity neutralize or limit their effectiveness.

STEPHEN LIM, Springfield, Missouri
Published in the winter 2008 issue of Enrichment Journal
Used with permission

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“We must not ask what we can manage in light of current conditions. Instead we must ask: how can we change the church's culture to align with God's mission?”


Even when we avoid inadequate goals and target biblical ones, defective approaches can still sabotage disciple making. Consider four common but flawed approaches along with the correct biblical paradigms.

Discipleship by osmosis versus intentional discipleship
As a pastor, I failed to craft an intentional strategy for making disciples. Instead, I relied mostly on discipleship by osmosis, confident that growth would naturally occur through participation in church services and activities.

People do tend to accept the values of their faith communities, at least cognitively. Yet, in the case of transforming discipleship, my reliance on this nonmethod assumed too much. First, it supposes a highly spiritual environment in which strong biblical values would naturally transfer. This is rarely the case. Second, it presumes that true community exists, where members meaningfully relate and influence others. Again, this seldom occurs. Third, it assumes that when believers are teaching, they will grow in discipleship - a process that occurs only in a small percentage of individuals.

Basics for new believers versus ongoing growth
Many churches label their course for new believers as a discipleship class. Typically these run for several months, assuming this amount of time suffices to transform a convert into a disciple. Since discipleship is a lifelong process, however, churches need to develop means for ongoing growth.

One respected scholar states that during its first several centuries, the church required converts to go through a training period of two to three years before they were fully accepted into the church. He considers this time frame "probably not transferable for today." Because of the difficulty of getting newer believers to commit themselves to an extended period of discipling, he recommends a shorter period of initial discipleship.13 Most churches have done exactly that.

However tempting, we cannot make this concession if we want to fulfil our mission as the church. We must not ask what we can manage in light of current conditions. Instead we must ask: how can we change the church's culture to align with God's mission? In particular, how can we motivate believers for ongoing growth? Leaders must address these issues in light of significant cultural and personal hindrances and the natural difficulties that discourage discipleship.

Six ways to Motivate Your Church For SERIOUS DISCIPLESHIP

Most resources on making disciples assume you have believers who are ready and waiting for discipling. If only this were true, it would make our task much easier. Leaders must consider the crucial - but often missing - factor of motivation. Without it, the best methods and materials have little value . My appreciation of the need for strong, sustained motivation escalated when I discovered four powerful enemies of discipleship: (1) inherent difficulties; (2) urgent concerns, such as family responsibilities and work pressures; (3) culture seductions, including career success, possessions, and entertainment; and (4) cultural misbeliefs that regularly assault our minds and weaken our resolve to fully follow Jesus.

DUTY OR DESIRE How can we motivate believers for discipleship despite these challenges? Early in my ministry I tried guilt. I quickly found this has only limited, short-term effectiveness. I have emphasized duty, but this also falls short. What delight does God take in the attitude, "I'm obeying You because it is my duty as a believer"?14

The only adequate motivation for following Jesus is desire. In the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, the man joyfully sells all he has to buy the field because its value far exceeds the cost (Matthew 13:44). How can leaders provide and sustain such motivation for discipleship? Through the years I have discovered six sources.

Biblical Vision of God and Reality A strong biblical vision of God serves as the primary motivator. Believers need to see God's holiness and greatness, and appreciate His goodness, faithfulness and forgiveness. Foundational is the reality of a loving God who is for us, not against us. Richard Foster wisely observes, "The Christian life comes not by gritting our teeth but by falling in love."1

Disciple makers must also convey that living for God produces growing joy, wholeness, hope, and a fruitful life in fulfilling God's purposes. Ultimately we gain eternal life with the God who loves us. We must sincerely believe: while difficult, serving God overwhelmingly beats any alternative - so it's hardly a choice at all.

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“A large majority of American churches have accepted flawed ministry goals and approaches to disciple making. These must be exposed and replaced with biblical ones.”

Selective discipleship versus holistic discipleship

In discipling, if we are not careful, we emphasize particular doctrines and practices at the expense of others. This results from denominational emphases, training and personal preferences . Many areas of Christian living, moreover, do not receive adequate attention. As a seminary professor, I regularly survey my students on the topics their churches taught during the previous two years. In terms of frequency of teaching, results indicated these students received an adequate amount of instruction in most areas of spiritual life - prayer, faith, stewardship and temptation - along with family life and marriage. Many practical subjects, however, that occupy a huge part of the believer's thought, time and energy received scant attention. These include: work, success, money, time, entertainment, romantic love,sex and servanthood.

Focus on curriculum versus transformation through relationships
Most churches assume that if individuals complete the recommended classes and absorb the necessary information, they will be discipled. This conveniently avoids the difficult work of engaging people in the confusion and messiness of their lives . Generally, Christians have far more spiritual knowledge than they apply. If Bible study does not transform us, warns Reggie McNeal, it is "merely a head trip ... an idolatrous substitute for genuine spirituality."14

While needed, we must recognize that curriculum alone cannot effect transformation. Mike Yacone lli regretfully observed, "Spiritual growth has become an industry, a system, a set of principles, formulas, training programs, curricula, books, and tapes that, if followed , promise to produce maturity and depth."15 People are unique, however, and their circumstances vary. Individuals also learn and implement truth at different rates and in varying ways . They have personal issues calling for resolution and areas of their lives that need development. These processes work best in an environment of ongoing nurture through relationships of trust, vulnerability, modelling and accountability. This is what Jesus demonstrated with His disciples.

The new believers’ course at a midwestern megachurch consisted of 13 weeks of lectures. Realizing the need for improvement, the pastor of discipleship took my seminary course, “Building the Disciple-Making Ministry.” Afterward, he extended the new believers’ course to six months, and then a year. More important, he divided the class into groups of 10 and recruited a mature couple to mentor each group. For half of each class meeting, instead of listening to presentations, participants shared their lives and applied the teaching personally. Most significantly, group leaders continued to develop these relationships outside of class. Even after the completion of the course, these relationships and the process of discipleship continued.

Two of these mentoring couples shared with me how many questions and personal issues they had helped their disciplees resolve. One couple found that nearly every person in their group had problems with his marriage or an addiction. A female convert asked her mentoring couple, “My boyfriend wants me to move in with him. What should I do?” Churches deal with these kinds of issues not simply by giving biblically correct answers, but by prayerful, ongoing support throughout the difficult process of obeying Jesus and by modelling a better way.

A large majority of American churches have accepted flawed ministry goals and approaches to disciple making. These must be exposed and replaced with biblical ones. While doing so poses many difficulties, God calls leaders to lovingly challenge the cultures of their churches.

We do not need to change all of a church’s ministry paradigms to improve the quality of disciple making. The implementation — even partial — of a single one can improve the process. Sometimes small changes result in visible and positive results, and the accumulation of small victories creates momentum toward progressively greater changes. Then one day, instead of a church that cannot disciple, we will have a church that egularly produces growing disciples. e

1. George Barna, Growing True Disciples: New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001) 20.2. George H. Gallup Jr. and Timothy Jones, The Saints Among Us (Harrisburg, PA.: Morehouse Publishing, 1992).3. “Teens Evaluate the Church-Based Ministry They Received as Children,” Barna Update [Internet]; available from Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=14 (accessed 11 April 2007).4. “Most Adults Feel Accepted by God, but Lack a Biblical Worldview,” Barna Update [Internet]; available from Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=194; (accessed 11 April 2007).5. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (Harper San Francisco, 1998) 301.6. “Most Adults Feel Accepted by God, but Lack a Biblical Worldview,” The Barna Update.7. Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Tarrytown, NY: Revell, 1991) 31-34, 43-44.8. Dallas Willard and Dieter Zander, “The Apprentices,” interviewed in Leadership (1 July 2005).9. Willard, 35. Willard uses this phrase.10. Quote by Dominic Gaccetta in Joel Kilpatrick, “Inner-city Outreach Hits the Streets: Los Angeles International Church,” Today’s Pentecostal Evangel, 24 November 1996: 25.11. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003) 16.12. Thom S. Rainer, “Is Your Church Too Busy?” Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox [Internet]; available from http:// (accessed June 7, 2006). Adapted from Outreach magazine (May/June 2006).13. Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003) 81.14. Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003) 144.15. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) 88.
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is Academic dean and professor of leadership and ministry, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri
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