Discipleship and the Church

By Steve Manskar

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Christ at Emmaus (Rembrandt). Public Domain.

I am currently reading an excellent book by Mike Breen and Steve Cockram titled, Building a Discipling Culture. Early in the introduction readers see the following quote printed in all capital letters:


The authors use the capital letters in much the same way people who regularly use electronic communication. In e-culture the use of all caps in a message tells the recipient that the sender intends to be screaming his or her message at the top of his or her lungs. It is meant to convey urgency.

Clearly Breen and Cockram are trying to get the reader’s attention. They want to make sure we understand the central argument of their book and their approach to pastoral leadership. As I read Building a Discipling Culture it is abundantly clear to me that the authors are trying to wake up the church to the fact that it has got things backwards.

We’ve convinced ourselves that the church makes disciples. Therefore, we need to build up the church so that disciples can be made. The church is the factory, people and programs are the input, and disciples are the product. Disciple-making is a mechanical process similar to building automobiles, computers, or any other complex machine. The important thing is that we need to build and maintain the factory (church) in order to make the desired product (disciples).

The problem with this thinking is that it is not Scriptural. Here’s another insightful and challenging quote from Breen and Cockram:

Effective discipleship builds the church, not the other way around. We need to understand the church as the effect of discipleship and not the cause. If you set out to build the church, there is no guarantee you will make disciples. It is far more likely that you will create consumers who depend on the spiritual services that religious professionals provide.

When we focus on building the church we too often end up with an institution that seeks to grow and sustain itself. Its mission is church growth by developing and providing programs and services that attract large numbers of people. Conventional wisdom tells us a church that can attract large numbers of people to its programs and services is successful and vital. Success and vitality are then seen as faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The problem with this focus on building the church is that discipleship always gets short shrift. It becomes one of the program options provided to members. Membership is then equated with discipleship. Faithful consumption of church programs and services is all that is expected from disciples. Making disciples, therefore, is the process of turning “un-churched” people into faithful consumers of church programs. We end up with people who are ardent admirers of Jesus but who have little interest or time to “deny themselves, take up their cross daily” and follow him.

Breen and Cockram remind us that Jesus commissioned his disciples to “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life…” (Matthew 28:19a, The Message). Jesus never told his disciples to build the church. Building the church is his job (see Matthew 16:18). Our part is to obey his command to go into the world and train everyone we meet in Jesus’ way of life. Disciples are Jesus ambassadors who are given the task of inviting and training the world in the way of holiness. The church emerges when we focus on doing what Jesus taught his disciples to do.

Discipleship and the church are organically related. They are symbiotic. One emerges with the other. They cannot be complete without each other. The important thing to always remember is that discipleship comes first. When we get that right, then Jesus will be at the center of the church. When Jesus is at the center the church is clear that its mission is his mission: preparing this world for the coming reign of God. When Jesus is at the center the church proclaims and is good news to the poor; hungry people are fed; thirsty people find what they need to quench their thirst; people who are homeless and strangers find welcome; people who have nothing receive warm clothes and are helped to put on Christ (see Colossians 3:12); the sick are healed and prisoners are visited.

John Wesley understood this very well. When asked what was the purpose (mission) of the Methodist societies he replied, “To reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.” His way of reforming the church was to make disciples of Jesus Christ, known as Methodist, and send them to be salt and light (see Matthew 5:13-16) the Church needed to faithfully participate in Christ’s mission in the world. He wanted to shift the Church’s focus from itself to Christ and his mission. Wesley’s method was making disciples of Jesus Christ whose lives were characterized by holiness of heart and life.

Covenant Discipleship groups are a contemporary adaptation of Wesley’s method of making disciples who make disciples. When congregations embrace the ministry of Covenant Discipleship they begin to make the shift from church growth to Jesus and his mission in the world.