Recently, I have been intrigued by the interest many evangelical Christians have expressed concerning the pursuit of true disicpleship — often apart from, or in contrast to, participation in the life of the church. It seems there is a movement these days that is increasingly critical of the local church in disciple-making. The general line of reasoning is that churches today, typically are absorbed with maintaining thier own existence rather than really being focused on making disciples.
Of course, foundational to this controversy is the assumption concerning the meaning of discipleship. Those who are critical of the local church in this matter think of discipleship only as a zealous commitment to particular forms of radical obedience to Christ, and of being on mission in a certain way, referencing Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:19, 20). More specifically, they believe true disciples are very intentional about personal evangelism, mentoring others in the Christian faith in one-on-one relationships, and in missional engagements of every kind. At the same time, there tends to be a sense of impatience with Christians who have a more wholistic understanding of the Christian faith and what it means to follow Christ.
This kind of disicpling emphasis seems somewhat narrow in its understanding of other aspects of theology including the meaning of grace, and the nature and importance of the church. The disicpleship emphasis, though commendable for its zeal and emphasis on particular forms of obedience to Christ, appears to draw more from the Gospel accounts rather than the entire New Testament or even larger biblical revelation. While the challenge of focused disciple-making is an important one, it may err in failing to take into consideration God’s larger intention for the Christian life and ministry.
This difference in Christian experience and emphasis is not something new in the history of evangelical Christianity. In my early Christian experience I was greatly aided and enriched by the ministry of a discipling ministry known as the Navigators. In my late teens, various members of the Navigators were instrumental in helping me develop a deep love for daily worship through Scripture and prayer as well as the memorization of Scripture, and its specific application to life. The ministry taught me the importance of personal evangelism, and of my discipling responsiblity to others through one-on-one relationships as well as through group Bible study. In many ways, I grew quickly in my spiritual journey while being carried along in this kind of fellowship and atmosphere.
However, what soon became apparent, in my experience, was a subtle (and sometimes quite overt) criticism of the local church to which I belonged. The implication was that the local church wasn’t really doing much to carry out Jesus’ last command to go and make disciples. Sunday worship services were seen more as generic attempts to bring believers together to express worship in song, to present an offering for the work of the church, and to listen to a biblical message presented by the pastor. Engagement in the church, it was assumed, had little to do with the accountability that true discipleship entails.
In the end, through the counsel of the church’s pastor, as well as my godly parents, I withdrew from active involvemnet in the Navigators to pursue theological studies and ministry training at our denominational Bible College. I actually found the Bible College atmosphere and teaching very enriching for a wider understanding of what it meant to follow Christ and to serve His purposes — but all very much in the context of the local church. Through engagement with more focused discipling ministries while attending universty, such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ (now Power to Change), I came to see important differences between the local church and such para-church, kingdom-building ministries. Futher studies in seminary, following my university studies, helped me see the larger and wider work that God accomplishes through local churches all over the world.
According to the Book of Acts and the Letters of the Apostles, specific obedience to Christ is very important, but so is one’s identity with, and engagement in, the local church. The word “church” is an English translation of the Greek, “ekklesia” which means an assembly of “called out” people. The whole idea of the church is a body of people who are identified with Jesus Christ by their confession of faith in Him by many means– such as baptism, communion, prayer, and worship in song. The New Testament church in any locality consisted of believers in Christ who met regularly for worship, prayer, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42 – 47). Central to the idea of the local church is the fellowship of believers in Christ whcih is all about sharing in true love for one another around the Person of Christ, instruction in God’s Word both for understanding and application, and being equipped to serve in the church and beyond.
In these ways, the emphasis of the lcoal church is a bit different than the strict regima that one might find in a dicilple-making focused community. In fact, outside of the Gospels, in the New Testament, there is little mention of discipleship. Mostly, the call througout the Letters of the Apostles is on living out a biblical faith in the context of a fath-confessing community. What is often missing in discipling groups is a true opporunity for worship, larger theological instruction, and an acceptance of one another based on grace rather than a list of expectations of how to practice faith.
In an effort to simplify and reduce the Christian life to some imporant features of what it means to believe and follow Christ, it’s possible that the discipleship paradigm misses out on other important aspects of faith that are more germaine to what it means to share in the life of the church. I am thinking here of the significance of corporate worship, of the experience of life in the Spirit which includes manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, as well as the various gifts of the Spirit. Discipling through the church is definitely implied through an emphasis on preachimg and teaching, as well as in the responsibility that church leaders have to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11, 12).
Sometimes, as the discipling school asserts, a great amount of resources are spent on personnel and buildings with little evidence of real return in terms of true disciple-making. However, such a view fails to consider the larger ministry of the local church over time which seeks to reach out to people of all ages resulting, ultimately, in far-reaching effects on the lives of families and peoples of other cultures and lands.
In response to those who espouse a strict disicple-making paradigm of the Christian faith, it is true that churches can easily settle for maintaining the system or the institution without accomplishing very much of what God intended. Churches do need to guard against simply maintaining their existence, or basking in theological truth without the kind of true obedience which faith in Christ implies.
Yet there is ultimately no substitute for a well-led local church which very intentionally enages a whole community of believers in Christian growth and true Christian service. True disciple-making can and should happen in a local church that meets regularly for worship, observes the ordinances of baptism and communion, provides for the sanctity of marriage and family living, offers compassion and counsel to those who struggle, instructs believers in the whole truth and application of Scripture, seeks to communicate the Gospel in word and deed, and equips believers to serve the church and community with the giifts of the Spirit. But that disciple-making will be much larger in scope than the disciple-making paradigm that tends to disparage the tremendous importance of the local church as instituted in the New Testament.