Informed or Formed?

Frank Decker

Frank Decker

By Frank Decker –

A missionary to South America returned home, discouraged, after a few years of attempting to facilitate spiritual growth among a community where the church is nominally present. He ruefully reported that his efforts to enable discipleship groups were thwarted by a perspective in the church that defined faithfulness in terms of how often a member attended the (nightly) worship services in the church building, leaving the members very little time to participate in formative practices such as Bible study and prayer groups.

A Christian in a former Soviet republic told me that the practice of believers meeting in discipleship groups in one’s home is viewed as suspect not only by government authorities, but also by many church leaders. A residual Old Covenant understanding of God’s presence primarily existing in the temple seems to foment a perspective that group prayer and Scripture study in the home are second-class spiritual pursuits.

And just a couple of weeks ago I was among a group of national Christian leaders in an Asian country where the church has been firmly established amongst a plurality of religious traditions, but the percentage of believers in that country is single-digit. During the teaching on practical discipleship one national missionary who serves in a remote region of his country wept as he lamented, “My agency requires that I send report after report” [on the hope that large numbers of people are being touched by his ministry] “but no one has taught us how to make disciples.”

I have been involved in full-time ministry and missions for more than 30 years, and I remain dumbfounded at the global pervasiveness of what Bill Hull has aptly called “non-discipleship Christianity.” In the approximately 60 countries to which I have traveled, it is sadly apparent that Christian leaders have found numerous ways to keep busy, while at the same time failing to focus on the very thing Jesus said in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:  Make disciples.

Perhaps the problem is that there is confusion between our role and that of our Lord.  At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus responded to Peter’s solid rock confession by saying, in part, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18).  Later, at the end of that same Gospel, the risen Jesus commissioned His followers to “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19).  Here is a biblical indication that, our focus should be to make disciples, while Jesus’ role is to build his church. However, I wonder if our current practices are based on an inverted concept that if we concentrate on building the organizational church, disciples will somehow automatically be made.

I believe that this inversion can be addressed if our efforts become focused on discipleship ministries that are relational, transformational, and intentional.

Discipleship practices, while usually informational, must also be relational. Christ-centered relationships nourish the soil of the heart, enabling the seed of God’s word to grow. It is in small rooms where persons are likely to move beyond merely being informed, to being formed into Christlikeness. While there is no shortage of sermons, seminars, printed materials, radio programs and other mass-disseminated forms of discipleship data available in hundreds of languages, there is a paucity of leaders who actually will spend the necessary time to “get in the room” and sit regularly with a group of two to twenty people for study, prayer, and dialogue. The overshadowing of the relational by the informational has caused Eugene Peterson to ask, “Why are pastors experts on the truth and dropouts on the way?”

Christian leaders are often busy with important and worthy pursuits such as sermon preparation, church administration, and even providing help to those in need.  While these are necessary, they may leave little time in one’s schedule for the work of disciple-making that is relational and transformational.  That is why fruitful discipleship is unlikely to occur unless it is accompanied by the element of intentionality. In other words, discipleship occurs by design, not by default.

If our primary focus is to build the church, we may end up with just that — a church that we have built. But when our efforts are focused in response to Jesus’ commission to make disciples, a sure foundation is formed upon which Christ may build his church.

Frank Decker is vice president for member care and development at the Mission Society.

 

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