4 diseases of truncated discipleship
Getting discipleship half-right is not always better than nothing. Having made plenty of mistakes, and being guilty of over-correcting many deficiencies, I have found that a truncated discipleship model is at least as difficult to address as having no model at all.
By “truncated discipleship”, I mean there are big pieces missing. We may have a curriculum, or a 4-step strategy. We may have a missional focus or a group network. But if we don’t have all the pieces in place we might become satisfied that we have made a good attempt, while knowing our end product is not what Jesus mandated and promised.
Here are the main symptoms I have seen in churches that have it half-right. Some of these dynamics I have actually contributed to myself, to my embarrassment.
In my early days, discipleship was all about the impartation of information. A mind filled with good theology must surely be one that follows Jesus, right?
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that we are usually educated way beyond our level of obedience. At that point, more content doesn’t help. Without application, more is not better, it is just more.
Incredibly the presence of an internal library of good ideas can actually work against us. We feel better if we memorise the voice of scripture, because it drowns out the cry to apply it. We begin to believe that education is the answer to every problem. And so we not only become less committed to living out the principles of Christian life – we become proud in the reality that we can talk about them better than anyone else! (1 Cor. 8:1)
If all we have is information – then every problem is approached theoretically. It is a fulfillment of the classic management axiom: If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.
But information can’t heal your heart on its own. Knowledge of sin only seems to exacerbate our judgement of it in others and ourselves.
We need more than information, without ever devaluing it. We need all four transformational dynamics at play if we are to grow in Christlikeness.
It is not unusual in my context to have many hundreds of people a year go through programs, and see significant leaps in spiritual experience and passion. But at one point, we had so many people on fire for God, that they were raring to go, but couldn’t go for raring!
We had no larger strategy for what these amped-up believers could now do with themselves. We should have been launching groups, and more missional works, and planting churches – but we couldn’t!
We needed these people running the programs we already had – we couldn’t afford to lose their energy to some activity that would shed horsepower from the mother ship. And so, many of our brightest and best – those who could easily have been sent out to plant a church or run an NGO – were encouraged to “stay home”.
In doing so we effectively lost them to kingdom work. Soon enough their internal energy needed an outlet greater than we could offer, and so “God called them” to start a company, or transfer out. It was a tragedy.
The kingdom releases people. It looks outward, being brave enough to risk the loss of one thing, for the benefit of the greater good. Spiritual grid-lock is a disease that kills spiritual health in a church.
This is a condition that arises when our strategy is predominantly to “get them saved and give them something to do“.
We fear the result of people looking within, as it seems to result in perpetual naval-gazing. We have seen too many get fixated on the minutia of dysfunction rather than just getting on with life and helping the church!
But the price we pay for dealing with people as functionary objects is not one we like to budget for. And regardless, it is easier to remain blind to it, because the church stays busy with people coming in and getting excited. All the while the back-door keeps swinging as those who are burned-out and feeling like objects keep slipping out as silently as possible.
They have never dealt with their demons, and had the chance to experience to genuine power of Christ within. They give out of faithfulness, but in the process can lose their faith. They are in the emotional bog, unable to move on, and so they can only move out.
Formation and healing is a vital element of discipleship. We need to treat our people as valuable and sensitive children of God who need to encounter their Dad in real and transformative ways.
This one is obvious. We insist people go out and share the love of God with the world, but expect them to extend far beyond their ability to have that love fuel their efforts.
And so they burn out from compassion fatigue. I have seen so very many people walk away from the expectations of church life, and many of those turn their back on God Himself. Sadly, it is so often those with a heart burning to fix a broken world that get broken in the process.
We must guard the spiritual health of those we lead, and ensure our discipleship model deals well with the whole-person. They need rest, as well as stretching. They need an experience of God as much as an idea about God. They need something meaningful and challenging to do, but as an overflow of the heart rather than a way to destroy it.
See an example of an integrated discipleship model here.