Steve Bremner

Author, Podcaster & Writing Coach

Broken Views on DiscipleshipThis post is a 7 min read

Broken views on discipleship

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing a succinct blog post on what is discipleship since the majority of the time that I talk to a few other missionaries or pastors, I find myself clarifying — almost defending — that what we’re doing here in Peru is biblical.

I recently found myself in a discussion with someone who wouldn’t let me finish any of my sentences as we discussed what the Gospel, and making disciples of all the nations, entails. This friend seemed to have the impression that I’m a part of some kind of G12 network that is planting churches in order to create tithers who provide an upward cash flow to us.

I just squirted milk out of my nose saying that last sentence out loud since I’m hardly living high on the hog nor is that even what we’re doing.

As I sat down to write this, I realized that this conversation confirmed that for many different people the word “discipleship” can dial up any number of different reactions, (mis)understandings and definitions. Since many pastors and leaders believe standing in front of a pulpit and having people listen to them once a week is “making disciples” and fulfilling the great commission, it can be easy to falsely gauge our success in making disciples by the numbers of people attending a meeting. Or that the numbers of people completing a program that consists of attending meetings is the same thing as discipleship.

As I prepare to go to the jungle of Pucallpa next week to accompany Mark Burgess, Shaun Wissmann and our team of students in a conference where we’ll be teaching local pastors and leaders about a tool we use called life shapes, I thought I’d hash out some of my thoughts on my blog for the rest of this week in an unofficial series of posts on what discipleship is and isn’t, rather than some kind of single definitions blog.

In my next post I’ll talk about information, imitation, and innovation. As a result I realize I may be using vocabulary in today’s post that might not make too much sense until then and I realize that, but please bear with me.

Discipleship is not Attending Meetings

It can include that, but meetings can’t replace discipleship nor can it be our only method or strategy of accomplishing it, since discipleship involves lifestyle imitation which can’t happen through hearing sermons.

Early yesterday morning I read this post by Ed Stetzer on Churchleaders.com called 5 Broken Views on Discipleship & How To Fix Them. I could have written it myself it, but that’s beside the point. I’m glad when I see more and more visible leaders with the clout and authority he’s got coming out and saying that what we call discipleship in the Church is not really discipleship but something else altogether.

He rightly states that discipleship is a daily process and not a once per week event. I’ve said before that Jesus preached the sermon on the mount, but that doesn’t mean he discipled all those who heard that sermon. He fed the five thousand and taught them, but that doesn’t mean he discipled them, considering that in John’s Gospel the crowd abandoned Him the next day when He challenged them to eat his flesh and drink his blood (see John 6:56 in context). Discipleship is not a transfer of knowledge alone. It’s not just a transfer of the DNA (information), but a cultivating and forming it (through imitation).

Discipleship is a lifestyle, not a class or a program.

There’s not just information shared, but space for imitation to take place. As Stetzer says in his article,

While I don’t think one can appropriately grow without seeking more biblical knowledge, many times believers reduce the discipleship process to, “Read this. Study this. Memorize this. Good to go.” This is unfortunate.

Indeed it is.

You Don’t Get Discipled Through Reading a Book, Either

I remember once introducing our leader Mark to someone I knew locally in Lima who wanted to learn what we do in our Oikos to make disciples and foster a sense of community. This pastoral leader was seeking to replicate our success in his own ministry. It became obvious as we talked that this pastor was disappointed at Mark’s answers as he discussed having people in his home every day, coming and going, and preparing and budgeting for approximately a dozen people to eat lunch together every weekday in his home.

On the other hand, this leader we were meeting with had once bragged to me he doesn’t let any Peruvian know where he lives so he doesn’t have to deal with any “unnecessary” visits in his personal life. I’m not saying or implying it was wrong or right of this leader to approach his ministry in this way as he could be motivated by seeking to protect his family. I’ve encountered threats to my safety from being indiscriminate in who I let know where I lived. There obviously needs to be wisdom and caution. But the approach for this leader was that discipleship is a course, and he decided to dismiss any of Mark’s suggestions on how he could transition his ministry into a missional community once he realized Mark was letting people have access to his life with more frequency than this other pastor wished to.

Over and over this leader kept asking “what program do you use?” “What book(s) or material do you use?” I would watch them both look at each other incredulously as it became apparent neither one was speaking the other’s language. What I’ve noticed that is different between Mark and this other pastor we were meeting with was that Mark’s approach to discipleship allowed for people to have access to him, while the other person was looking for a program or a course to imitate, and he left disappointed and empty-handed.

Discipleship Is Not a Sunday Morning Event

We hold discipleship as one of our main core values in Oikos and seek to reproduce reproducers, I guess you could say. That’s why we have a balance of informal and formal discipling. We spend time hanging out and goofing around with our disciples and those we’re mentoring through things like movies, games, and eating meals together. Likewise there’s also formal stuff like teaching and Bible study, one on one times of mentoring and so forth.

To properly disciple, you can’t have one without the other. Let’s face it, pastoring a large mega church can result in you having 5000 tithing members who attend your event every Sunday morning but that does not mean they’re your disciples. They’re attendees. This bugs some people to admit it, but like Stetzer says,

Pastors, move beyond your arrogance and stop thinking your preaching is enough to be the church’s discipleship strategy.

There have even been studies done to show that pastors think they’re doing more discipling than they truly are.

Recent research done by LifeWay Research indicates that 56 percent of pastors surveyed believe that their weekly sermon, or another one of their teaching times such as Sunday evenings/Wednesday evenings, was the most important discipling ministry in the church.

The transfer of information from the pulpit leader to those sitting in the pew does not necessarily produce disciples. I have a friend who was once asked to come off the mission field for 6 months by his sending agency, who also viewed themselves as his spiritual fathers, in order to “receive much-needed correction and spiritual fathering” in his life. When he asked them how he was going to receive mentoring, according to him, he was told to attend the church’s twice-weekly services. When he pursued this further to see what kind of access he’d have to the leaders personally, their repetition of their invitation to attend the services led him to come to the conclusion there’d be practically none. But yet these leaders sincerely believed they were offering discipleship and mentoring to this young man, and were offended that he rejected their “mentoring”.

Many leaders and preachers have learned this type of absentee fathering/mentoring, so it’s no surprise they reproduce it and equate numbers with success, and meetings with discipleship.

I’m going to cut this short for today and continue these thoughts in the next post.

What else would you say we’re missing in our discipleship equation? Leave a comment below.

Don’t forget to check out Ed Stetzer’s original article here.

About Steve Bremner

Steve the coffee drinker is a Canadian missionary to Peru, who is called to raise up disciples who flow in the power of the Holy Spirit within a missional community named Oikos. If you like Steve's blog, you'll also like his Kindle books. Note: this post may have contained affiliate links of which the author receives a small commission if you purchase something recommended in the post.