Evangelicalism and Discipleship

Lots has been written about discipleship. Many churches have some kind of discipleship program that appears every now and then. It’s a process that’s expected to happen once we become a Christian. This is what Dallas Willard says on the subject in his book, “The Divine Conspiracy”.

Non-discipleship is the elephant in the church. It is not the much discussed moral failures, financial abuses or the amazing general similarity between Christians and non-Christians. These are only effects of the underlying problem. The fundamental negative among Christian believers now is their failure to be constantly learning how to live their lives in The Kingdom Among Us. And it is an accepted reality. The division of professing Christians into those for whom it is a matter of whole-life devotion to God and those who maintain a consumer, or client, relationship to the church has now been an accepted reality for over 1500 years.

And at present – in the distant outworkings of the Protestant Reformatrion, with its truly good and great message of salvation by grace alone – that long accepted division has worked its way into the heart of the gospel message. It is now understood to be a part of the ‘good news’ that one does not have to be a life student of Jesus in order to be a Christian and receive forgiveness of sins. This gives a precise meaning to the phrase ‘cheap grace’, though it would be better described as ‘costly faithlessness’. “

– Dallas Willard, ‘The Divine Conspiracy’, 1998, Chapter 8, pg 330 in my paperback copy.

So – are the evangelical churches unwittingly teaching ‘cheap grace’? Is the emphasis on winning converts at the expense of encouraging real discipleship? Do churches have the intention of making disciples, and if they do, is it more than just a bunch of actions by which you can measure if you are a disciple or not? Are people really disciples if they do a few things they are supposed to do – turn up on Sunday, go to a home group regularly, tithe and give? Is there time in our lives for a discipleship that goes beyond what we do to how we ‘be’? If more of us were true disciples, and over time, transformed by this, would we need evangelistic programs?

What makes a disciple? Do we know people who really are disciples and how do we recognise them? Is this something missing in some of our evangelical settings and lives?


28 thoughts on “Evangelicalism and Discipleship

  1. I think Willard is being dangerous in calling ‘grace’ cheap. Even if Christian’s do abuse Him, at least they know God is there for them.

    Unfortunately they know very little about grace and need to be informed that God’s grace makes us ACCOUNTABLE and RESPONSIBLE stewards and representatives as sons and daughters.

    The way God reveals to the world His royal priesthood is through His divine discipline and leading. If Christian’s choose to ignore the call of being accountable in grace, than they need to be corrected lovingly.

    Grace is never cheap – it’s a lifesaver every moment, ever day for the rest of our lives!

  2. In context, Willard is not calling grace cheap! Not at all. I hope my lifting that quote didn’t make it too hard to understand. What Willard seems to be implying is that the way grace is taught turns it into a ‘cheap grace’. That is,

    1. Believe in Jesus;
    2. Say a sinner’s prayer;
    3. Go on believing in Him for salvation, and continue your life basically as you were – but you are saved.
    4. Perhaps make sure you do a few things to be a ‘good Christian’ – turn up to church regularly and on time, tithe, support a ministry. But the rest of the time, go on living your life, safe in the knowledge you are saved.

    Basically, believe, do some stuff, but then you can have more or less your life as its always been. ie: It doesn’t cost you that much.

    The prosperity crowd would take it further than that – you can have more or less your life as its always been – but if you ‘do some stuff’, God will make it even better, materially, here and now.

    Those are all my words, not Willards. He is saying that the emphasis is often on conversion rather than discipleship, and that discipleship is about learning to live our lives the way Jesus would live our lives if He was in our shoes. (Our shoes being our job, our town, our circumstances.) Learning to live in the Kingdom, is understanding how the Kingdom of God works, now, and living accordingly, rather than living according to the kingdom of man, which is the way most of us are conditioned to live by our environment.

    So an example might be becoming the type of people who always forgive (the world doesn’t), who don’t get offended (the world and the flesh do), who love their enemies (definitely not the world), who trust in God for their needs, rather than in what the world supplies. And so forth.

    So an emphasis on discipleship would include an emphasis on growing in all these things and incorporating them in our daily lives, 24/7, to the point where we do become noticeably different from those who don’t know Christ.

    The question is whether we are like this, whether we are discipled in this manner, and whether if we are, do we become the type of people that others are actually attracted to, wanting to know the reason for our difference or faith, so that evangelism becomes organic rather than a campaign or formulaic approach. We are often taught methods of evangelism, but this does not involve a method. It involves the work of God in and through us, and the realisation of His Kingdom in us, then spreading.

  3. I think Churches have come, more or less, to the same conclusion.

    However, how do we address this lack of discipleship?

    There have been a number of attempts to address this problem … many of which have come unstuck.

    Even while there is recognition that believers remain converts and fail to become disciples, some churches have gone further than ever to get people in: Willow Creek is more interested in bums on seats than making disciples. They found that Sundays weren’t feeding the flock what they needed so they introduced a Wednesday evening teaching slot for church members … who preferred to go to the seeker services as they were more entertaining!

    Other churches have tried introducing rules and regulations (Methodists for example) producing a narrow legalism, while others have gone for accountability systems (heavy shepherding) which have been prone to abuse by people who should never have been made leaders.

    Still more churches have gone down the cell-group/small group bible study approach. I like this for it allows individuals to lead Bible-studies who would otherwise never get the opportunity to lead in this small but important way. Unfortunately, not everyone goes to a small group.

    Even so, I come back to Sunday Worship services. This should be the primary place where individuals in the church receive teaching. The real downside is that systematic bible teaching is now not done (at least not in my Church!) … we get bits and pieces.

    I have been in Churches that did this, and churches that haven’t done this. The main benefit of Systematic teaching is that it forces people and congregations to look at passages of scripture they have NEVER seen before.

    I am convinced that discipleship must begin in God’s Word, and continue in God’s Word.

    Everything else will fall into place once this is done.

    I know it’s not popular … indeed, it’s as if people preferred the open topic Sundays to the systematic teaching Sundays. However, why are we so keen to do what is popular? I mean, Jesus wasn’t popular.

    I firmly believe that God wants us back in the Bible on Sundays. Concentrating on passages of scripture rather than hopping from verse to verse, jumping through the Bible to prove a point. Context is everything.

    One exception to this is comparing Gospels. Comparing Matthew and Luke with respect to the Beattitudes:

    Blessed are the poor … Woe to you Rich.
    Blessed are those who weep and mourn … woe to you who laugh now.

    Jesus curses those who have everything? Interesting discussion. The trouble is, how many people in a pulpit on Sunday would be able to make that connection and then be able to teach on this? When was the last time you heard the Gospel of Luke preached from beginning to end? (Over a number of weeks/months obviously …)

    The danger is that bits of scripture will be ignored. Luke Chapter 16 is a difficult one for a congregation with Remarried Divorcees in it. A straight reading of it will be so difficult … so we need to get teaching on what Jesus said, rather than ignore it and hope it goes away.

    ‘Homosexuality’ and ‘women in leadership’ are other issues which we need a biblical understanding on … even if we have a very liberal understanding … otherwise we will be ignoring scripture.
    Still, maybe this is why we are going through a time when many churches are abandoning the SYSTEMATIC teaching of scripture on Sunday morning.


  4. It’s an interesting topic. Someone who works with us was updating me last week about something he initiated in India. They have a strategy of evangelism through discipleship. A trained disciple goes into a new village and be-friends the “man of peace”. He serves him and honours him until he is asked questions about why he acts and thinks so differently. The bible isn’t quoted but the principles of the bible are expressed in lay terms and lived out for everyone to see.

    Once the “man of peace” accepts Christ, the whole village is open to the gospel and are discipled.

    Evangelism is just somewhere in the middle of the discipleship process (at different stages for different people). There is no signing on the dotted line or standard prayer of salvation etc.

    It’s an extremely relational way of living out (discipling) and sharing the gospel.

    This was started 10 years ago by four people, last year alone there was just under 7,000 new baptisms.

    The questions we were discussing relates to how this transposes to our western culture. (For FL – what generational / replicatable model could work here). Could it be that organised churches can actually inhibit the discipleship process in Australia because they are perceived to be detached, not trusted, irrelevent?

    Once we put a name to something, the separation from the rest of society begins.

  5. My attitude if the gospel is presented to people every Sunday, it will be enough to equip, wisen them up and encourage them to live a life of accountability.

    Too many churches use the classic Ephesians 6 (armour of God), for spiritual warfare.

    What we’re essentially putting on and using in everyday life (presented as armour) is Christ! If we see ourselves as soldiers in God, do they not remain constantly disciplined – standing strong as a core believer?

  6. Some more explanatory comments from an interview with Willard:

    What do you mean when you use the phrase spiritual formation?

    Willard: Spiritual formation is character formation. Everyone gets a spiritual formation. It’s like education. Everyone gets an education; it’s just a matter of which one you get.

    Spiritual formation in a Christian tradition answers a specific human question: What kind of person am I going to be? It is the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person. That’s all it is. You are taking on the character of Christ in a process of discipleship to him under the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It isn’t anything new, because Christians have been in this business forever. They haven’t always called it spiritual formation, but the term itself goes way back.

    Is spiritual formation the same as discipleship?

    Willard: Discipleship as a term has lost its content, and this is one reason why it has been moved aside. I’ve tried to redeem the idea of discipleship, and I think it can be done; you have to get it out of the contemporary mode.

    There are really three gospels that are heard in our society. One is forgiveness of sins. Another is being faithful to your church: If you take care of your church, it will take care of you. Sometimes it’s called discipleship, but it’s really churchmanship. And another gospel is the social one—Jesus is in favor of liberation, and we should be devoted to that. All of those contain important elements of truth. You can’t dismiss any of them. But to make them central and say that’s what discipleship is just robs discipleship of its connection with transformation of character.

    What does this misunderstanding of discipleship look like?

    Willard: In our country, on the theological right, discipleship came to mean training people to win souls. And on the left, it came to mean social action—protesting, serving soup lines, doing social deeds. Both of them left out character formation.

    Isn’t character formation very much a part of many Christian schools and institutions?

    Willard: What sometimes goes on in all sorts of Christian institutions is not formation of people in the character of Christ; it’s teaching of outward conformity. You don’t get in trouble for not having the character of Christ, but you do if you don’t obey the laws.

    From Christianity Today, October 2005

  7. Discipleship is the gospel lived out. A preacher can teach everything, but unless I see them living out the gospel in every day circumstances there is no context for this discipleship. How does someone respond to road rage, or how does someone bless an enemy? Seeing this lived out in real life is a result of a core change of a believer as an example in Christ. They are real life examples for my specific circumstances.

    It is good to listen to a teacher, but they’re not going to provide an example (or disciple me) in the context of the details that I face in the building industry.

    Discipleship is lived out in a close relationship its a result of who you are in Christ and the fact that He’s conforming you into His likeness. It’s a result of who you are and how you act. It provides specific examples of how to be in specific situations.

    I think the problem is that we think discipleship is Sunday (or Wednesday night) preaching and teaching.

  8. I agree very much. Doctrine is important, but character is more important. We can have great doctrine, but unless we are somehow transformed on the inside, it won’t do us any good. Discipleship transforms our character, the outworking of which is how we live. Also, our character is ultimately a reflection of what we really believe, deep inside, and inevitably shows whether we have true faith or a shallower in principle agreement. Not that the latter can’t grow deeper.

    One problem we see is leaders chosen for either academic qualification or charisma, and the character qualifications are more a check of what people haven’t noticeably done wrong, rather than a visible outworking of the gospel in their lives. (If that makes sense.) Leaders might teach well, but they can never provide an example for the purpose of discipling if their own discipleship has not occurred.

    On the other hand, sometimes we meet inspirational individuals who do seem to have become disciples of Christ in a way that we can recognise. I am thinking of people who handle adversity without bitterness, who endure in hardship but maintain their faith and even their joy; people going through grief who seem to draw closer to God; even people who are struggling to find God’s presence in their life at some time but whose faith still prevails.

    Perhaps these are the inspirational stories that we can be encouraged by in our fellowships and whose examples we can follow in our real lives.

    Is there a way to program that kind of discipleship? (I’m not implying there is not – just asking that if a church wants to intentionally disciple people, how does it help here?

  9. Look at the difference between “Songs of Praise” and “Hillsong TV”.

    One has real people talking about their real lives, the other is good for inspiration and thinking big.

  10. How do we get to know what God is like?

    How do we find out about Father’s character?

    How do we get close to Him, if we don’t know who He is?

    Answer: everything we need to know is in the Bible. Reading it and receiving teaching on it opens it up and Father is revealed.

    As one former Muslim cried out “That’s who you are! You are not Allah you are Abba!”

    Reading and Hearing the Word reveals the person of God to us … and brings us close to Him. We find out the good bits (forgiveness, grace, mercy) and the bits that sound tough (Angel of Death, snakes in the wilderness for the sin of grumbling, sending God’s Chosen people into exile for disobedience … and there is harsher judgments than that!)

    Without the full knowledge of God, How can we come to know Him? How can we be true disciples if we don’t know Him?


  11. In other words … SYSTEMATIC Bible Study is the beginning of the process, not an end in itself.

  12. So churches should give out bibles with explanatory notes and that would largely take care of discipleship?

  13. Discipleship is about the Word of God living in us and being revealed to others through our lives. The bible helps equip us for this.

  14. It’s more than useful. But people get saved without reading it. The Truth can be revealed through us even if we don’t have a Phd in Theology.

    Discipleship is about replicating ourselves – follow us as we follow Christ. This is primarily a relational activity. The gift of teaching is very important to the body of Christ – I don’t have it, but I can still disciple, just by being myself.

  15. ok … but without the Bible, eventually, people will get wrong ideas about God. With the best will in the world, you will still get wrong ideas, and without the Bible to correct you, you will pass on wrong ideas.

    Welcome to Todd Bentleyville.

  16. If God loves us with all His heart, soul, mind, strength and Spirit – this is of great assurance that we can be open to His love to guide us in how to love Him ourselves and others more.

    Where Pentecostalism goes wrong in discipleship is in their “New Thing” pendulum.

    Let me explain: Passionate people are big on hearing from God through the bible. So they study it til they are blue in the face. Some feel it is a bit dead and then start focusing on the ‘Spirit’.

    Preachers and leaders see where people are heading and feel that same pull that God is doing a ‘new thing’. Then they swing fully extreme into moving in the ‘Spirit’ leaving the bible behind.

    Then when something doesn’t sit right in their gut about where they are at in discipleship, they take an extreme swing in another direction.

    At the moment the pendulum has fully swung into the signs and wonders camp. It’s popular, it’s in.

    Todd Bentley kind of got it right when he said ‘the church doesn’t believe in the supernatural’. Unfortunately the deceiving angel refused to acknowledge that the gospel, Jesus Christ and what He has done in us IS supernatural and out of this world.

    We need to be aware of the swing to the extreme in any camp of discipline. Those I believe who hear from God, chug along quite happily loving their family, loving their friends, having nights out with friends from the church and singing worship songs at bible studies. They love to be practical in their faith, open to God and to learn from Him and others using the bible.

  17. ‘Todd Bentley’ and ‘discipleship’ look like oxymorons. TB is a good example of a charismatic individual re-entering public ministry without having evidence of discipleship in his life. Even the Apostle Paul after meeting Jesus had some years before he appeared to enter his primary ministry to the Gentiles. Years in which I imagine the process of discipleship took place, in whatever manner it needed to in his situation.

    I don’t think that reading the bible systematically and having a relational approach to discipleship are mutually exclusive at all. Surely we need relationships to bring the doctrines we learn to life and to challenge us in how we bring them into being in our lives. Also, in relationships, we can see and learn from the illustration in the lives of those who have already done this.

    The relational side is essential – both in terms of our relationship with Father, and Jesus (whom we definitely understand in greater depth through scripture), and in terms of our relationships with those who are examples to us, and whom we are examples to. That is why it is sooooo important to have leaders that are good examples, and who are honest about their struggles and failures. Plus no pedestals – we are all walking with Christ, but at different stages and places, presumably in His plan for our individual selves. It’s a pretty good reason to treat one another with respect as fellow students.

    Jesus gave so many illustrations, and was a living illustration Himself of what He taught. We become those illustrations too, when we become disciples. Even his death was an illustration of what He taught. When he said that to save your life you must lose it, did his students at the time understand all the levels at which that was true? In his physical death and resurrection, they must have suddenly had a revelation of how profoundly this applied in so many ways. (A good thing to think about this Easter.)

  18. A disciple is a follower and a learner, by definition, therefore, he or she needs to be following someone. So we all follow Christ, and the life of Christ is before us in the Bible, however, he commanded us to make disciples, which means the onus is on us to evangelise and make disciples of people, and teach them how to be followers of Christ, from the position of being followers of Christ ourselves.

    But we can only do this from a position of being made disciples ourselves. Discipleship must, of course, be Biblical, so whoever we follow, or whoever follows us, has to be following on the basis of Biblical lifestyle, which can only be gained through correct teaching, training, relationships, study and stewardship.

    And there is the spiritual side of this, because those who are sons of God are led by the Spirit, which is where we are different from the world, and from cults.

    So we need relationship discipleship, Biblical discipleship, and spiritual discipleship, although they are not really three separate entities. Jesus said we were to be baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. All three are represented here in baptism, which signifies our intent to walk away form our old life into the new, and to acknowledge that our life no longer belongs to us but to God.

    A better understanding of what water baptism means would help people realise that the journey of discipleship isn’t a take it or leave it experience, but a dedication and commitment to a lifestyle of Christ-likeness.

  19. FL on a practical level how is discipleship going in your church, how does it take place and how is it outworked in the lives of individuals? What are the major obstacles / solutions etc?

  20. I don’t think there’s enough space to do it justice. It’s a complex issue which needs constant revaluation, and we’re current going through this process.

    Basically, new converts are encouraged to enter a foundational course, which leads them on to small group involvement, where they make friends, and have a mutual support group, having been baptised in water, and given an understanding of the importance of baptism.

    New converts are also taken care of by people who know them and/or brought them into the congregation. We have a connection team which ensures that all new visitors are made welcome and connected with members, and small group hosts, have a follow up call and letter, and receive information about our church. We have a café which serves inexpensive meals, and good quality coffee, where fellowship takes place after meetings, which is always very well attended. It gives an opportunity for leadership to meet new people.

    We see the work of ministry as being for all members, and the oversight as trainers as well as participants in the work of the ministry.

    We like to give people as much time for family life as possible, since this is one of the great places of discipleship, and gear messages and resources to assist this. So we try to avoid placing people in the position of always being in the meeting hall, but rather i the church outside walls. So we encourage at least one main meeting a week, and one midweek meeting, with regular monthly leadership meetings for those who with departmental responsibilities.

    We encourage personal study and prayer, and relating to people who have been through the kind of things they are facing on a daily basis. We also have dedicated Bible Courses for those who want to further their understanding and knowledge of the Word.

    We have recently redesigned our preaching/teaching ministry to include practical outworking of the vision, and the how-to of Biblical life-style, which is primarily topical preaching and teaching, interspersed with Holy Spirit ministry, and occasional consecration meetings, including regularly breaking bread, which is balanced with expository teaching in night sessions, akin to Bible School courses, only with Holy Spirit ministry. At the moment we’re on the Book of Galatians.

    There’s much more, but this is a basic understanding.

  21. Thanks for that FL, that sounds fantastic – a great work.

    Do you see this as equipping your church members so that they can go and disciple, or is this the discipleship process or a bit of both?

    The reason I ask, is that in our company we have people who are in leadership positions in their local churches, but their most effective discipling occurs at work, where they are with people all day every day.

    It seems to be that there local churches are equipping them, with the teaching etc, and they are involved in discipling at church, but this is limited by the amount of time that they can physically spend with people.

    This is not a restriction at work where they spend time with the same people all day every day. Discipleship seems to be a natural relational outcome without them setting out to do it sometimes.

    Do you see any synergies between a church like yours and our company? Any suggestions, any ideas outside of the box?

  22. Just an aside: I’ve always felt that for those of us who are in the workplace full time, work is a major discipling area, even when it is God doing the discipling through our relationships with others including non-Christians, or challenges at work. God gave us work as part of His plan, so it has an important place and must be good for us.

    If there are other Christians in the workplace, then having their ongoing physical presence as examples to us, in areas where they are mature, is definitely valuable. Other places where this might occur is sharing a house with other Christians (particularly out of friendship, not necessarily an ‘arranged’ church household), or through Christian neighbours and community members that we are involved with regularly, where its more frequent than our church group. Marriage of course can involve discipleship also.

    Unfortunately, I briefly worked for an extremely disfunctional ‘Christian’ office, which I exited from as fast as I could find another job, but I know that is not what God generally intends!

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