While speaking with a group of small church pastors recently some of them admitted one of their biggest challenges was in the area of discipleship. Surveys have found that there is little difference between the way Christians live their lives from non-Christians, so it would appear that many churches are not doing a very good job with discipleship. One of the reasons for our difficulty in this area is that we have approached discipleship from a wrong perspective. We have equated discipleship with education. If we can get people into a Sunday school class or small group Bible study we feel we have discipled them, but education alone is not enough to help a person become a disciple of Jesus Christ. With the education we must provide people with the opportunities to put into practice what they are learning.
I don't want to blow past education too quickly. Due to financial challenges some denominations and judicatories have cut back or eliminated their educational departments which means they produce fewer educational resources for their churches. In my opinion, some Sunday school material has been dumbed down so much that it is hardly useful in a church that takes seriously its responsibility to educate its members. When I was a pastor I taught our young adult Sunday school class, and for the last several years I refused to order literature from our Sunday school material supplier because I felt it had been so simplified as to be of little value. I developed our own material for my class.
Sunday school attendance has been shrinking over the past few years to the point that some churches have basically scrapped it in favor of small groups that meet during the week. While they might offer a few Sunday school classes for those generations that prefer them, most of their discipleship training takes place in those small group meetings. Regardless of how it is offered, it is vital that we provide quality biblical training for our church members. The reality is that many Christians have a very poor understanding of even the most basic Bible facts and teaching. This results in immature Christians which leads to many of the problems we find in our churches.
But, education is not enough. I once heard John Maxwell say that the average Christian had been educated far beyond his level of obedience. To grow disciples we must provide our people opportunities to live out what they are being taught. This may involve mission trips or becoming involved in local projects. I know churches that have sister church relationships with churches in South America, and members from these churches visit their sister churches to minister to and alongside of them. When these individuals return and share their experiences with others in the congregation they never fail to mention how their lives have been impacted by the experience. Which do you think produces disciples: sitting in a class hearing about what churches in other parts of the world need or going to those churches and helping meet those needs? I realize not everyone is able to take a trip to another country, but what about local ministry opportunities? Would a person grow as a disciple if they spent even one Saturday a quarter helping a local food bank distribute food? What might be the impact of helping build a Habitat for Humanity house? I know an assocation of churches that invite their members to participate in a weekend ministry trip to a community in Apalachia once or twice a year. Again, these folks return talking about how their lives were changed more than the people they were serving. Several areas around me were hard hit with tornados a few weeks ago, and numerous church groups are involved in helping people clean up debris, repair their houses, and rebuild their lives. In each of these examples, people are living out what they have been taught in their churches, and those involved are growing as disciples.
Regardless of the size of your church, it is imperative that you make ministry opportunities available to the members of your congregation. Many denominations and judicatories offer mission trips that could include members of your church. There are surely a host of ministry opportunities in your own local community. If we want to do a better job of developing disciples we must provide both education and ministry opportunities to our folks.