“Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the age.” (Mat 28: 19-20).
The above passage of scriptures and many other similar passages in the New Testament, like Acts 1: 8, and Mark 16:15, stand as some of the most important missional texts for the church where the Lord Jesus emphasizes the need to make discipleship of all nations. If discipleship was a priority for apostles and the early church, this does not seem to be the same in the church in Africa today. There seem to be more and more nominal Christians filling up the numerous church buildings in Africa than true disciples of Christ. Church attendance during the week is on overage represented by about 20-25% of the membership. But Sunday church services gather close to 80% of the members belonging to one church denomination or ministry.
This observation raises a big question for anyone interested in mission as discipleship. Why is the church not able to make true disciples for Christ? In other words, what has gone wrong in the church so that discipleship has become a slogan on the pulpit rather than the life of the church itself?
In this short blog, I will attempt to respond to the above question. I will use both my own experience as an African missiologist and a church pastor, and the reflection on the book I read by Ogden G (2003) entitled transforming discipleship: making disciples a few at a time as bases for my reflection.
I agree with Ogden (2003, chapter 2) that there are several reasons that have led the church to this chaotic situation of not making disciples. I will look at the six of these reasons and reflect on them from my own missional experience in the African context.
- The resignation of pastors from their primary role in the church
Ephesians 4:111-12 describes the primary role of the five-fold ministry in the church as to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This also means “making disciples for the work of ministry, training church members to become effective witnesses for Christ”. Even if a small percent of pastors continues to train their members to become witnesses for Christ, the majority have resigned from this noble work. They are now busy with deliverance and healing services, administrative work, caring for the needy in the community and many other activities. Discipleship does not feature anymore on the priority list of their pastoral duties. If those who are called to make disciples do not see discipleship as a priority for the church who then will carry out this mission? As you read this blog if you are a minister of the gospel ask yourself a question” why is discipleship not a priority in your weekly agenda anymore?”
- Using church programmes to make disciples rather than building relationships
Discipleship for the Lord Jesus was not a course to be taught to his followers, but a lifestyle he invited them in, an intimate relationship he developed with them to impact their lives for eternity. Mark 3: 14 -15 says “and he appointed twelve, so that they would be with him and so that he could send them out to preach and to have authority to expel demons.”
From Christ’s model of discipleship, relationship comes before ministry. We make disciples through our personal relationship with them rather than through sermons we preach and seminars we hold in churches. I experienced this through both my journey as a Theological student in Zambia and a pastor in Congo. When I was doing my BTh programme in Kitwe Zambia (1999-2003), I had opportunities to spend long hours of exchange and sharing with some of my lecturers. And I can confess that I learnt a lot from them during these private moments than when they taught in the classrooms. And when I became a pastor, I realised that the few church members I spend a lot of time with at home or in home visitations or even travelling together with them for ministry, they tend to become more mature and effective Christians than those who simply attend to church services. I do not disqualify discipleship classes and programmes, they have their own places in the church but building relationship with people, spending time privately with them seems to yield more results than discipleship programmes. What is your approach for making disciples?
- Having an eternal focus of Christianly rather than impacting the community
Most people think about Christianity in terms of forgiveness of sins and faith in Christ that lead to eternity. In other words, the horizontal dimension of Christianity is more emphasized than the vertical aspect. But discipleship from Christ’s perspective is all about touching the community around us even before we enter eternity. This thought is well expressed in Matthew 5: 13-14 “you are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world. A city located on top of a hill cannot be hidden…” If our Christian life cannot influence people where we live than it is useless and meaningless. In all that we teach and preach as church we should focus at preparing disciples of Christ who will make a difference for God in this world, and we will spend eternity with the Lord. Before we go to heaven, we have the world to change for Christ and this requires reflecting our true Christian character through what we are and what we do.
- Fearing to lose church members due to emphasis on discipleship
Discipleship is a life of commitment to Christ, his word, and his church. Being a follower of Christ requires paying the cost of hating oneself and all that we love for the sake of Jesus. But many church leaders or ministers fear to emphasize this higher calling of Christianity in their churches. They think people will run away from church when Christian standards of holiness, devotion and obedience become requirements for Christian living.
This reminds me of one of my church members – a 56 years old lay who approached me after a I preached a sermon on requirements for effective Christian living based on Colossians 3: 1-10. She told me “Pastor if you want our church to have more members, please change your preaching otherwise people will run away.” I told her “It is better for me to have 50 members who live according to God’s standards than gathering 500 members who live as they want but, in the church,”. We should not compromise the Christian message for the sake of drawing crowds into the church. As we serve the Lord in the church, we should always remember that we will be accountable to the one who called us into ministry. Paul says in 2Cor 5: 10 “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, in order that each one may receive back the things through the body according to what he has done, whether good or bad”.
- Not having a clear vision for discipleship in the church
The church is not about activities or programmes but vision. And the vision of any church must evolve around discipleship. When people join our churches, they must be told the vision, the road map that will take them from where they are to where God wants them to be. The church must have a vision for people that will help them become disciples of Christ. It is sad to note that most churches simply gather like any organization and do their routine work, but people are not taken anywhere. Many are the churches today that have a variety of reasons for their being “setting captives free, becoming a prophetic voice to the nation, being the light in the dark world and many similar slogans”. But the question is “where do you want to take the people who are joining your church? If you don’t know where you are taking people please close your church and join others.
- Being a Christian without having a personal discipling experience
From my own experience on the ground as a pastor I would say that about 80% of church members in Africa have never had a discipling experience in their Christian journey. Unfortunately, some of them have even become church leaders when none ever nurtured them in the Lord. How can you disciple others if you have never been discipled yourself?
I agree with Ogden (2003) when he insists that we can only grow people into self-initiating, reproducing, fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ by involving them in highly accountable, relational, mutual multiplying discipleship units of three or four people. This relationship process should aim at bringing believers to spiritual maturity in Christ. So, the emphasis here is about each Christian to evaluate themselves regarding discipleship. How did you become a Christian? Who nurtured you when you started this Christian journey? What did you learn from him/her that equipped you for discipleship today?
This short reflection aimed at reminding the church and Christians at large about the need for discipleship. The church needs a paradigm shift in the way it understands and practices discipleship otherwise future generations of Christians in Africa will not have the needed Christian ethical values that can attract others to Christ and impact the world. From the six setbacks above it is evident that both the church ministers and church members have roles to play for discipleship to become a culture of the church in our time.
Jesse earned his D. Th in Missiology from UNISA and has been in full-time ministry for more than 20 years. Jesse is passionate about Pentecostal missions and ministry and has published three books. Jesse is the SATS BTh Honours coordinator, MTh & PhD supervisor, Lecturer, and Senior pastor Liberating Truth Mission church international, Lubumbashi, DRC.
Ogden G 2003. Transforming discipleship: making disciples a few at a time. IVP books, an imprint of intervarsity press: Downers grove, Illinois.