The Crux of Church Growth

The famous “Great Commission” Jesus left with us stipulates we only need to “make disciples.” What a simple pattern for church growth! Uneducated fishermen implemented it, and Christianity flourished among the slave class in Roman society because its simplicity is so easily passed on, like wildfire. We can see it in China today – without any of our resources or seminaries, an army of loving saints transformed China from the greatest atheist nation on earth into the leading Christian nation. A Great Commission Movement transforms simple people into a host of teachers and leaders: “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” (Romans 10:18)

Dangerous Thoughts

Our familiarity with the Great Commission has a significant drawback: we fail to see how threatening it really is. You will not find Matthew 28:18 in those fruity, tranquil “Deep Thoughts” posters refrigerator magnets. (But 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter”, hangs strategically on my bathroom wall, prompting many “Deep Thoughts”.) The Great Commission is menacing, and I can name three reasons why.

1. It’s a Dirty Business

Discipleship triggers a close relationship of loving sacrifice which isn’t so neat and tidy like the institutional approach to raising up pastors through seminaries. Personal relationships are far more risky, especially the discipleship relationship, because betrayal, reversals, and surprising revelations suddenly threaten to undo years of personal investment.

It is in fact possible to invest years of love and equipping into someone who then becomes your most ardent persecutor–and why? Because you should have given still more! (Or so the charges read…)

Notice this — Jesus gave this commission after his own heartbreaking experience with discipleship. Judas was one of his disciples, as was Peter who denied him – actually, all his disciples fled when he was arrested and needed them the worse. Even after the resurrection, where did he find them? They all had given up and returned to their secular pursuits. They went back to their wonderful lives in smelly fish markets. Still Jesus finds them and says, “Now you guys do the same…”

2. It’s the Guts and Glory of Christianity

The core of Christian living is wrapped around this:

But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.1 Timothy 1:5

Christians everywhere know about this, along with the many other passages which say the same thing (see John 13:3). But how is it possible to pursue love when the relationships are so cold in the institutional church? The answer is simple: redefine love. Thus, you’ll see Christians living the famous Budweiser commercial: “I love you, man!”

When real discipleship is evident in the church it means real love in motion, not just hot words. It is seen whenever the church rises to its calling to manifest a distinctiveness not found anywhere in the Kosmos:

But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;1 Peter 2:9

Spreading love through multiplication and discipleship is the greatest proclamation of “the excellencies of Him who has called you…” comparable to no other form of worship.

To sing His praises at a worship service is not wrong, but ‘’how dare anyone compare the praiseworthiness of a Singing Worship Service against the glory which adorns God’s name through discipleship! The worship service song will be distant memories while the baptized disciple continues praising God into eternity! Those who disciple are practicing obedience, not just singing about it. Those who disciple should never buckle under the guilt of accusation from singers! Why defend a life of committed service against fleeting, wispy songs?

3. It Means Upheaval and Transformation

Discipleship causes the upheaval and transformation of every area of our lives. It threatens our security, our relationships, our futures. This is what makes Christ’s call to “Go! make disciples” such a threatening, dangerous, revolutionary task.

The Upheaval

Consider these passages:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.Luke 14:26

The discipling church upsets family relationships – not because Christ wishes to divide families, but because His infectious love disturbs the peace so carefully guarded by dysfunctional families. Indeed, the love of Christ eventually invades and disturbs every aspect of our personal lives. Everywhere Christ walked, everyone he met reacted. Those who would follow him should realize they killed him for the way he threatened their established lives It’s a call to die:

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. Luke 14:27

Discipleship fails because people don’t calculate the cost involved, such as:

“For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Luke 14:28–30

What fool doesn’t count the cost? Christ’s point here is aimed at engaging in discipleship: “Don’t be foolish! This is serious business.”

An Army of Authority

Discipleship means raising up another warrior not only willing to die for Christ, but far more: raising a shrewd and strategic leader, a winner. The disciple is not a barbarian charging blindly forward. Rather, He works from God’s wisdom, “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25 ) Discipleship in God’s Word is really the only way to apprehend this unearthly wisdom, because the discipleship Christ taught goes beyond transferring knowledge – it raises giants. “Knowledge puffeth up,” the King James Bible says, “but love builds up.” The transfer of God’s Love Authority transforms lives, relationally, patiently, sometimes agonizingly slow. Paul said discipleship was “my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you!” (Acts 20:31)

God is not raising an army of sword-waving warriors, but rather a movement of disciples brandishing God’s Love Authority. God’s approach penetrates deeper and more effectively than any sword-driven movement. Jesus is a noble king, raising noble authorities. His love for people always wins against a spiritual enemy holding all the violent resources of a violent planet. Likewise, we are raising Spiritual Outlaws who learn how to avoid direct conflict. Our training is in spiritual wisdom, “combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words,”  as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians. How can you win against “spiritual words” and “spiritual thoughts”?  Christ depicts it:

“Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. Luke 14:31–32

This is why discipleship ultimately becomes a test of character – it requires someone who can grapple with terrific warfare and strife, and who knows how to hold it steady:

As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.”

But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:57–62

Surely Jesus could have been more sympathetic and gentle to these eager followers! Who wouldn’t feel insulted to have their zeal handled so roughly by Jesus? Yet he was not cruel or demanding, but merciful. They were naive, and he saved them from the shock of discovering the harsh reality of hatred and contempt this world holds against God’s love and anyone offering God’s love. This is why real discipleship is not a cozy meeting of friends like an afternoon tea: real discipleship challenges, prepares, disciplines and teaches steadfastness in face of a ferocious enemy:

“Go; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.” Luke 10:3

The Institutional Alternative

The difficult and supernatural nature of Christ’s call to make disciples is so daunting, so seemingly impossible, it’s no wonder the institutional church is befuddled about it and rarely practices it. The institutional church is strikingly devoid of relationships. People are nice, they are polite, but they are also uninvolved. It isn’t universally true, but it is mostly true. Although the institution may launch programs to turn the tide of relational disengagement, since discipleship is missing any changes are trite by comparison.

Everywhere church leaders are flustered in their attempts to institute discipleship. How impossible it is! Indeed, it would be daunting if not for the words of Christ sandwiching his call to discipleship:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth…and lo, I am with you always , even to the end of the age.”

4 thoughts on “The Crux of Church Growth

  1. Nicole Wonderchek

    I thought that this article stated the obvious. I think that it is sad that many churches do not institute what Christ commissioned us as followers to do. Before I came to know Christ or about Xenos, my awareness of the church only extended to those that only sang in order to show worship. I used to go to a Catholic church in high school for a while and saw that the extent of their relating was giving “peace” in the middle of mass and having a potluck or charity event once a month after the service.
    After learning what Christ really wants us to do, it is so exciting and amazing! He wants us to go and make disciples. And even though it is risky, it is for a good reason. What is more awesome than getting that involved in someone’s life and they in yours?!?What is more important than having a life-altering relationship with someone, centered around Christ?!?
    I think it is pretty cool that God gave us such a great task here on Earth; discipleship. Raising up someone else to want to lay down their life for Christ and become a strategic leader who wins people for Christ.
    I am glad that this is something that we emphasize here at Xenos. It has definitely helped me in my walk and in discipling others. And even though it can be a pretty risky job, it is definitely worth it!!

  2. lisabeech

    “The reason discipleship fails is because people don’t calculate the cost involved:”

    These words are sadly true, but do not have to be the outcome of a discipler/disciple relationship. Often the crux of blame for the failure should not merely follow upon the head of the disciple, but upon the head of the discipler. So often we are so eager to make a believer a disciple of Christ that we neglect to inform them of the dangers and hardships of following Him.

    When I first committed my life to Christ, no one cautioned me that my family would be so opposed to my new life choices; that pursuing Christ and learning at His feet would put me in direct conflict with the traditions and values of my upbringing. I naively jumped head long into a new world without counting the cost of rejection and the disapproval of my family.

    Zealous yet immature and rebellious, I alienated my family with my new found relationships and life. Perhaps, had I counted the cost and had more wisdom or guidance, this alienaton would not have been so great. Though estranged from my mother, I still longed to have an intimate relationship. This looking back has had severe consequences in my walk with the Lord and has held me back in stepping forward with Him. I had not counted the cost. At that time I was not worthy to be a disciple of Christ.

    We are eager to tell new converts of the blessings and joys and rewards of following Christ, but we tap dance around the trials which Christ warns his disciples of from the start. We ought to be up front with those we disciple and present them with the harsh challenges of following Christ rather than hedging the truth with soft options.

    In the movie Independence Day, President Whitmore rallies his battleworn freedom fighters.
    “…you will once again be fighting for our freedom…Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution…but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. … We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!”

    This is the battle cry of the Christian discipler/disciple through Christ who strengthens me. We are fighting for freedom, not only for ourselves but also for those who are still held in bondage. Are we willing to fight for their right to be free … free from eternal separation from God? Will we live in our fortresses quietly in our comfortable Christian meetings? Will we allow those around us to perish without a fight? Who will live on – who will survive this last battle?

    That is the cost – our whole life – our will – our self determination – our freedom- yes even our stuff. Have you counted the cost – it is great – but it is the reality of following Christ.

  3. Joe

    Wow, this was a really good little blog.

    One thing that strikes me, is while discipleship can be frustrating and painful, the alternatives are much worse. When we disciple or get discipled, we’re following the lead of the master, to whom all authority on heaven and earth has been granted. My life has been enriched by the discipleship relationships I’ve been involved in to the point which I shudder to think what it would look like otherwise!

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