A Great Need
We often hear leaders say that there is a great need for Christians to be discipled; that is, to be personally cared for and nurtured to maturity and fruitfulness. Yet very few leaders seem to be discipling others today. Let me suggest five reasons for this.
1. Culturally, people are not open to the kind of vulnerability that discipling entails.
There is a consumerist approach that has come into many people’s attitude to church today. They come expecting a good program and are attracted by certain things in the church—the music, the preaching, the small-group Bible studies, or the children’s program. They like to enjoy these provisions while guarding their privacy by having no one interfere with their personal lives. Sadly, because of this, many Christians are living a double life, looking fine at church while struggling with sin or serious problems or discouragements which no one in church knows about.
When leaders sense this reluctance of members to be open about their lives, they can shy away from trying to establish discipling relationships. However, I have found that sometimes the perseverance of leaders in attempting to establish close ties with potential disciplees bears fruit resulting in members becoming open to vibrant discipling relationships.
2. Many leaders are not willing to give the time and commitment that discipling requires.
Discipling requires the discipler to devote large chunks of time to personally meet disciplees and minister to their needs. It also requires costly, sometimes painful, long-term commitment to these individuals. Even though such commitment is a key feature of Christianity, Christians in this fast-moving society are often reluctant to take it on. Leaders must make finding time to meet with individuals a priority. That is a difficult task considering how busy most of us are. But it is something we must commit to do. Our disciplees may fail badly. Some, like Judas, may not make it to the end. Others, like Peter, may make big mistakes after we have invested heavily in them. Discipling is a frustrating activity, and our impatient, efficiency-oriented society looks at frustration as something to be avoided.
But Paul teaches that frustration is an essential part of life in a fallen world (Rom. 8:20) and that groaning is a normal response to it (Rom. 8:23). Those who disciple others need to be open to a life of regular frustration and groaning. Jesus had the frustration of seeing his disciples make some of their biggest mistakes right at the end of their training period. But those disciples started the largest and most significant movement the world has ever seen!
3. Discipling relationships have been abused through the excesses of insecure disciplers.
This happened with the popular discipleship (or shepherding) movement in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Leaders started having an unhealthy influence over their people, and the groups became like cults. Sometimes disciplers become possessive of their disciplees and don’t like to expose them to other good influences within the body of Christ. Some have too much control over the disciplees’ lives, forcing them to surrender their personal preferences to the will of the group, even on things that are not insisted in Scripture. Some followers will repress their individuality, be absorbed into the will of the group, and stay on, finding security in this cultic cocoon. Others will rebel after a time and leave. But they usually leave with deep hurts. The unity spoken of in the Bible is a unity in diversity, where people are given the freedom to follow their visions that contribute to the common good.
To overcome the pitfalls of insecurity in discipling, it is essential that disciplers ensure that there is a healthy balance in their lives and ministries. They need to work toward finding their primary satisfaction from God and not from their ministry. If our disciplees are more important to our fulfillment than God, they have become an idol that can lead us astray. Leaders also need to ensure that their other primary relationships are healthy, such as their relationships with family and the wider body of Christ. For a healthy Christian life, disciplers need to have close friendships outside their discipleship group. Discipling always takes place from within the context of the body of Christ.
4. There is a fear that if disciplers concentrate on a few people, the rest of the people will be neglected.
Disciplers are often accused of neglecting their flock because they give too much attention to their “favorites.” A proper balance is seen in the ministry of Jesus. Look at his relationships just before he died. He gave special time to his disciples. But he also cared pastorally for the lamenting women and personally led a robber to God. Then he cared for his mother and for himself, asking for something to drink. This is a fully rounded ministry. He seemed to have been able to give the impression of being a caring individual while giving extra time for the Twelve. There is no record of complaints over his special concern for his disciples.
Practically speaking, though all Christians need to have spiritual parents, it is impossible for leaders of large groups to ensure that they personally care like parents for the needs of all their members. But they must ensure that everyone is personally cared for. The best way to do that is by training people to share in the load of caring. That is what happens in a church that intentionally gives itself to discipling.
Leaders however should make sure that when with the larger group they avoid paying special attention to their disciplees. Disciplees also should be taught to consciously socialize with those outside their group. This helps avoid the discipleship group becoming viewed as a “clique” that is not fully one with the rest of the church.
5. Discipling is a spiritually strenuous activity.
Discipling often involves battling for the souls of individuals (see Col. 4:12). This can be emotionally draining. Some avoid this activity because they don’t think they have the spiritual energy to make such an investment. However, discipling can become a major source of spiritual refreshment. The battle for souls, especially through prayer, deepens our relationship with God. I often find disciplees sharing about their struggles in areas I am also struggling with. The responsibility to help them drives me to “get my act together.” And then, as Jesus told his disciples at the end of his life (John 15:15), disciplees become our friends with all the richness of life that friendship brings.
We need to think of the blessings, to all concerned, of biblically responsible discipling when we are reminded of the pitfalls associated with unbiblical discipling relationships.