WHY IS DISCIPLESHIP SO DIFFICULT?

Daniel C. Juster, Th.D.

An overdue and healthy conversation is now taking place in America concerning the effectiveness of the western churches in making disciples. Recently the debate intensified when Willow Creek Community Church Pastor, Bill Hybels admitted that his "seeker-friendly" congregation did not produce transformational change in the lives of its members. That is, the members were not discipled. Sociologist, George Barna, has extensively studied church members in America. His findings indicate that most professing Christians in America are hardly disciples in any significant sense. Sadly, I believe Barna has opted for a radical, anti-organized church orientation as a response. This will not be a solution, but will only make the situation worse. Barna does not have the answer to the problem.

Discipleship Covenant Communities

Readers of this newsletter will not be surprised at these developments. I have, in previous articles, contrasted the difference between churches as religious event manufacturing corporations and churches as discipleship covenant communities. These are very different visions! (See; Israel's Restoration, June 2006, Four Principles of Biblical Success.)

These are the marks of a discipleship covenant community: They understand that the final charge of Yeshua is to make disciples. This begins with the presentation of the Kingdom invitation, immersion in water as a transforming commitment, and then teaching the new members to obey all of the commandments of Yeshua. As Dallas Willard puts it in his monumental book, The Divine Conspiracy, the curriculum for discipleship is the commandments of Yeshua. A discipleship covenant community is organized into mentoring patterns connected to small group meetings where members are committed to be mutually accountable to grow in obedience. In the early New Covenant era, the basic unit of gathering was in the house, but it was not the exclusive unit of gathering.

Obstacles to Discipleship

In traditional societies, mentoring people to adhere to community standards and life patterns is ingrained throughout the culture. In our western individualist society we do not emphasize such values and therefore discipleship requires overcoming huge strongholds of the mind. Believers are often not accountable to anyone and are not focused on what is truly important. We are so distracted!

Over the last 100 years in America, Christianity has had an anti-law orientation that has been devastatingly destructive to discipleship. Addressing this error could be a key contribution of the Messianic community. However, we are not exempt from the same obstacles. We also need to find deliverance from the strongholds of western society. Messianic Jewish communities face the same challenges to making true disciples!

Today, many leaders who have responded to the message to produce discipling covenant communities are discouraged. They are finding it very difficult to establish effective discipling patterns. They have preached discipleship; they have started multiple small groups; they have made discipleship material available. However, when they examine the lives of their members, they still find disappointing results. Some who have tried have given up on small groups because these groups did not succeed in making disciples.

Keys to Success

There are many pitfalls that may contribute to failure but we must never give up on the core value of discipleship. One key ingredient is essential for making disciples: Only a person who has been discipled himself and who knows how to make disciples can successfully lead discipleship groups. A person may be capable of leading an enjoyable small group meeting, but if he has not been discipled himself and is therefore not capable of discipling others, he will likely produce a small group that fails to focus on personal discipleship. Perhaps some measure of intimacy might increase through such a group and this in itself has some merit, but it falls far short of what is required to change lives.

Those of us who desire to follow Yeshua in faith-based obedience need to understand that we can never get past these impasses until we learn to successfully disciple a group of people. That success, if measured by an objective evaluation, must show that those who were mentored are characterized by walking in obedience to the commandments of Yeshua. Believers must be taught how to identify with the death and resurrection of Yeshua and to walk in the power of the Spirit to enable obedience to His commandments. Conformity to Yeshua and obedience to His commandments has to capture our hearts. We need to see how this will enable us to fulfill our destinies!

Many leaders have not been discipled by this definition so they face an up-hill struggle to teach others a lifestyle that they do not possess. These leaders will need to learn to become disciples alongside their discipleship group. I reiterate: The key to success is a discipled leader who is capable of making disciples. Ideally, this person starts one small group with people who are zealous to succeed in becoming obedient to Yeshua for a lifetime. From this group new group leaders arise, who will in turn create new discipling groups. The leader not only leads but mentors the people in his/her group. I believe that anything less will not work. Discipleship requires personal relational skills and a clear curriculum focused through small group ministry. We should all recognize that this is the example that Yeshua gave us in his own ministry!

Discipleship should also permeate our preaching. It must be the pervasive passion of the congregational leader. Such preaching will increase the numbers of those who are zealous to disciple and to be discipled.

However, the fact is: the pulpit does not disciple. Pulpit ministry only opens hearts to discipleship, something more is required. Leaders must not only be good preachers they must be effective mentors as well.

Unless we inspire conviction and zeal in our people, describing the benefits of being a disciple and publicly living out a discipled lifestyle, we will not become a discipling covenant community. Only a discipled person lives a fully successful, fruitful life!

By Daniel Juster


Dan Juster leads the overall ministry Tikkun International. Donate to Tikkun International.

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Comments:
08:23 04May08 Sean Steckbeck -
Although I think George Barna makes some excellent points and happen to be involved in his circles, you make some very good points here that have to be discussed for the maturity of a last days revival. The harvest without effective discipleship communties and base in place will sadly crumble. I love what Paul said in 1 Cor 4:15: "You have many teachers, but not many fathers." This is as true today as it always has been.

09:49 04May08 anonymous -
I really like your article re:discipleship. I would also like to add that true transformation will only take place when there is true 'repentance'. It is sad sometimes to see that the gospel has been adulterated meaning: those who evangelize only teaches or preaches the blessings of becoming a believer but left out on the area of repentance and so, people bring in all the 'baggage' with them when they have not been told to repent.

10:45 04May08 John Glueck -
Another timely article by Dan... well written from his heart. At issue is supernatural impartation received through intimacy with Yeshua; leading to conviction, repentance and the newness of life common to all disciples.

10:54 04May08 Roy Weinberg -
We are failing to see transformational change in the lives of people because too much of the modern church has enjoined itself to the world in compromise. As such, many people attend church out of tradition rather than conviction and seek entertainment rather than sanctification in Christ.
One important function of discipleship is to inform people that the world is the domain of our spiritual enemy the devil. Our focus needs to be on seeking Christ's kingdom and preparing to spend eternity with Christ in his kingdom rather than using Christianity as just another means to build one's own heaven in this fallen world.

16:21 04May08 anonymous -
Discipleship is the heart of Yeshua and every true believer must embrace being a discipler and to be discipled. I like the fact that you mentioned about Leaders who are not being discipled hence it is near imposible to disciple others. Thank you for the word.

16:53 04May08 anonymous -
Dan, you mentioned that Christianity has had an anti-law orientation which is destructive to discipleship. Shouldn't the church be made aware of this? They will never see it as long as they hold onto the D-word, i.e. Dispensationalism. It heavily permeates Christian theology. I've even seen Dispensationalism with a mix of Replacement Theology in it. Nevertheless, most of the local churches will continue its destructive heresies. I'm beginning to think more and more that it will become apostate Christianity. Unless we heed the words of Yeshua that Moses spoke of Him, they won't listen. Because they don't believe Moses' words, they don't believe Messiah's word either. I think that is the problem with Christianity and it's Torah-less gospel and Torah-less Christ.

  -- Dr Juster replies: This is very true. I consider classic dispensationalism to be actual heresy because anti-nominianism was defined as heresy in the councils of the churches. It is a devastating error. Thank God neo-dispensationalist is reconsidering this, but there really needs to be repentance.

18:47 04May08 anonymous -
I appreciate the writing of this article and witness to its accuracy because of my own experiences since I first became born-again. Personally, I have found it difficult to find those seeking out others for the purpose of having the richness of godly accountability in their lives. Here in America, we are very independent and self-reliant, so busy doing many good things. However, missing key ingredients and simplicity of a life abiding in HIS LOVE ... and from that abiding relationship with our Lord and Savior ... having a sincere desire to truly love one another ... and loving your neighbor. We have lost somehow, our sense of community as a Body of believers in interpersonal relationships. But I am not without hope, because there is a remnant searching for the deeper relationships with the Lord and one another, who have a sincere desire to reach out from within, outward to their communities and cities. Prayers are being answered.

18:50 04May08 anonymous -
I think we confuse discipleship with coming under the law. How do you teach discipleship except studying the bible, particularly Matthew and the things Jesus taught. Why would not a bible study with discussion and attempt to do what Jesus says, not be discipleship. I don't think I understand what you meant by teaching discipleship.

  -- Dr Juster replies: What you are putting forth is part of discipleship. However, there are other important dimensions. One is to find those areas of resistance or difficulty in obedience and removing any traumas, patterns from family life (to be recognized in repentance and forgiveness) and to be instructed on how to access the power of God to not fall in difficult situations. The disciple asks one who has overcome in the same area, "How did you overcome that besetting problem?" Identifying with our crucified and risen Lord is a key part of this.

20:06 04May08 Rev. Andrew C. Gosnell -
The problem with the Church today is that we view spiritual growth and discipleship in terms of developing a kind of technique, reducing to the level of programs and theory the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit. No wonder people don't grow! This is ministry in the power of the flesh, which, of course, has no power at all. A constant theme in Oswald Chambers' devotional, "My Utmost for His Highest", is that of abandoning ourselves to God. The reason people aren't being discipled properly is that most church leaders aren't dealing with abandonment to God in their own lives. Therefore, they aren't honestly true disciples, themselves! Abandoning ourselves to God means submitting ourselves to the Holy Spirit. This means minimizing ourselves and our efforts/strategies, and maximizing Him. The answer is simple: let the Holy Spirit have free rein to reign over us, so that we may do His bidding in His way as He directs, when He directs, and doing nothing unless and until He moves us. The whole of Yeshua's life was like this. He did nothing without the Father's guidance. His was a life utterly submitted to the Father. That is why He had the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We aren't the ones to inspire conviction and zeal in our people; the Holy Spirit is. Until God's people everywhere around the world wake up to this fact, Christians will continue to muddle around in their powerless jargon. May we discover Him afresh, so that His power may be made perfect in our weakness!

23:39 04May08 Sue Blake -
You are so right ... how do I find people who want this? I am so tired of this form of Religion.

  -- Dr Juster replies: Because I do not know where you live, I do not quite know how to answer you. I would look up the Dove Churches in the United States and go from there.

03:06 05May08 Christiana Egwunye -
One of the main obstalces to discipleship in the western church, as rightly mentioned by Dan is the lack of accountability. People in the western world are not used to being accountable to anybody. Children are not accountable to parents so everybody grows up "doing what seems right in their own eyes", so to ask people who are not used to doing a particular thing to begin in their adult life is an uphill task that requires the highest form of grace: exceeding grace. Church is church only when it is relevant to the needs of the immediate community and the society, otherwise it is just a place we come to socialise. True discipleship is the only thing that will move church from the four walls of a building out to where the people are: the market place for transformation to begin.

11:57 05May08 Daniel Buffenmeyer -
There always seems to be some kind of push to get back to that first century church. There is an unspoken law among most Messianics that the first century church is the only authentic one. However, could it be that the western church is as equally saved by the atonement of Messiah despited the confusion and poor response as disciples? In addition, it could very well be that those who desire to become deeper disciples of Yeshua actually exclude themselves from the larger body and begin to think they are of a higher standing because they are "better disciples" than everyone else.
It's also interesting to note that the first century church still exists in one form or another and is found in a variety of eastern orthodox churches. I suppose we could even go so far as to include the Roman Catholic church as an original. Sometimes western evangelicals fall into the trap of believing that original Christianity begins with us, but how could it, we are removed from it by both culture and many generations. Yet, as evangelicals, we feel as though we have some right to the kingdom of heaven that those in the "original" churches do not possess. If that is true, and God is willing to reject the "original" churches to place his approval on a western fringe, then what is keeping Him from rejecting that western fringe to show favor on some other denomination. Lately I've been feeling that God must accept us all on our own levels simply because we are so far below his enormity. In the end, it doesn't matter how much of a disciple one tries to be, that cannot gain any merit at all with the living God. I still think that we should try to improve our lives, but continually beating ourselves up because we fail to be the first century church seems to be counterproductive.
These are merely thoughts, and are not to be taken as negative or positive. They are only some of my simple observations that I have made as I watch the dialogue of modern day believers.

  -- Dr Juster replies: Thank you for your insightful comments. I do not think that one can determine where discipleship takes place by the form of the churches. God allows many different creative expressions in my view. The major issue however is that mentoring and small groups have to be there for effective disciple making. This has happened effectively in Orthodox and Catholic monasteries and in Wesleyan Methodist Bands and in Navagators groups and in Youth with a Mission discipleship training schools. It is happening in the Chinese house church movement underground. However, the West has entered into a period of superficial entertainment orientations that simply will not disciple. Yes, I believe the first century church discipled, but it is not my goal to reproduce first century culture.

12:09 05May08 Ruth -
Interesting point. I often get funny looks when I tell people being a Christian is a LIFETIME commitment. That commitment is renewed each day. The reading of scripture daily, helps that commitment and will affect the choices we make.
I switched to a Messianic congregation because of the reading of Scripture. One congregation I attended didn't have a Hebrew Torah (yet), they read whole chapters in English for Torah service. Then I visit a relative's baptist church. Only ONE VERSE was read in the entire service! Could this be why the church is so immature?

12:56 05May08 Jim Bunch -
I remember a time when the fellowship I belong to actually practiced discipleship. Then our emphasis shifted to church growth and growing successful, mega churches. These churches were help up before the pastors as examples of what all churches should be. Now, some thirty or forty years down that path, we realize our mistake. Once again I see a call for a return to discipleship. We must disciple believers after the NT pattern which includes four basic doctrines: Salvation, the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Divine Healing, and the Second Coming of Christ. We must also 'make disciples' (Christ's own words) - that does not occur by attending a sunday morning service alone. Pastors must model, teach, and directly involve the laity in doing the work of the minstry. It isn't enough to tell them. We must show them hands-on experience in saving, healing, filling, and deliverance ministry/work. Teach them to get 'their hands dirty' for Jesus in the real work instead of training them in church business.

17:51 05May08 anonymous -
My husband and I desire to lead a discipleship home group in our congregation, but there are no small groups which meet outside the actual building. This is thwarting growth and accountability which happen best in small groups. There is much we appreciate about this particular part of the Body, but this seems to be a blind spot. How can we help move in this direction without being insubordinate? At what point do we look for another place to plug in?

  -- Dr Juster replies: There are so many good written resources on this today, from Larry Keider, of Dove Network and his books (From House to House) and Randy Frazee, The Connecting Church and more. I suggest that you seed these books into the leadership of the congregations.

18:50 05May08 Erik Carrillo -
This was an amazing teaching. Please continue to sound the call to discipleship. Blow the horn so that others in Yeshua are propelled to change. I myself struggle intently with individualism and need help becoming a disciple, please pray that the Lord our God will give me a tender and soft heart to these principals and no longer a hard heart. Thank you!

02:12 06May08 Susan Heagy -
Finally! A good solid answer of why the church in America, as well as Messianic congregations in both the USA and Israel, are struggling with growth in their members and as a whole.
As a director of a ministry serving Israel I appreciate the challenge to take what the Lord has taught me about obedience and pass it on to others. Thank you for a good Word from the Lord!

06:40 06May08 Dorothea Melnicoff -
Be wary of being the judge. God's ways are not our ways. That is also to say that there is a significant place for accountability, edification, and conviction, Trust in God to do it through His grace, mercy and love that He has given us.

11:09 08May08 Pete Dean -
You use the term "commandments of Yeshua" quite a few times in this article? How do you define these commandments and how can we incorporate them into our discipleship training?

  -- Dr Juster replies: Well, the simplest ways to understand this is wherever Yeshua commands something in the imperative form. There are many such imperatives. However, sometimes his teaching implies a command. Since Yeshua taught us to to take the Torah seriously, and to teach these commandments, then we have to apply them as fitting to the New Covenant order as well. Since he chose authoritative apostles, it is implied that we obey their commandments in Scripture as well.

15:13 08May08 Linda Schauer -
For 33 years I have been involved in the Messianic Jewish Movement. I grew up in Orthodox Judaism with memberships in Reform and Conservative Synagogues as well. This has been my experience with "Discipleship". Culturally speaking, the Judao-Christian faith has dishonored women from the inception. Young girls are taught that G-d, Hashem, is masculine and referred always as fully male. Little if any reference to the feminine in word and preaching about G-d. So being female and sitting in Synagogue and Evangelical churches for all these years this is what I was taught. Women are inferior, abuse is acceptable, power and control by Pastors and Rabbis in reference to submission is ok. Thus being a female has been extremely painful. Fighting the male ego has almost moved me to a non-faith position as a Believer. But, of course, the G-d that I have a relationship with is none of the above. I do believe that Yeshua was the first recorded feminist. So, in your desire to disciple, it is incumbant upon the body of Messiah to review history and culture vs. the grace, love, and freedom of our G-d in word and deed. Struggle my friends and struggle well as Jacob did. Then you will have honored the greatest commandments of Messiah.

  -- Dr Juster replies: While I emphathize with your plight, I would urge you to look at the broader picture. Barnard Lewis, the very famous professor and expert on Islamic nations at Princeton, has written that Christianity has done the most to elevate women. Lewis is a Jew, but says this because Christianity enjoined monogamy. Previouly women really were like slaves with men having multiple partners. In the Islamic world women are less than human. I would add that it was not Chrisitianity, but Yeshua and Messianic Judaism that brought this change. Though we believe in the husband's role in leadership in the home and in the congregation, women are to be specially honored. Peter says that if we do not treat our wives well, our prayers will not be answered. In addition, the Bible gives women very large ministry opportunities in preaching the gospel, ministries of healing, counseling, evangelizing, and on infinitum. Yes, treating women well is essential to discipling men and Ephesians 5 has for years been put forth as our goal.

14:52 09May08 Dr. Jim Boswell -
Dan, this is a great article. Keep up sharing that what most of us has practiced does not produce Kingdom results. I would not suggest that traditional preaching and classes are wrong but just totally insufficient to complete the work the Lord has given us.
After leaving the ministry for 11 years because great preaching, bible schools, classes, youth groups and even house churches did not produce disciples that obey the Lord, I finally started personally, intimately discipling a hand full of individuals. Without a model to follow I made a lot of mistakes. But today, I am pleased to see the growth, surrender and obedience to Christ in the ones the Lord has given me.

  -- Dr Juster replies: We find that we eat, drink and even go to sleep thinking about discipleship. I agree that the other things have value, but never as a substitute for disciple making.

16:23 14May08 Rod -
Discipleship does take place in the format Barna suggested. We mentor, we graduate and go out two by two. I would not return to a country club environment again for anything. Small cells like ours are active, involved, and responsible. We respect the authority placed in those who lead us, but no wishy-washy lukewarm pew dusting sleepers. And no boards to place directives on us that would dampen the work of the Holy Spirit. No Jezebels leading worship, no hidden sins or agendas in the camp. Just a drive to be holy and pure of heart, that we would be a bride spotless and without wrinkle, and prepared for warfare, a concept totally lacking in the 'church'. And judgement falls first on the house of the Lord.

15:40 11Feb09 Joseph Cole -
You mentioned that discipleship requires personal relational skills and a clear curriculum focused through small group ministry. Which curriculum would you suggest?

23:29 05Jun14 Robby Hanes -
I have a sad but true testimony of what happened to me after I became a Christian in 1988. First of all, when I became a Christian, I had no church background and had no knowledge of the Bible. So after about 9 months of attending church, I purchased my first Bible. Fortunately I had a background as a personal trainer in bodybuilding and powerlifting so I knew how to live in a methodical lifestyle. I designed a Bible study schedule and prayer schedule and incorporated it into my life along with my weekly schedule of going to work and working out at the gym. As I started to learn about God's word, I felt like I needed more help in being a real disciple so I asked my pastor to put me on a serious discipleship training program and he looked at me and turned around and walked away without saying a word. However, he eventually did give me a beginners course in basic discipleship which I gladly received but I felt like the little booklet was one step removed from being a kid's book. The sad part is that no one ever took me to the side and said or suggested that I should be a disciple. I felt like I was all alone in the matter and that I had to train myself in the principles of Christianity. As I said before, had I not had a background in being a personal trainer, I don't think that I ever would have become a disciple.

  -- Dr Juster replies: I wish I could say that your story is an exception, but my experience and Barna's surveys tell me, that your experience is the norm today. There is simply little in the way of serious discipleship today.

16:48 23Feb15 anonymous -
I think the real problem is that control freaks can no longer find a way to make their outmoded command and control religion work.


Also in this issue of the newsletter:

Marty Shoub: From Generation To Generation
Moshe Morrison: Single Mom's Ministry Returns
David Shishkoff and Eddie Santoro: A Place Set Apart