Why is discipleship so difficult?

An overdue and healthy conversation has been taking place in America concerning the effectiveness of the western churches in making disciples. 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 my articles 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!

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!

This article originally appeared on Tikkun International, June 6, 2019, and reposted with permission.

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Dr. Daniel Juster, founder and director of Tikkun International, has been involved in the Messianic Jewish movement since 1972 and currently resides in Jerusalem, Israel, from where he serves and supports the Messianic movement worldwide. Dan was the founding president and general secretary of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations for 9 years, the senior pastor of Beth Messiah congregation for 22 years, and a co-founder of the Messiah Bible Institute in several nations. Dr. Juster serves on the board of Towards Jerusalem Council II, provides oversight to 15 congregations in the USA as well as overseeing emissaries in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. Daniel has authored about 20 books on topics ranging from theology, Israel and the Jewish people, eschatology, discipleship, and leadership.