The Rebirth of Discipleship in the American Church

As I have been talking with church leaders around the country the past couple of months, there is one issue that keeps coming up.

“Heather, we’ve been doing discipleship all wrong and we are hungry to take our church attendees from participant to fully devoted follower of Jesus.”


“Heather, we’ve been doing discipleship all wrong and are hungry to take our church attendees from participant to fully devoted follower of Jesus.”


Churches are wrestling with the question of, how do we do real discipleship? I’ve been wrestling with that question too. Every time a new pastor or ministry leader brings up their struggle on how to make disciples, my mind goes back to my time in Israel. During my nearly four week journey in 2011, I was thrust into the life of what it may have been like to be a first-century Jewish disciple. There was an aspect of daily living that I did not understand as a 21st-century Westerner. While there my eyes were open to an understanding of following Jesus that I had never considered before. I can say with full assurance that trip radically changed my life and my walk with Jesus because of it.

Each morning as we would recite the Hebrew Shema and dig into God’s word I was reminded of the devotion a disciple would have had to their teacher. I was challenged to think about Jesus in a way I had never even thought of. I was encouraged to follow the Rabbi, not just know things about Him. In our Western world, we obsess about knowing information. Eastern culture, however, focuses on doing life together and knowing others in a deep familial way. Yes, knowing the scriptures was absolutely essential to a first century Jew, but life on life, knowing one another is the kind of life Jesus modeled. Jesus emphasized practicing faith over head-knowledge. He cared about the hearts of those He encountered.

In fact, Jesus’ contemporaries, who knew the scriptures inside and out refused to do anything on the Sabbath. Even if someone was in trouble. Since they followed the letter of the law they did not permit themselves to lift a finger to help anyone on the Sabbath. Jesus however, heals, helps and redeems on the Sabbath, because to Him following God is much more about considering the needs of someone else and doing something about it than being a pious, religious person.

Each Sunday we sit inside our comfortable church buildings with our comfortable, “successful” church programs. We feel validated when we can tote big numbers and exciting programs. However, Jesus’ focus was not on numbers, but on the investment of people. Jesus cared for people. Let me say that again, Jesus cared for people. When we take our eyes off of caring for people and more on our own programs we have neglected one of the most important aspects of discipleship- caring for people.

Discipleship is not a program to be followed or a checklist to complete. Discipleship is a way of life. Each day is a chance to be a disciple. The word disciple in the original language means quite simply, “to sit at one’s feet.”

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Disciple-makers are not people who are great at completing tasks, hold M Div’s or gather a large crowd to sit in for the Sunday sermon. Disciple-makers are people who invest in people. They are people who listen to the hearts of broken, hurting people. Disciple-makers are people who direct others to the healer. They are not the hero themselves, nor the one with all the answers. They point people to the one who knows all their scars, pains and hurts. They are students of the Lord Jesus Christ who invest in others with the hopes of igniting a passion in them to be fully devoted followers of Jesus.

What our churches are missing is not the model of discipleship,(we have plenty of books, articles, and sermons on that) but instead, the modeling of discipleship.
We cannot truly become a disciple or make disciples until we open up our lives to others in a way that they are known by us and we know them.

The body of Christ is not perfect, but she loves to act as though she is. I know this to be true because I have lived in that place of pretending. However, we cannot rightly love others like Jesus until we say, come, let me tell you of all He has done for a broken sinner like me. Let me tell you of His joy and delight. Let me show you how He has changed me from the inside out.

The fullness of discipleship is not found in the most perfectly polished program, but in the raw and realness of an open door as we invite others into our lives. An open door into our brokenness, and our struggles. An open door into our desires to love God with all our hearts, minds and souls. An open door into our failures and struggles against sin. An open door into what we have learned about God by how we have put His word into practice. An open door into the grace and love of God. An open door to all of mankind to come as they are and hear about the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think far too often the church has focused its time and energy on being a voice for those we’d rather keep out, than those we want to extend God’s open door towards. We, in our own desire to be “set apart”, have instead polarized ourselves by placing ourselves in different social, political and cultural camps, letting that be our focus instead of the love of Christ. Yes, we should stand for biblical truth, but when our vehement standing of biblical truth shuts a person out from hearing the gospel and learning about Jesus, we have made a grave mistake. We have ceased making disciples. Why do we believe it is our role to change a person before they can learn about Christ? What if instead, we welcomed all of those unlike us to come and learn about God, and allowed the Holy Spirit to change them?

If my open door lets you into the truth of who I am, with all my junk and baggage, then I think we start to understand what modeling discipleship actually is. The best kind of disciple-makers are really learners in disguise. We may think the best kind are teachers, but in all actuality, the best kind of teachers are first and foremost, the best students. Therefore, we must place ourselves under the Lord Jesus Christ and His teaching. We must, “sit at His feet.” We actively submit ourselves to the hard things we don’t want to accept that we find in God’s word, with the intention of inviting someone along with us to show them the way towards a life of devotion to Jesus Christ.

I think one of our deepest misunderstandings in western culture is that we believe when Jesus said, build my church He meant, construct a building and fill it with people- mission accomplished. We feel a sense of achievement when we have done such a thing. However, I don’t believe this is what Jesus meant at all. In the original language, the word for church means, “a gathering of people” I believe when Jesus said, build my church, He didn’t simply mean make something, but “become something.” Become the church. Become the hands and feet of Jesus to a lost and dying world.

Why did the church in Acts see such tremendous exponential growth? Was it because they constructed some beautiful, gigantic edifice, came up with a fancy name and served piping hot coffee? No, not in the least. They loved, served and cared for one another. They became the church. If we want our churches to grow that’s good, but when growth becomes more about what we can build than what we can become through the Lord Jesus Christ we have gravely misunderstood the call go to and make disciples to the ends of the earth.

Jesus, give us a grand vision for making disciples. Take us outside of our buildings and into the world. Lord, use us to become disciple-makers as we grow as your disciple. Grow us in transparency and authenticity. May our lives and hearts be open doors for others to hear the gospel. Give us the courage to set aside our schedules to make ourselves available for people. In Jesus name, Amen.

2 thoughts on “The Rebirth of Discipleship in the American Church

  1. This is an awesome piece. I just had this conversation with someone last week. She became offended when I told her I preferred to called a “disciple of Christ” instead of being called a Christian. My rationale was that Jesus told us to go and make “disciples” of every nation, not to make Christians of every nation. I told her that I try to emulate Christ in everything I do because that is what a disciple does…observe and learn, then emulate. I also told her that I am not perfect, but it is the Christ within me that should draw others. His life within me gives me the opportunity to share with others about Him. My daily personal time with Him enables me to make disciples of others through teaching and my actions. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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