A true disciple is a person who is devoted to Jesus, is developing the character and competencies of Jesus, and is deployed into the ministry of Jesus by reaching the lost and investing in a few. Jesus wanted 3D disciples.
When I look at that definition of a disciple, it seems a bit overwhelming. How do we make people like that? In most churches today, we have lowered the bar to something more manageable and realistic. Instead of making disciples, we focus on making decisions. In 2007, I left Oklahoma and moved back to Texas to pastor a large church in the heart of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. When I arrived, one of the major evangelistic initiatives of the church involved a ministry to the local Hispanic community. Every year, prior to Christmas, the church would host people on the church campus. Guests would sit through a brief service where the gospel was presented. Then they would file into another building where they could shop for new Christmas toys. Church members would then wrap the toys and the guests would leave with free Christmas gifts. The church underwrote the project every year to the tune of over $100,000.
My first year, I observed the finely-tuned machine. Our members were loving and serving each family that came onto the property. The next year, I suggested that an Hispanic evangelist present the gospel and we saw phenomenal results. Over 3,500 guests visited our campus, 250 made public professions of faith, and 40 were baptized on the spot! The Baptist Press featured a story about our evangelistic success. Everything was great. The next week I went out with a small team to visit with those who had prayed to receive Christ. We walked the apartments and trailer parks on the outskirts of our community. After days of knocking on doors and countless conversations, the results were in. There was not one person who had made a decision for Christ who wanted to continue their spiritual journey. We did not retain one person as a member of our church. We did not retain one person in a Bible study. We did not build one relationship that lasted. We did not retain one person for anything. Most said they prayed to receive Christ but had no interest in baptism or being involved in a church, period. We made lots of decisions, but no disciples.
Be honest. How much money and effort have you put into making decisions that were wasted because there was no lasting fruit? This is the dirty little secret of many churches and denominations. If you disagree, just ask yourself why so many churches post high baptism numbers, but their attendance remains flat or in decline. How can you be reaching people and not growing? In some cases, the back door to the church is as wide as the front door. But my hunch is that the front door isn’t as wide as we think because those who made decisions quickly faded away. Jesus said there would be many who claim to follow Jesus but just don’t. In the parable of the sower, Jesus said some seeds fell on the path and were quickly eaten up by the birds. Some seed fell on the rocky ground and sprouted quickly, but had no root. In the heat of day, it withered and died. That describes many decisions. They hear the word, and they respond quickly without counting the cost. They raise their hand, check the box, walk the aisle, but in a few weeks they are nowhere to be found. They didn’t put down roots and their faith, when put to the test, didn’t stand.
There is an inherent danger in focusing on making decisions over making disciples. When you focus on making decisions, you can easily manipulate people to inflate evangelistic numbers. We have all probably seen this to some degree in local churches and evangelistic meetings. Long, drawn out invitations. Emotional appeals. One event I witnessed asked children to raise their hands if they wanted to be “Jesus’ forever friend,” then counted each hand as a decision for Christ. When you are just making decisions, the end justifies the means. When you focus on making disciples, the pressure is off for an immediate decision and the emphasis is on presenting the gospel clearly and helping each person come to Jesus in a genuine way.
When you focus on making decisions, impersonal methods are used to boost numbers. Large gatherings, mass responses, herded decisions. Even one-on-one presentations of the gospel are more like cold call presentations to strangers rather than honest conversations between friends. When you focus on making disciples, you work in the context of relationships, so you actually know the person you are seeking to reach and you stay in a relationship with them as they continue their spiritual journey.
When you focus on making decisions, you have a tendency to rush the process that the Holy Spirit has begun in that person’s life. Your goal is the decision. When you focus on making disciples, you are willing to let people process the gospel until they are prepared to choose Christ in an authentic way.
When you focus on making decisions, you can develop a false sense of success. If the number of decisions is up, you can think you are truly winning people to Christ and even making disciples, even though the quality of the decision is suspect. When you focus on making disciples, you have a long-term perspective. Real success is counted when those who make decisions are walking in community, growing in their faith, and able to lead others to Christ.
When you focus on making decisions, your job is over after the decision is made. People are often dropped quickly or even forgotten. When you focus on making disciples, your job just begins when a person crosses the line of faith. They are spiritual babes that need nurturing, care, and protection.
Photo Credit: Tim Marshall