Why Close Relationships Are Essential to Discipleship

“What is the main barrier that keeps people from growing and maturing in Christ? The answer was unanimous: ‘Isolation.'”

When I (Josh) moved to Franklin, Tennessee, seven years ago, I met with some older, seasoned church leaders and asked them to help me better understand the spiritual climate of the area I had just moved to. One of the questions I asked was, “What is the main barrier that keeps people from growing and maturing in Christ?” The answer was unanimous. They all said, “Isolation.”

Despite having a thousand friends on Facebook or Instagram and being “connected” 24/7, the truth is that we live in a culture of shallow relationships. We’d rather watch actors pretend to engage in real relationships on TV than forge safe, vulnerable connections of our own.

Some time ago, a piece in the Los Angeles Times written by Neal Gabler grabbed my attention. The last paragraph of the piece took my breath away:

The fact is that we miss the friendships we no longer have, and we know that Facebook or emails cannot possibly compensate for the loss. So we sit in front of our television sets and enjoy the dream of friendship instead: a drama where we need never be alone, where there is a group of people who would do anything for us, and where everyone seems to understand us to our very core, just like Jerry and George, Chandler and Joey, Carrie and her girls, or the members of the McKinley High glee club. It is a powerful dream, and it is one that may now be the primary pleasure of television.

Today, Americans have on average fewer friends than they had a decade ago. In the place of actual friends and confidants, we have faux friendships on social media, or we live vicariously through television.

But God wants so much more for us. We need to be intentional about this, to break through our culture of isolation and create the relationships Jesus demonstrated and for which people are longing. Below are four statements that capture why relationships are so essential—more than programs, curriculum, or the method you use—to the task of discipleship.

  1. Without a relationship, we are just passing on information. This is not discipleship.
  2. We cannot do what Jesus wants us to do in the Great Commission without doing it the way Jesus tells us to do life-on-life relationships.
  3. A church must create it—relational environments for discipleship, or people will seek other ways to grow in relationships outside the church.
  4. You can impress people for a few minutes through an interesting lecture or a good sermon—but long-term life change happens through relationships.
From Outreach Magazine  How Jesus Meets Our Heart's Deepest Longings

We stress those four points because we were both told in seminary, by more than one professor, that it was unwise to get too close to the people at church. They warned us against developing close relationships with the people we served as pastors. They encouraged us to look outside the church for authentic connections. And we have personally known dozens of pastors and church leaders who have fallen prey to enslaving sins. Guess what they all had in common? They all walked alone. They were isolated, lacking deep relationships with other people. Our faith grows, deepens, and flourishes in community with other believers. It withers in isolation.

When we describe the need for “relationships” as the vehicle for biblical discipleship, we want to be clear that the local church is essential. We need to recover a New Testament understanding of church, where we stop seeing the church as a building or an institution and recognize that the essence of the church is our relational connectedness.

The word church is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which literally means “those called out.” In biblical times, it described “the called out people,” “the assembly,” “the gathering,” or “the congregation.” It is never used in the Bible to refer to a building. In fact, church buildings did not even appear until hundreds of years after the Bible was written. The best way to think of church is to see it as a larger support community or, even better, an extended family of the disciples of Jesus.

We read in Acts 2:42-47 the first description of a gathering of believers—a church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Though the times were different, this is still a very striking description, don’t you think? The Bible says that these early Christians “devoted” themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and praying together. That’s a perfect description of what we mean by discipling relationships. This is not your typical “go to a worship gathering one a week and cross that off the list” thing. Church was a gathering of disciples for the purpose of discipleship, growing more deeply in God’s Word, in community, and in spiritual and relational connectedness.

From Outreach Magazine  The Most Notable Trends for the Church in 2021

We need to recover this understanding of church again today. If we want to make disciples, like the early church made disciples, we need to look more like the early church. Not by re-creating their cultural context, but by looking at how they related to one another and what they did together to grow together as disciples. We need to look at our own cultural context and find creative ways to share life with others, making much of Jesus and joining him in his cause to heal and restore the world. Discipleship is life on life, heart to heart.

Here are some questions to guide you as you consider your own life. As you think about these questions, pray that God would give you ideas and guidance to embrace this call to life-on-life disciple making:

  • As you read the description of the church in Acts 2, what most inspires you?
  • How isolated are you right now from others? Who in your life knows how you are doing right now, what you are celebrating, and what you are struggling with?
  • When was the last time you shared your struggles and dreams with someone?
  • Why is isolation such a big problem for people today? What are some of the challenges you face in growing in relationship with others?
  • We all have different personalities. How might introverts and extroverts engage in this in different ways?
  • What kind of lifestyle changes would you prayerfully consider making so that you can more fully enter into life-on-life discipling relationships?

Taken from The Disciple Maker’s Handbook by Bobby Harrington and Josh Patrick. Copyright © 2017 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

Order this book on Amazon.com »

Bobby Harrington is the cofounder of Discipleship.org and the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Josh Patrick is the teaching and discipleship minister at Harpeth Christian Church.