4 Ways Discipleship Is Broken in the U.S. Church

Discipleship is the primary mission of the church to a lost and dying world. Seeing new followers come to saving faith and begin the beautiful journey of becoming more like Jesus Christ in his character and nature is the goal. Transformation in the lives of God’s people from one degree of glory to the next into the image of Christ is what the early church sought with an unquenchable thirst. Somewhere along the way, the church started thirsting for other things. Hunger for matters other than spiritual maturity and progress surfaced to become primary over life-change. Over time, the shifted focus led to a few areas of discipleship to break in the church today. 

Here’s the present reality. When it comes to discipleship in the American church today, there are some broken parts. What are they? Here are at least four.

  1. Overly Intentional

Many well-intentioned disciplers, leaders, and pastors in the faith fervently pursue progress for others in their discipleship journey. Let me begin by saying this is a good and right desire. The intentionality is evident and needed. However, at some point along the process, over-intentionality birthed impatience. Discipleship that births impatience inverts an unnatural discipleship process. An unnatural discipleship process microwaves filet mignon and forgoes the delayed gratification required to make mature, devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Impatience and instant gratification in the disciple-making process produce half-baked, dependent followers reliant on spiritual milk when they should be eating solid food. Overly intentional discipleship can often manifest through aggressive accountability partnerships that can be excessively invasive to what otherwise might be more private matters in a person’s life. The accountability partner usurps the role of the Holy Spirit and poorly plays that part to the recipient’s spiritual detriment. The result is a feeling of threat instead of safety that shortens the accountability partnership and shortchanges the discipleship process for both.

  1. Spiritless Formation

Overly intentional discipleship cultivates impatient disciplers that attempt to short-change the natural process for someone to mature in their faith. It’s like stretching the stem of a fresh-sprouted flower and expecting it to grow faster. When all it does is damage the flower, stunt its growth, and give the false appearance of growth. Microwaving the discipleship process manufactures an even graver issue for disciple-making. 

An unnatural, sped-up discipleship process attempts to make disciples without the Holy Spirit’s leading. There’s a beautiful song by Chris Renzema titled “I Don’t Wanna Go.” The lyrics state the following: “I will go where you go, I will stay where you stay. Cause I don’t wanna go if you’re not going before me.”

It seems that many intentionally advantageous pastors and disciplers go before the Holy Spirit to make disciples at a pace God never intended. As a result, disciples are being made into someone else’s image and not what the Holy Spirit intends. 

Here’s a micro-example: When discipleship is hurried, the recipient then has unnatural and rushed expectations for others’ spiritual progress bred into them because that’s what was modeled for them. Discipleship is more caught than taught. What’s modeled to them is what they remember and reproduce even more so than the content communicated. “How” (manner, tone, and intensity) a disciple is made is just as important as “What” they are being discipled into. Rushed discipleship reproduces discontentment, impatience, and eventually anger when discipleship results fail to reach the results expected. The next statement may sound harsh, but it’s just simply the truth, which sometimes can sting. Lovingly, this next sentence intends to sting for a result of fulfilling joy. Instead of fruits of the spirit cultivated into the disciple, the fruits of Satan are born: discontentment, impatience, brashness, harshness, and anger. 

Missing the Holy Spirit’s leading for an individual’s spiritual formation makes monsters of our disciple-making. The Holy Spirit is our primary discipler. Overly intentional discipleship drives into the opposite ditch of passivity—the sin of control. Attempting to control another’s spiritual formation ejects the Holy Spirit from the equation and douses the discipler in sin. Move at the pace the Holy Spirit desires. Be slow to speak, ask questions that draw deep waters from the disciple. Ask and trust the Holy Spirit to work on the disciple in your absence. Rarely do spiritual family spend the majority of the day nor week with one another. On average, it will be a few hours for the entire week. In the discipler’s absence with the disciple, trusting the Holy Spirit makes the most sense.

  1. Results-Driven Discipleship 

The American church today is a results-driven church culture that feeds into the unnatural spiritual formation of disciples. Instead of maturing followers within a local church, the results-driven, metric-measuring, and rushed reproduction of disciples make a monstrosity of what was originally intended to be majestic. Making disciples of Jesus Christ is impossible without the Holy Spirit. While making disciples of discontentment, hurried American culture is possible without the Holy Spirit. Paul makes crystal clear that the Holy Spirit is essential for discipleship in 1 Corinthians 3:6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

Results-driven discipleship focuses on butts in seats (Sunday worship service attendance), bills in the bank (giving), and busybodies working (program gathering vs people growing ministry). Statistics that are important to measure and consider become elevated to a place they shouldn’t be. They are almost worshipped in a sense. Results-driven discipleship looks heavily at the quantity and secondarily celebrates the quality.

Discipleship isn’t a vehicle to reach metrics; it’s the goal of a Christ follower. Butts in seats, bills in the bank, and busybodies at work, are meant to create opportunities for making disciples. Walking in the ways of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Bible to become more and more like Jesus Christ in his character and nature is the end-zone of Christianity.

Discipleship isn’t a booster shot to programs, numbers, and finances. It was never intended to serve these outcomes. That’s a backward mentality. Programs, numbers, and finances are biblically intended to serve discipleship. Putting the cart before the horse accomplishes little and provides much less to celebrate.

  1. Broken Budgets

How a church sets its budget says what’s most important to its mission. It’s all too common to hear a church has a broken budget. What do I mean by a “broken budget?” They have a massive portion of the budget for matters not about discipleship, and the discipleship budget is minimal. The overall church budget reflects an unbalanced and clear favor on other non-essential or extra areas throughout most of church history. At the same time, the primary efforts of disciple-making are neglected in funding. Here are a few real-life examples:

  • A church spends $5,000 on a new soundboard and allots $500 for the annual discipleship ministry budget.
  • A church drops $20,000 on an outreach event and allots $2,500 for their annual groups ministry budget.
  • A church invests six figures into a week-long summer camp for teenagers yet provides less than $5,000 for the years’ worth of discipleship of those teenagers, many of whom become new believers.

This is different from a plea to spend an equal amount on these ministry examples and discipleship. A more involved consideration is required to determine whether proper discipleship infrastructure is adequately funded. Figuratively speaking, constructing massive front doors to the church without enough rooms (figurative, not literal) to accommodate everyone coming in is purely irresponsible stewardship of souls entrusted to a local church by God. 

For your context and local church, determine what is missing to adequately accommodate new people requiring discipleship. Do you have the capacity to make more disciples if you bring in hundreds of new people? The question isn’t, “Are you prepared for God to ‘SAVE’ a mass amount of people?” Instead, the question is, “Are you prepared to ‘STEWARD’ the mass amount of people God may entrust to you?” Can your budget accommodate adding more people? Are you adequately staffed? Do you have enough group leaders, teachers, and volunteers being prepared? Is your plan reactive or proactive in stewarding the souls that are saved with your newly constructed wider front entrance?

Broken budgets do hurt and hinder the discipleship process to souls already entrusted to a local church. A re-evaluation is in order.

Fixing What’s Broken

The American church today needs to begin asking different questions: “What programs in our church serve to make disciples? Which do not? Which programs serve to make busybodies? What ministry programs create opportunities for disciple-making and which distract, remove, or steal opportunities for discipleship?”

Should churches stop asking, “How do we get more people here?” No, not necessarily. I would challenge churches to ask this question after the discipleship (soul-stewarding) questions. 

“When God brings people to your church, how will you faithfully steward these souls to become all that is meant for them in Christ? What budgets, ministries, and programs do and will you offer to prioritize growing people and not gathering for programs?”

These are difficult questions to ask and answer. Honestly, they are even harder to implement, but it’s worth it. Bathe these conversations in prayer. Trust the Holy Spirit. Be patient with one another in discussion. Don’t blow up foundations that you can build a discipleship culture on. Honor the past and look to the future.

Let the Spirit lead. Leave results-driven, impatient, unnatural, and microwaved discipleship behind. Watch, wait, and celebrate the gift of spiritual transformation in others as God works. Model patience, gentleness, and contentment, and reproduce a reverence for God in his people and watch him bear the fruits of the Spirit in people’s lives.

Adam Erlichman is a pastor and consultant who founded Build Groups, LLC and authored Group Leader Training.