This post is specifically for church leaders struggling to reach new people and grow those in their congregation…
Let’s start with a fundamental question:
How successful is discipleship in your church?
If you lead a church, no doubt you’ve repeatedly asked this question over the past two years. Or two decades.
I suspect Christians and church leaders have questioned discipleship pathways since the beginning of discipleship. Come to think of it, some of the original Disciples debated and argued discipleship at the Jerusalem council. So we’re in good company.
If you’re like most church leaders, you have a discipleship pathway answer, but you’re unsure if it’s the right answer. Or the best answer.
Making it worse, the answer keeps changing. Our two-year pandemic crisis certainly made everything in the church more complex – including discipleship.
I get it.
Every church I am working with is asking discipleship pathway questions.
Every church that reaches out to me is asking discipleship pathway questions.
Perhaps we’ve never met, but I have an inkling you’re asking discipleship pathway questions, too.
Discipleship is critical to the mission of our churches. I’d suggest it’s central to the mission. If I can press a little further, I’d say discipleship IS the church’s mission.
If you’re asking, “But what about evangelism? What about reaching people?” then you and I are on the same page.
For so long, churches divided into “reaching oriented” or “growing focused.” The common understanding was you could be competent at one or the other, but not both. The “seeker-sensitive” or “attractional” church reached people but didn’t effectively grow people. The missional and discipleship-oriented church didn’t see as many new guests or conversions, but their focus helped develop the Christ-likeness of their congregation. Both sides accomplished what each attempted to do.
We tend to be more successful where we place our focus.
A Misunderstanding of Discipleship
I’ve wondered if a church could be great at reaching and growing for a long time. But, a split focus typically creates a splitting of resources, effort, and methodology. I believe this is why nearly every church chooses a lane – reaching or growing.
Let’s challenge this fundamental choice by reconsidering our calling.
When you consider the Great Commission as our church calling definition (we are the church, so it’s an individual and collective calling), reaching and growing begin looking different.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)
Disciples are simply learners. The command given by Jesus was to do two things: go and teach (with baptism as an active response). It seems reaching churches are go-oriented. Discipleship churches are more grow-focused.
Leaving both lacking a portion of our “great” commission.
I guess this is why we’ve labeled it “great.” We could just as easily label it the “impossible” or “challenging” commission.
Fulfilling the Real Mission of the Great Commission?
The mission of the commission is clear — go and grow. These two actions work in tandem. This means, as a church, if we focus on only one, we’re only fulfilling half of the assignment. We may be good, but we’re not great.
I’m convinced eliminating the separation between go and grow provides an answer and pathway to get out of our one-lane philosophies.
Think of it this way: You can’t grow what you haven’t reached. This means holistic discipleship must include both reaching and growing. The first step in any discipleship pathway must be a going or reaching step. Relationally, programmatically, and systematically, reaching those far from God is the beginning of any discipleship pathway. The final step returns us full circle as the disciple becomes a discipler of others. And everything in between is a series of forward movements designed as incremental and logical steps.
This is God’s plan. This was Jesus’ commission.
A Better Definition
I’m not naïve enough to believe this solves all the discipleship pathway problems in our churches. I am convinced that words and definitions matter. Definitions shape perspectives and points of view. A better definition of discipleship allows us to better understand the church’s mission, better align our staffing toward this mission, and better measure what we’re called to do in and through the church.
Defining discipleship from reaching through growing forces us as church leaders to get out of lane choosing and consider more robust strategies. No longer can we define ourselves in one of two good commission lanes. We can’t pick to reach and ignore growth. We equally can’t choose to be a discipling church that rarely engages unchurched and dechurched guests while feeling successful. A new definition outlaws both previous options.
Key Questions that Help Shape a Better Discipleship Plan
If you’re interested in evaluating your current discipleship methods or considering new options, take these 10 questions to your leadership team, staff, or key volunteers:
- Which lane (reaching or growing) does our current church strategy mostly focus upon?
- How are we inspiring a thirst for Christ-like growth beyond momentary felt needs?
- What specific, incremental steps do we offer to move people from where they are (no matter where they are) to their next best step?
- How broadly is our ministry strategy reach? Are we successfully reaching those far from God and growing those in the family of God?
- How do we promote, encourage, and inspire people to engage in their best next step?
- Do we offer incremental next steps for everyone in your community, not just those currently inside your church?
- What are we offering that isn’t intentional, strategic, or a step towards Christ-likeness?
- Is our pathway easy, obvious, and logical to all attendees?
- How are large gatherings leveraged for discipleship? Medium gatherings? Small groups? Intentional mentoring relationships?
- How do digital channels serve to supplement in-person offerings? What in-person options should have digital substitutes?
I firmly believe reaching the lost and inspiring growth for the found are the goals of every local church. I know every church claims this is their goal, but too few are experiencing the fullness of the Great Commission. Could a new definition be part of your answer?
I’d love to hear what other questions we should be asking to better understand and design discipleship pathways in the church. Add to the conversation in the comments. Perhaps you can share this with fellow pastors or your staff to get their feedback, too.
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