The Greatest Challenge in Discipleship Today

Last year I had the privilege of traveling to five continents in three weeks. I did this as the writer and presenter of an eight-episode documentary series on Philippians called Discipleship Explored. The idea was to interview believers all over the world, many of whom had faced severe persecution, to show the difference Philippians has made to them in their Christian lives.

“We can be experts in discipleship, and never actually be a disciple.”

However, I must confess to some ambivalence about the word “discipleship.”

As one of my friends points out, although the Greek word “disciple” most definitely appears in Scripture, the word “discipleship” does not. And when we use that word, often what we mean is something like “the art or craft of being a disciple.” Almost inevitably, then, the word inclines us toward thinking in terms of methods and techniques, and focusing on the things we should be doing rather than on the one we are following.

In other words, we can be experts in disciple-ship, and never actually be a disciple.

Do We Dance to the Music of Joy?

Perhaps that helps to explain the sad reality noted by John Stott when he was asked to assess the growth of the evangelical church:

The answer is “growth without depth.” None of us wants to dispute the extraordinary growth of the church. But it has been largely numerical and statistical growth. And there has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers.

That was ten years ago, but the shallowness persists. Could it be at least partly because so much of our training in discipleship amounts to little more than a list of disciplines one is supposed to master?

Imagine a dancer. She’s dancing with grace and joy and rhythm. As you look closer, you see what drives all this beautiful movement: she has her earbuds in, hearing the music she loves best in all the world, and it’s transporting her. She’s captivated and enthralled by it. It’s almost as if she can’t stop dancing.

Now imagine a second person walks into the room. She looks at the dancer and thinks, “I’d love to be able to dance like that!” But she can’t hear the music. So, she tries to copy the moves. The technique. And it actually seems to be working, at least for a time. But because she hears no music, the movement is clunky, hesitant, and self-conscious. She doesn’t seem to enjoy dancing the way the first dancer does. Before too long, she’s exhausted, while the first dancer is still going strong.

What if much of our well-intentioned disciple training is actually forcing people to be that second dancer? Telling them to copy all the right moves — read your Bible, pray, go to church, love others, share the gospel — while doing relatively little to help them “hear” the beautiful music that must drive it all: joy in Christ.

Discipleship Is About Being Mastered

What would it look like if our discipling of others was less an act of technique-teaching, and more an act of “turning up the music”? What if it were less about mastering, and more about being mastered? What if our focus was on captivating and enthralling would-be disciples with the music of God’s surpassing love for us in Christ?

“What if discipleship were less about mastering, and more about being mastered?”

None of this, of course, is meant to imply that the Christian life involves no actual “doing.” One author rightly likens the Christian life to sailing, and there are plenty of things you need to do when sailing. You break a sweat. You have to stay attentive. You can’t just sit back and do nothing.

But there are two things you cannot control on a sailboat, and they make all the difference in the world: the tide and the wind.

Why is it, then, that so much of our discipling amounts to sitting people down in a boat and telling them to make it move by blowing into the sail? It shouldn’t be a surprise to us if many budding followers of Christ bail out, get burned out, or never make it out of the shallows.

The Gospel Music

I’ve been a Christian now for 26 years. The great adventure began on Easter in 1992, at the end of my second term at university. And I have to say, I look back on that first year as being one of the most fruitful years of my Christian life. The passion for evangelism. The eagerness with which I opened my Bible. The joy with which I said my prayers. The expectancy with which I came to church.

That first year, when Christ was new to me, was like the first time I heard my all-time favorite piece of music. Perhaps you remember the first time you heard yours — how besotted you were by it, how you put it on repeat and listened to it endlessly. You told your friends, “You have to hear this — seriously, it’s amazing.”

That was my Christian life in that first year. Effervescent. Overflowing.

And can I be honest with you? I’m not sure it’s been quite the same since. I suspect that’s partly because, as we go on in the Christian life, we often stop attending to the music that first moved us and begin trying to dance in silence.

We start focusing on the moves we’re supposed to be performing as disciples. The “quiet times,” the prayer meetings, the Bible study, the evangelism, and so on. Again, I want to stress that these are wonderful and appropriate things for a follower of Jesus to be doing. But without the music of the gospel to drive them, they become hollow — mere technique and artifice, the moves of a dancer, but with none of the joy, none of the energy, and none of the grace.

Our Greater Challenge

Much has been written about the threat to Christian disciples from an increasingly secular society. That’s true, no doubt. But is it possible that there is also — because of the way we disciple others, and ourselves — a significant threat inside the church too?

“As you make disciples, turn up the music of the gospel. Recapture your first love, and keep learning how to dance.”

When Paul wrote to the young disciples in Philippi, seeking to build them up in the context of a culture which actively opposed them, he didn’t present them with a list of discipling to-dos. Instead, he filled the letter with the statement and restatement of one glorious reality: the supreme worth of Christ. He knew full well that all genuine Christian “doing” flows from that music. Yes, he tells them to “work out your own salvation” (Philippians 2:12), but in the very next verse immediately reminds them that the power to do so comes not from them, but from God who works in them “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

As we make disciples for Christ, let’s do everything we can to turn up the music of the gospel. Let’s recapture our first love, and remember how to dance.