The Missing Relationship in the Church

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Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka

What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)

While most Christian leaders agree that we must revive the practice of discipling (personally helping Christians grow), few seem to be doing it. Numerous cultural factors today make it countercultural for leaders to disciple others in the way we see Jesus and Paul doing in the New Testament (Matthew 4:19; 28:19; 2 Timothy 2:2).

Efficiency and productivity are key values today. People are told that they must push for measurable results, and usually those results are quantified in terms of numbers. In a Christian setting, such an emphasis could result in concentrating on increasing attendance, events, programs, and buildings.

These visible goals can take so much time that there is no time left to give concentrated attention to personal discipling. Granted, the fruit of person-to-person discipleship is not immediately visible. Now a biblical leader should be concerned with numbers, in some sense, because the numbers represent people who have come within the sound of the gospel, and our programs and structures are helpful in maturing new and old Christians. But the focus on numerical growth must not be at the cost of nurturing saints.

The Cost of Other Opportunities

As we grow in leadership, we often need to pass up what looks like wonderful opportunities to serve so that we can have enough time for personal ministry. These days I meet many young pastors and Christian workers for mentoring or counseling. I have been surprised (and saddened) to hear that many of them have never had an unhurried conversation about their personal lives with their leaders in ministry. Most of these pastors serve in churches that are growing numerically.

If the top leaders in our churches do not give time for personal work, it is unlikely that there will be a culture of discipling in the groups they lead. The leaders must demonstrate by example (1 Peter 5:3) that investing in others is a key aspect of Christian ministry.

When I was leader of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, I always tried to disciple a few young staff. This gave rise to an awkward situation, as some people felt I was giving preferential treatment to them. But I felt that this problem was worthwhile because of the high place personal work deserves in the culture of our movement. If the leader finds time to disciple, others also are encouraged to give time for it, despite all the other things calling for their attention.

As the possibility of an imbalance in our priorities is very real, we need to keep revising our list of priorities constantly while growing in leadership. Unhealthy baggage can accumulate in our lives without our realizing it. I need to be careful about accepting too many speaking engagements and serving on too many committees. As leaders grow, they should constantly divest themselves of some responsibilities so that they can concentrate on the most important ones.

The Cost of ‘Wasting Time’

People are very busy today. Besides physical work, they are often “busy” in the cyber world with social media or are watching television. In this environment, people find it a strain to interrupt their activities for long one-on-one conversations, which are an important part of discipling relationships. Such rootless busyness has produced an insecure generation. They are missing the completion and security that come from committed relationships with trusted friends and relatives.

Based on today’s attitude toward time, Christianity could be considered a religion of wasting time. We “waste” a lot of time each day in prayer and Bible reading. We could say the same about discipling appointments. Close relationships do not develop through highly structured and restricted conversations. As we linger with each other, chatting about our lives, ties develop that engender trust.

Once trust is won and the environment created through long conversations, people have the freedom to talk about the deep secrets of their lives. A side benefit of this is that it dispels damaging insecurities of constantly being rushed. Discipling appointments slow us down.

The Cost of Safe Superficiality

People today have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of friends on Facebook (and other platforms) to whom they openly share about themselves. But often these relationships are with people unwilling to pay the price of costly commitment to them. They don’t need to be honest; they can even tell lies about themselves. And if the friendship gets inconvenient, you can simply “unfriend” another person. How sad that “unfriend” has become a popular word today.

When you get used to multiple superficial relationships, you may find it difficult to nurture deeper bonds. You may not make time for such relationships and may find it awkward to share deeply with others. But how important it is for us to nurture deeper friendships. Proverbs has sage advice to our generation with its addiction to social media:

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24)

In an environment that is unfriendly to such close ties, the discipler has the challenge of winning the trust of the disciple to create these bonds. I do not think we should force people to “submit” to a discipler of our choice. Disciplees should have a say in who disciples them. But sometimes we may have to disciple people who are not fond of us. Some such relationships in my own life have produced some of the most joyful I have had.

The Cost of Trusting Others

Today, with the prevalence of abuse of personal information, people are afraid to trust others with details about their lives. They are afraid of betrayal, so they don’t confide in people enough to entrust themselves to their care. Sometimes they may not personally like the leader who has been assigned to disciple them.

Large congregations fall into a trap when everyone keeps a “safe distance” from others. It is all too easy to remain anonymous and be lost in the crowd. Some prefer this, as they move to larger churches after being hurt in smaller, more personal ones. This problem must be confronted with the persevering commitment of personal discipleship.

I am convinced that everyone needs the kind of accountability, comfort, and trust that a discipling relationship affords. It may be strange culturally and practically inconvenient to many today. But it can be done, and there is an urgent need for all Christian leaders to commit themselves to it.

is the teaching director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. He served as the ministry’s national director for 35 years. He is the author of eighteen books, including Discipling in a Multicultural World, and lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with his wife. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.