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Elephant in the Church: Identifying Hindrances and Strategies for Discipleship



“Nondiscipleship is the elephant in the church.” So Dallas Willard1 pictures the obviousness and enormity of the problem. Richard Foster agrees, “Perhaps the greatest malady in the Church today is converts to Christ who are not disciples of Christ—a clear contradiction in terms. This malady affects everything in church life….”2 Brian McLaren asks, “Why aren’t we making better disciples?…Why aren’t people becoming more holy, joyful, peaceful, content, and Christ-like?…Why are so few of our good Christian people good Christians?”3

Are these observations overly bleak? Thom Ranier’s survey4 of members from many churches asked, “What is your evaluation of the overall effectiveness of the church’s discipleship program?” Only 4.6% rated their church’s program either “very effective” or “effective”. Another survey5 found that nearly one-fourth of Christians felt that they were sliding backward in their spiritual growth, while 40% felt stagnated. In addition, it found no correlation between the length of time believers had been Christians and their spiritual maturity. After extensive research into the state of discipleship in America, George Barna concluded that though the vast majority of churches have a discipleship program, consistent spiritual growth is rare, and mourned the fact that in their attitudes and actions Christians appear little different from nonbelievers.6

Nudges do not budge pachyderms.

By RegBarc, via Wikimedia Commons.

That Jesus commanded the Church to make disciples is unquestioned (Matt 28.19-20). Once people become believers, they are enabled by God’s Spirit to undergo the process of transformation into the likeness of Jesus (II Cor 3.18), becoming mature (Eph 4.13), complete (James 1.4), and fruitful (John 15.2, 8). As they cooperate with God, this is a present and continuing process; Paul declares, “We are his workmanship ….” (Eph 2.10). The Bible clearly states discipleship’s command, enablement, and goals. Then what has gone wrong? How has the elephant of nondiscipleship made its home in the Church? Will tweaking existing programs produce mature and zealous Christians? Unfortunately, nudges do not budge pachyderms. The effort must match the size of the problem. Failure to appreciate the magnitude of the problem will only result in inadequate remedies. Without comprehensive change in their approach to ministry, churches can expect minimal results.7 The first part of this paper identifies six hindrances to discipleship which the Church must seriously engage. The second part proposes nine strategies needed to move the malignant mammal from our midst. Because the goal is to provide an overview for analysis and dialogue, thorough treatment of each point must await a longer work.


Six areas of hindrances to discipleship exist—two each in the Church, in the culture, and within individuals. Specific hindrances will be mentioned in each area.

Inadequate Goals

In many ways churches in this country have settled for goals far short of the discipling component of the great commission. It needs to determine more appropriate objectives for ministry. Below are listed a number of these inadequate goals contrasted with the correct paradigm for ministry. The adoption of one or more of these goals can hobble the attainment of ongoing spiritual growth.

Growing Attendance vs. Life Change

Churches and pastors tend to equate growth in attendance with success. As long as it increases, ministry appears to be effective. Eighty percent of church growth, however, is simply transfer growth. Bill Hull suggests, “The wrong question for the church is, How many people are present? The right question is, What are these people like?”8 The goal of discipleship is not numerical change, but life change.

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Category: Ministry, Pneuma Review, Spring 2011

About the Author: Stephen Lim, M.Div. and D.Min (Fuller Theological Seminary), is Professor Emeritus at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, MO. His article, “Why You Need A Savior,” was selected by the Evangelical Press Association as the second best article on evangelism published in 2009. He is presently working on a book, “Transforming Believers into Growing Disciples.”

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