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Elephant in the Church: Identifying Hindrances and Strategies for Discipleship

Decisions vs. Conversions

Churches tend to focus their efforts at getting people to make decisions to respond to Jesus, without realizing that a lasting decision is usually the climax of a conversion process that begins well before the decision and leads toward genuine commitment to Christ and that continues after the decision toward maturity in Christ. Robert Coleman observes that churches have a “spectacular emphasis on numbers of converts…with little or no genuine concern manifested toward the establishment of these souls in the love and power of God….”9 True conversion leads to commitment, life change, and involvement in kingdom service.

Sin Management vs. Discipleship

As long as the sin problem has been taken care of through their accepting God’s forgiveness in Christ, many believers feel that they have experienced the essence of Christianity. Willard laments, “The Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin….Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.”10 Lloyd Ogilvie bluntly states, “We have a watered-down, undemanding form of Christianity.”11 Dealing with the sin problem is only the initial stage for growth in discipleship.

Basics for New Believers vs. Lifelong Learning

Churches tend to focus their efforts at getting people to make decisions to respond to Jesus, without realizing that a lasting decision is usually the climax of a conversion process that begins well before the decision and leads toward genuine commitment to Christ and that continues after the decision toward maturity in Christ.

Most programs and resources for discipleship are simply designed to provide knowledge of basic Christian faith and practice for new converts, rather than to enable the lifelong growth of all believers. A survey of current discipleship programs easily confirms this fact. The Navigators’ 2:7 Series12 involves three courses of 10 or 11 weeks each. InterVarsity’s Discipleship Essentials13 covers 24 lessons at the rate of one per week. The Assemblies of God’s We Build People14 program involves four lessons in each of four units of study. Needed are more comprehensive approaches that enable ongoing growth.

Information vs. Transformation

Often churches assume that as long as correct biblical information has been communicated, discipleship occurs. Information is only the first step to life change, yet the tendency is to define discipleship as head knowledge rather than thorough-going life change.15

Compliance and Zeal vs. Maturity

True conversion leads to commitment, life change, and involvement in kingdom service.

During 30 years in ministry, I have observed that many pastors and churches settle for appropriate outward behaviors and a zealous spirit. If members attend church regularly, accept basic doctrines, avoid certain no-no’s, and serve in a ministry, they are content. If these members tithe, give to missions, and occasionally witness or invite people to church, they are overjoyed. Yet believers can do all of these and still live self-centeredly, endure miserable marriages, and display unchristlike behavior. Churches should not settle for less than continuing growth toward mature discipleship.

Selective Obedience vs. Holistic Discipleship

Depending on their church background, if they are not careful, believers may emphasize particular teachings and practices at the expense of others. Pentecostal and charismatic groups may stress the infilling and gifts of the Spirit, while mainline denominations urge the fruit of the Spirit. Evangelicals promote evangelism; nonevangelicals advocate social concern. Some churches stress doctrinal correctness, others character, and still others spiritual service.

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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.” www.agts.edu/faculty/lim.html

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