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Elephant in the Church: Identifying Hindrances and Strategies for Discipleship

Cultural Seductions

Society seduces believers with attractive goals that detract their attention and energies from spiritual goals, including growth in discipleship. The nature of these seductions have not changed since biblical times. Jesus summarized them when he taught, “They are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” (Luke 8.14) Often Christian and nonchristians pursue similar goals and lifestyles. The basic seduction is self-centeredness instead of God-centeredness. A summary of consequent seductions follows:

Wealth and possessions             Luke 18.18-25

Ambition and success Eccl 2.4, 9

Power and influence    Mark 10.37, 42

Approval and applause              John 12.43

Comfort and ease         Luke 12.19

Entertainment and pleasure       Eccl 2.10

Busyness and noise     Luke 14.16-20

Cultural Misbeliefs

Besides the obvious attraction of what the prevailing culture relentlessly proclaims to be valuable are the more subtle misbeliefs it continuously promotes. While assenting to biblical truth outwardly, on an unconscious level believers often accept these misbeliefs and live according to them, subverting growth in spiritual living. One such falsehood is that the physical world is more real than the spiritual. As Christians experience “the overwhelming presence of the visible world,”20 they need to see with the eyes of faith that the spiritual “is more real—decisive over the shadow reality of the seen world,”21 even as Elisha saw beyond the Syrian army that surrounded him to God’s armies and confidently proclaimed, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6.16 NIV).

Other pervasive misbeliefs include: The present is what is important. Biblical teachings are outdated and irrelevant for today. Spiritual obedience limits our fulfillment. What individuals do, achieve, and accumulate determine their worth.

When we experience God’s love, we have the security to face our failures.

Can the Church effect major paradigm shifts in the way it does ministry? Can it combat the cultural subversions to the faith and practice of believers? If these challenges to discipleship are not overwhelming enough, the personal issues cited below should convincingly demonstrate the impossibility of fulfilling the great commission by human means without the Spirit’s enablement. Personal issues include misplaced priorities and deficiencies in intrapersonal dynamics.

Misplaced Priorities

Many areas of human endeavor and concern are proper and good, because they are ordained by God. These include work, education, family, leisure, personal fulfillment, and attention to personal problems. If believers are not careful, however, these take priority over spiritual things in terms of focus, commitment, energy, and resources. A study found that two-thirds of Christians felt that they were too busy to give adequate time to discipleship. One-fourth lacked interest or motivation to grow spiritually.22

Deficiencies in Intrapersonal Dynamics

Because spiritual growth is connected to personal growth, what happens within individuals can thwart the spiritual development God intends. Often growth requires courage, work, and struggle, for changing one’s inner self is a threatening prospect.23 A number of weaknesses in intrapersonal dynamics are mentioned below.

Limited Self-Understanding

Those who do not understand their emotions, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses will find it hard to grow, for self-understanding is basic to growth. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defined spiritual growth as the development of consciousness.24 In contrast, Oswald Chambers remarked on our lack of awareness, “It is astounding how ignorant we are about ourselves! We do not know envy when we see it, or laziness, or pride.”25 To grow spiritually, believers need to appropriate resources for developing self-understanding. The experience of God’s love and forgiveness, for example, provide the security individuals need to face the unpleasant realities about themselves. Other resources include the influence of God’s Word, the enabling of his Spirit, and a few believers who know them well and will “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4.15) to them.

Evasion of Truth

People grow when they face the truth about themselves and cooperate with God in dealing with the deficient and defective areas. Confronting our immaturity and selfishness, however, hurts and people often prefer to evade these realities. This can occur in a multitude of ways including denial, rationalization, minimization, and blaming others. By so doing, unfortunately, most people sabotage their own growth.26

Persistent Negative Emotions

Individuals may allow anxiety, resentment, or guilt to dominate their lives. These negative emotions distract their focus, dominate their thoughts, and drain their energies, leaving little time or strength for growth and fruitfulness. They must come to understand their feelings and learn how to deal with them. For example, in an article, “10 Keys to Managing Anxiety,” I summarize ways of managing this emotion.27

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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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