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Elephant in the Church: Identifying Hindrances and Strategies for Discipleship

Personal and spiritual growth occurs more consistently when believers submit themselves to others, who have come to know them thoroughly and hold them accountable for their actions, attitudes, and growth.

Many practical areas of Christian living, moreover, do not receive adequate attention. In several courses that I taught at seminary, I surveyed the students as to the subjects that their church had taught over the previous two years. Based on the frequency of teaching, the findings indicated that these students received an adequate amount of instruction in most of the areas of spiritual life—such as understanding the nature of God, prayer, temptation, reaching the lost, and spiritual gifts–along with the practical area of family life. Many areas, however, which occupy a huge part of the believer’s thought, time, and energy, only got passing mention. These include work, success, money and possessions, time issues including stress, leisure, entertainment, romantic love, and sex. More extensive surveys are needed to confirm these preliminary results, but I suspect that they reflect the teaching patterns of the church in general. Churches must strive for a holistic discipleship, recognizing God’s call in every area of life.

Defective Strategies

While inadequate goals suffice to sabotage discipleship, widespread but defective strategies compound ministry weakness. A number of flawed approaches appear below along with the correct ministry paradigms necessary to remedy them.

Discipleship by Osmosis vs. Intentional Discipleship

Rather than developing an intentional strategy for making disciples beyond the follow up of converts, many churches rely on discipleship by osmosis, hoping that discipleship will occur naturally as people attend church and absorb the environment. My observation agrees with that of Howard Hendricks, who believes that this only works for very small percentage of people.16 In order for consistent discipling to occur for the majority of believers, leaders must intentionally plan and work to make it happen.

Over-programming vs. Mission Driven Ministry

Too many good activities and programs arise in the course of a church’s life, each with vested constituents. These continue even when no one remembers their original purpose or they are no longer effective, because “they have always been part of the church” or “spiritual churches do these ministries.” With pride, churches declare that they have something every night of the week. Unfortunately, second and third best crowd out the great commission. The latter is the mission which needs to drive the ministries of the church.

Emphasis on Completing Curriculum vs. Ongoing Nurture and Relationships

Many churches operate under the assumption that if individuals complete a particular course or curriculum, they will be discipled. Underlying this belief may be the desire to speed up the process and avoid the difficult and often messy work of discipling people. Each person learns and implements truth at different rates and in varying ways. Each also has individual issues in their lives which need to be resolved. These processes work best in an environment of ongoing nurture with supportive relationships. Discipleship cannot simply be packaged into a preset schedule and curriculum, with a certificate of completion at the end.

Even as children cannot be raised quickly, growing a disciple takes time. Trying to abbreviate or accelerate the process only results in frustration. Psychiatrist-pastor John White stressed, “Real Christian growth is slow and painful.”17 This is especially true of the increasing numbers who are saved from dysfunctional backgrounds. A staff member at the Los Angeles Dream Center states, “Everyone wants to go fishing, but no one wants to clean the fish. That’s what we do here. Clean the fish.”18

Lack of Responsibility vs. Accountability

On one or more occasions per week, committed believers receive biblical teaching and preaching from their churches. Once they step outside the meeting, however, it is usually up to them whether or not to apply what they have heard or studied. Personal and spiritual growth occurs more consistently when believers submit themselves to others, who have come to know them thoroughly and hold them accountable for their actions, attitudes, and growth. Without this relational incentive, growth mostly proceeds sporadically and minimally. Accountability to parents and teachers enable children to learn; it is also the natural way to grow as adults. Psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend state, “It’s not rocket science; it’s the way God designed us to grow. Others discipline us, then we can do it for ourselves.”19

The first step toward ejecting the behemoth of nondiscipleship is to overcome ministry weaknesses by replacing inferior goals and defective strategies with more biblical and effective paradigms. This formidable task requires Spirit empowered change agents who can effect change while avoiding destructive conflict.

Other hindrances remain. Cultural subversion is the next challenge. This involves the seductions of our culture and the subtle misbeliefs it promulgates, which often lie below the radar of conscious awareness.

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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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