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Elephant in the Church: Identifying Hindrances and Strategies for Discipleship

Low Self-Esteem

When individuals doubt their worth and competence, they fail to grow to their potential in relationships and abilities. They may doubt that God could love them and use them in any significant way. They can also develop emotional problems28 that further stymie their ability to love God and others. As a result, they fail to serve God as effectively as they could. Peck observes, “There is nothing that holds us back more from mental health…and more from God than the sense that we all have of our unimportance, or unloveliness and undesirability.”29

Addictive Patterns

Unresolved pain and emptiness prompt people to find relief. Substances, activities, material things, or power may provide temporary respite and become addictive. Many engage in addictions that are applauded by society, such as being overly busy, overachieving, being super mom or dad, or inordinately focusing on physical health or appearance.30 Others engage in inappropriate behaviors such as drug abuse, gambling, and pornography. Simply preaching or teaching against these rarely helps, for people are compulsively driven to them for relief. Addicts need to seek help from God, their spiritual families, and counselors, as well as understanding their underlying needs.

Developmental Issues

People’s spiritual nature cannot be separated from the rest of their lives.31 Therefore, churches that seek to disciple members toward spiritual maturity must also promote their personal maturity.32 When situations arise in their lives that thwart normal development at some stage, they do not mature as they should. Christians who are personally immature cannot live spiritually mature lives. Educator Les Steele states, “Optimal human development is the correlation of holiness and wholeness.”33 Developmental problems must be resolved for satisfactory spiritual growth to occur.


This brief probing of six areas hindering discipleship illumines for us why nondiscipleship is a disturbing reality in the church. The magnitude and complexity of the dilemma indicate that the solutions will not be simple or quick. In some cases, the nature of a hindrance has suggested the necessary correctives to it.

The second half of this paper proposes nine strategies and related means for ousting the elephant of nondiscipleship. Their goal is to stimulate prayer, thought and discussion among spiritual leaders who grieve the anemic state of discipleship, and who seek the Church’s renewed obedience in fully following Jesus.

Make the Great Commission the Driving Mission

In light of Jesus’ call to make disciples and the tremendous obstacles to discipleship in our churches, in our culture, and within ourselves, to succeed discipleship cannot simply be one program of the church. This would continue the paltry results of the present. Instead, it must become the driving mission. Only then can discipleship assume its proper place of prominence in the ministry of the church.

Overcome Ministry Weaknesses through Paradigm Shifts

In describing the inadequacy of goals and the defects in strategies, the countering biblical paradigms were also mentioned. To make these changes is difficult because human nature prefers the comfort of familiar, even when it is ineffective. Especially when the foundational paradigms for ministry are challenged, leaders may expect rigorous resistance. How many have naively attempted change, only to quit in frustration, antagonism, and defeat. The task calls for change agents who are led and empowered by the Spirit and who know the skills of persuasion34 and how to bring about change in appropriate, gracious, and timely ways.35

Overcome Cultural and Personal Hindrances through Motivation

The ceaseless challenge of these hindrances generates an enormous need for creating and sustaining strong spiritual motivation for discipleship. Most books on discipleship only briefly mention this area, if at all.36 For this reason, this strategy will be explained more fully.

Americans’ Most Unpopular Bible Verse?

Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive.

Hebrews 13:17a NKJV

Some leaders try to motivate through duty, guilt, or fear. These only have limited effectiveness for the short term and may eventually drive believers further from following the Master. While duty speaks to more responsible and disciplined Christians, the Elder Son Syndrome may emerge–in which they feel that they must earn the Father’s acceptance and approval, while experiencing little joy in so doing. “These many years I’ve slaved for you….” complained the elder son (Luke 15.29 NIV). Furthermore, duty only motivates people to do the minimum required, and soon most will weary of even that. In light of its strenuous demands, the only adequate motivation for following Jesus is desire.

Never should leaders whitewash the challenges in following Jesus, but they must show its desirability despite the commitment and cost required. Knowing the difficulties, believers must still want to follow Jesus. In the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, the man joyfully sells all he has to buy the field, because it is worth far more. Likewise the pearl merchant who finds the pearl of surpassing value gladly sells all he has to obtain it. (Matt 13.44-46). When people want something badly enough, they manage to find a way despite the obstacles.

What creates and sustains this motivation and consequent commitment to discipleship? In cooperation with God’s Spirit leaders can utilize the following means of motivation.

Vision of God and Kingdom Reality

Through Spirit anointed preaching and teaching and by their lives, leaders need to bring spiritual truths to life and cause them to be greatly valued and sought by believers. These include God’s holiness, love, beauty, and goodness, along with the wholeness he offers as part of salvation, as well as the hope of eternal life. While Jesus warned of the cost of following him, he also shared its desirability: Those who give up what cannot fill the heart will enjoy the bread that satisfies (John 6.35). Receiving the Son frees us from bondage (John 8.36) to enjoy life to the full (John 10.10). Willard advises leaders to ravish believers with a glorious vision of life in God’s kingdom.37 John Piper believes that the greatest impediment to discipleship is the belief that sin makes us happy, while our chief weapon is the conviction that God makes us happier. “The challenge,” he says, “is not merely to pursue righteousness, but to prefer it.”38

This desirability extends to following God’s laws (Deut 4.40, Psa 119.37). They are for our good because they are descriptions of reality. To ignore them brings pain to ourselves and others, diminished living, and eventually destruction. Analogies can be made to the physical realm. For example, walking in front of a moving car ignores the law of momentum and results in injury or death. People rebel when they are told what they should do. (Rom 7.9-10) Instead, they need to realize that to live the best life means living it according to God’s way. When this happens, they are motivated to grow in obedience, for they see that this is the only way to make life work. When believers have that attitude, God’s law emerges as a priceless gift. “At that point,” state Cloud and Townsend, “it is sin that looks stupid, ridiculous, as well as repulsive—which it really is.”39

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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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