We used to. But we quit doing it years ago. It didn’t work for us.
We were using a well-known discipleship curriculum from a megachurch, that we adapted to our Small Church. We did it because everybody – and I mean everybody! – said you can’t have a healthy church without a system to train disciples and measure their growth.
So we adopted a system of discipleship classes. People signed up, the classes were full and church members took notes on the outlines we gave them. Some continued into the upper level classes. They moved through the steps we laid out for them, with fewer taking every additional step, like climbing a pyramid.
Then I decided to find out how we were doing. Since our church is small I didn’t need to tabulate numbers. I just started asking church members if they felt like they were being discipled by the classes. They looked at me like I’d just grown a third eye.
“Uh, I took the classes. Is that what you mean?” was the typical response.
So I clarified my question. I asked if they’d been discipled by taking the classes. Apparently I was sprouting new eyes all over the place. Every person I asked was confused by the question. So I changed the question.
I simply asked people if they’d ever been discipled. Most said yes. Good start.
Then I asked them where they received their discipleship from. Not one of them named our classes or curriculum. Instead, almost everyone named a person – a mentor, pastor, teacher or friend.
But not anyone connected to the classes. Those that didn’t name a person, named a church. Some named our church. But again, not in relationship to the discipleship classes.
It turns out the church members following our system didn’t equate that system with discipleship because none of them equated discipleship with sitting in a room, taking notes. They all stubbornly stuck to a strange idea that real discipleship should develop out of long-term relationships, not from a series of classes.
Once again, the people in the church saw the simple truth of things better than the people who were supposedly in charge.
We all know systems don’t save people – only Jesus does that. It turns out systems don’t make disciples either. People do that.
When we do what Jesus told us to do, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit kicks in and discipleship happens. Through relationships. Through following someone else’s life example. Through solid biblical teaching. Through Q&A sessions.
Systems aren’t wrong. They’re needed for a healthy church. But systems don’t disciple people.
Relationships + Ministry = Discipleship
Now don’t get me wrong. Discipleship doesn’t happen automatically. It needs some intentionality.
And in a larger church, a system with classes, teachers and curriculum probably makes sense, since it’s likely to be the best way to connect new and growing believers with more mature ones.
But in a healthy Small Church, biblical teaching, responsive worship and intentional ministry, linked together through healthy relationships, may be all the intentionality we need. Healthy Small Churches may already be doing more discipleship than our discipleship classes or systems ever could.
Jesus, Paul, Peter and the early church did the best discipleship the world has ever seen, and they didn’t have a classroom, curriculum or measurable steps. They had relationships. Relationships that grew as they did ministry together.
When church growth advocates try to tell me that my church isn’t healthy if we don’t have a discipleship system in place, I respectfully disagree with their premise.
Systems Don’t Make Disciples – People Do
We used to have a discipleship system. That system graduated students.
Now we work on intentional relationships. And that’s producing disciples.
One at a time. Through lots of ups and downs. Imperfectly. With no human record-keeping system to let us know how many have reached goals we’ve set to try to measure the immeasurable.
Now, when I ask church members if they’ve been discipled, they’ll smile or shed a tear as they talk about the mentor, teacher or friend who helped them become a more well-rounded, passionate follower of Jesus.
Those stories don’t put numbers on my discipleship report, but they are the best proof I know that Jesus is building his church. And it turns out a healthy church – big or small – is the best discipleship system ever devised.
So what do you think? Is it possible we’ve been missing out on the greatest discipleship method ever, by concentrating on systems over relationships?
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