Discipleship Is Not a Dirty Word

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J. Lee Grady

Reclaiming the process of
discipleship will require a total overhaul of how we do church.

I get funny looks from some charismatic Christians
when I tell them I believe God is calling us back to radical discipleship.
Those in the over-50 crowd—people who lived through the charismatic movement of
the 1970s—are likely to have a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to the
dreaded “D word.”

That’s because the so-called Discipleship Movement (also
known as the Shepherding Movement) turned a vital biblical principle into a
weapon and abused people with it. Churches that embraced the warped doctrines
of shepherding required believers to get permission from their pastors before they
bought cars, got pregnant or moved to a new city. Immature leaders became
dictators, church members became their loyal minions, and the Holy Spirit’s
fire was snuffed out because of a pervasive spirit of control.

“Reclaiming this process of discipleship is going to require a total overhaul of how we do church. Do we really want to produce mature disciples who have the character of Jesus and are able to do His works? Or are we content with shallow believers and shallow faith?”

I don’t ever want to live through that again. I know
countless people who are still licking their wounds from the spiritual abuse
they suffered while attending hyper-controlling churches in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Some of them still cannot trust a pastor today; others walked away from God
because leaders misused their authority—all in the name of “discipleship.”

Yet I’m still convinced that relational
discipleship—a strategy Jesus and the apostle Paul modeled for us—is as vital
as ever. If anything the pendulum has now swung dangerously in the opposite
direction. In today’s free-wheeling, come-as-you-are, pick-what-you-want,
whatever-floats-your-boat Christianity, we make no demands and enforce no
standards. We’re just happy to get warm rumps in seats. As long as people file
in and out of the pews and we do the Sunday drill, we think we’ve accomplished

But Jesus did not command us to go therefore and
attract crowds. He called us to make
(see Matt. 28:19), and that cannot be done exclusively in
once-a-week meetings, no matter how many times the preacher can get the people
to shout or wave handkerchiefs. If we don’t take immature Christians through a
discipleship process (which is best done in small groups or one-on-one gatherings),
people will end up in a perpetual state of immaturity.

Kinnaman, author of the excellent book unChristian,
articulated the problem this way: “Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian
faith, are not being transformed. They take one step into the door, and the
journey ends. They are not being allowed, encouraged, or equipped to love or to
think like Christ. Yet in many ways a focus on spiritual formation fits what a
new generation is really seeking. Transformation is a process, a journey, not a
one-time decision.”

Reclaiming this process of discipleship is going to
require a total overhaul of how we do church. Do we really want to produce
mature disciples who have the character of Jesus and are able to do His works?
Or are we content with shallow believers and shallow faith?

A friend of mine had to face this question while he was
pastoring in Florida. As a young father, he had a habit of putting his infant
son in a car seat and driving him around his neighborhood at night in order to
lull him to sleep. Once during this ritual the Holy Spirit spoke to this pastor
rather bluntly. He said: “This is what you are doing in your church. You are
just driving babies around.”

My friend came under conviction. He realized he had
fallen into the trap of entertaining his congregation with events and programs,
even though the people were not growing spiritually. He was actually content to
keep them in infancy. As long as they filled their seats each Sunday, and paid
their tithes, he was happy. Yet no one was growing, and they certainly were not
producing fruit by reaching others for Christ.

How can we make this paradigm shift in to
discipleship? How can we add “the D word” back into our vocabulary?

  • Churches
    must stop exclusively focusing on big events and get people involved in small
    groups, where personal ministry can take place.
  • We
    must stop treating people like numbers and get back to valuing relationships.
  • Leaders
    must reject the celebrity preacher model and start investing their lives in

we stand before Christ and He evaluates our ministries, He will not be asking
us how many people sat in our pews, watched our TV programs, gave in our
telethons or filled out response cards. He is not going to evaluate us based on
how many people fell under the power of God or how many healings we counted in
each service. He will ask how many
faithful disciples we made.
I pray we will make this our priority.

J. Lee Grady is the former
editor of Charisma and the director
of The Mordecai Project. You can follow him on
Twitter at leegrady. His latest book
is 10 Lies Men Believe (Charisma House).

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