We live in an era of mass-production. We mass-produce our cars, our computers, our clothes, and just about everything else we encounter in our daily lives.
But we cannot mass-produce discipleship.
What is Discipleship?
When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He didn’t just leave His Church with instructions of what to teach until He returns. He also told us how. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) calls us to make disciples of all nations. God’s plan for church growth is for one person or family at a time to come to saving faith, be mentored by more mature Christians, and eventually go on to disciple others. What does it mean to make disciples?
Even an effort to define our terms reveals how much mass-production has impacted our thought processes. In portions of American Christianity, we hear the term “discipleship” and assume the speaker is talking about an older and a younger believer going through a book or video and answering study guide questions. That can be useful, and it can be a part of discipleship, but it’s not what I’m talking about here.
Discipleship, as modeled in the New Testament, is the process in which newer believers learn from mature Christians who are teaching and living out all areas of Christian doctrine and practice. It’s when an elder of a church takes a young man along on a hospital visit or a widow visit. It’s when an experienced evangelist takes a newer Christian along street preaching or on a prison visit. It’s when experienced parents help newer parents work through a toddler’s discipline issue. It’s when a wise, financially responsible older man or woman helps newlyweds build a budget.
There’s more to discipleship than the study guide.
Scripture does not forbid mass evangelism. In fact, we see an example of it in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost itself. Three thousand people came to saving faith all at once. Fantastic! But what immediately follows? One-on-one discipleship:
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:42-47, KJV).
Whether people come to saving faith one at a time or in droves, the Scriptural pattern is that discipleship always follows. And discipleship cannot be mass-produced.
Make no mistake, the American church has tried. Celebrity authors write mass-produced books about any imaginable aspect of the Christian life. Celebrity pastors distribute their weekly sermons via radio, television, and the Internet. Multi-site churches simulcast a celebrity pastor’s sermon—a video-screen pastor preaching to congregants he has perhaps never met. Celebrity speakers headline Christian conferences, seminars, and festivals.
Some of these resources have merit, and God sometimes uses them to accomplish His purposes. But just like a sword or a firearm, these tools can cause as much harm as good. The Biblical pattern is that you learn doctrine, how to be a Christian parent or spouse, how to raise children, how to wisely steward finances, and countless other topics from mature Christians in your church—Christians you see every Sunday, and hopefully also throughout the week. (An aside: If you’re in a church where everyone is at your level of maturity, and there’s not a single person discipling or being discipled, it might be time to look for a church where discipleship is happening.)
The Consequences of Mass-Producing Discipleship
God can and does use books and seminar messages to teach us valuable lessons. It’s normal and healthy to learn a few valuable insights from one book, and a few more from another. It is far less healthy to immerse yourself in a comprehensive plan for living the Christian life put forward by a celebrity speaker, and try to replicate that plan in your life. That isn’t a hypothetical situation; I have known several families, some of them dear friends, who have tried this.
Not too long ago, two of the Christian celebrities with the most devoted followings among my circle of acquaintances fell into personal scandals. Witnesses came forward to testify that there was an extreme disconnect between how they presented themselves on stage and how they actually lived their daily lives. When this news came out, my friends were devastated and felt personally betrayed.
I have also seen less dramatic stories. I have known several families who follow a celebrity closely, though perhaps not as closely, and eventually find themselves facing a major trial or life decision. I have seen them reach out to their celebrity of choice to ask for one-on-one counseling, only to be devastated when that celebrity simply doesn’t have the time.
The Challenge of Discipleship
God’s plan for discipleship means that we learn from other redeemed saints still struggling with their sin nature. If we spend enough time with them one-on-one, we’ll know it, too. Facades don’t hold up permanently under the spotlight of living life together in regular fellowship. But, as contradictory as this might seem at first, that isn’t a flaw of the discipleship process. It’s (part of) the point. We watch fellow believers battle their besetting sins and learn how to battle ours.
This is perhaps the most important part of discipleship. It’s where the rubber meets the road, where iron sharpens iron, or, to use a Biblical phrase, where faith becomes works.
It’s also the part that doesn’t happen when discipleship is mass-produced.
Sometimes we assume that a celebrity Christian has it all together. It’s easy to use that as an excuse to ignore our local mentors and imagine ourselves as disciples of these celebrities. But the end result is that we are imitating an artificial image of the Christian life. Speakers can intentionally cultivate an image of perfection; I’ve spent enough time in the spotlight to feel the temptation to paint myself in the best possible light. (Speakers can do that on stage, but not with the friends who know them best.) And sometimes the audience creates that image of perfection on their own. Either way, it’s a misconception.
We know the weaknesses and sins of our local mentors. We often don’t know the weaknesses and sins of Christian celebrities. Trading a real-life, flesh-and-blood mentor for a mistaken image of celebrity perfection is a grave error.
Important cautions are in order: It’s not like every celebrity mentor has a bad effect and every one-on-one mentor never messes up. Sometimes God works through mass-produced discipleship, and sometimes a new Christian is mentored one-on-one by a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is certainly merit to learning valuable lessons from classic Christian books and sermons, and a few new ones. I still read a number of Christian living books every year.
But I try to be intentional about modeling myself after the mature Christians who are closest to me, who know me the best and whom I know the best—my parents, and a few couples my parents’ age or older at my church. And I strive to remain aware of the impact my successes and failures have on the children and young adults in my life who watch me.
Real discipleship isn’t always perfect. It isn’t always pretty. But it’s God’s plan. So it works.