In the past couple decades or so, lots of churches have begun to focus on discipleship. There’s a recognition that we’ve largely assumed that if we simply focused on church growth, discipleship would just sort of… happen. We are realizing we’ve neglected Jesus’ explicit commission to “go and make disciples.”
And this renewed focus on discipleship is a good thing! But in our work with leaders, we’ve noticed that many churches dive straight into the work of developing a plan for discipleship without first articulating clearly WHY they’re doing this in the first place. The result is a whole lot of confusion and very little movement.
Why start with why?
Every three-year-old knows it’s important to ask why. It’s we adults that have trouble remembering how crucial it is!
Simon Sinek addresses this problem in his book Start With Why. The basic premise is that while most organizations can tell you WHAT they do, and a few can tell you HOW they do it, very few can tell you WHY they do what they do.
What’s their ultimate purpose? Why do they get out of bed in the morning? What’s the point?
Sinek’s basic argument is that why we do something is far more important and powerful than what we’re doing or how we’re doing it.
So WHY be and make disciples?
It seems to me that lots of churches know that they should be focusing on discipleship (WHAT), and some churches have a plan for it (HOW), but very few churches can really talk about WHY discipleship to Jesus is such a big deal.
Why focus on discipleship in the first place? Why be disciples of Jesus? Why make disciples of Jesus? Is this just a new church growth strategy? Or have we really embraced a more fundamental theological shift?
The most obvious WHY for discipleship is that Jesus told us to do it. And while this is a decent motivation, Jesus’ commands are never arbitrary. There’s a reason he told us to follow him and make disciples.
The problem is the way we often talk about discipleship makes it feel like it is arbitrary, that it’s less of a vital thing and more of an extra-curricular activity, an add-on to the “main thing,” which is typically “getting saved.”
So what’s in your gospel?
So it all comes down to what we believe the “main thing” really is. What is the good news we are proclaiming? What is the gospel?
Let’s test it it out. If this is your good news…
God will forgive your sins and let you into heaven if you believe that Jesus died on the cross for you…
…then there is no reason at all to become a disciple of Jesus.
Indeed there’s no reason to involve Jesus in your faith at all. You’re not trusting a person, you’re just assenting to some facts.
Under this understanding of the gospel there’s no logical or compelling reason to become a disciple of Jesus. There’s no WHY.
A bigger gospel that leads to discipleship
But the gospel is so much more than forgiveness and heaven-when-you-die!
Let’s try it out. If this is your gospel…
You can participate NOW in the life of the Trinity, joining with him in what he’s doing right now on earth. Through Jesus Christ, life in God’s kingdom is available to you now. You can start immediately.
…then becoming a disciple perfect sense!
Why? Because how else will I learn to live this new life? If I surrender to this gospel, I realize that I really don’t know how to live in God’s kingdom. I don’t know how to participate in the life of the Trinity.
But Jesus does!
So the way we enter life in God’s kingdom now is by trusting Jesus now to teach us and empower us to enter into this new kind of life. He leads us step-by-step into kingdom life.
Discipleship to Jesus is the natural way to say Yes to the gospel of the kingdom.
Keeping the gospel of the kingdom central
In other words, discipleship finds its WHY in the gospel of the kingdom.
But if we try to focus on discipleship while retaining anemic and truncated conceptions of the gospel, we’ll always fall flat on our face, because there isn’t a sufficient WHY to propel people through the sacrifice and effort that discipleship requires.
This is a drum we tend to beat a lot, but it needs to keep being said, over and over, until we really begin to change the way we preach the gospel. In our pulpits, small groups, dinner conversations, and neighborhood barbecues.
If we want to see a discipleship revolution take root in the North American church, we have to intentionally change the way we think and talk about the gospel. I believe this is one of the watershed theological issues of our time, frankly.
If we can truly begin to preach and respond to the gospel of the kingdom, the one Jesus and Paul and whole New Testament preaches, it will naturally lead to discipleship, because the WHY will be obvious.