By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. (John 15:8)
We live in a world in which success, sadly, is too often measured by number. We are taught from an early age that indices like turnover, gross profit, membership and sales are the real measure of achievement or growth. this is a perception that has spilled over into our churches. One only has to look at the ‘mega-churches’ to confirm this, or see how many pastors are ‘relocated’ due to their ‘failure’ to perform, i.e. to deliver church growth by membership numbers, ministry numbers or financial growth.
The tragic truth is that this is as far from the ‘great commission’ as it could ever be. If we look at the Acts church, we find absolutely no instances of this kind of ‘success measurement’ being applied to the growth of the church. While I cannot promulgate a doctrine in which believers are ‘meant to be poor,’ I also cannot find a biblical basis to measure Christian growth in terms of the financial and numbers value system of the world.
While we are always expected to be ‘good stewards,’ the church was never intended to be founded on any principle but that of discipleship. The movement away from this towards a ‘financial and marketing strategy’ within our churches is, I believe, a critical factor in a very significant consequence. To clarify, we can examine the parable of the tares and the wheat, or even that of the sheep and the goats.
Both of these relate very markedly to the end times apostacy within the church. We are warned over and over that there will be a tremendous falling away of ‘believers.’ We are also told that that true believers will be separated from those who profess or feign belief – the wheat from the tares and the sheep from the goats. The significant factor here is those who claim to be believers. They are, to all intents and purposes, followers of Christ, Christians, yet the Bible tells us that even those who may claim to do miracles in the name of Christ will be turned away by Him at the end.
What a sobering picture. How many ‘believers’ who we meet every Sunday in our churches will fall into apostacy? How is this even possible? The key principle to understanding this is that of discipleship as opposed to church growth. While there are many churches who genuinely work towards creating disciples, there are as many, if not more, who bypass this commandment completely and focus on filling pews or generating church members.
It’s a well known fact that evangelical crusades bring in huge numbers of ‘converts,’ and I have the utmost respect to evangelists and those who labour in the this field. Yet the question is often asked: How many of these converts stay the course? How many of these make an emotional commitment to Christ, yet experience no growth, or even fall away within a short period of time because they are never discipled? How many people in our churches have learned to ‘talk the talk’ – they have a scattered knowledge of the Word, usually focused on the ‘feel good’ doctrines that exclude real trial and hardship and daily commitment. On the surface, they sound thoroughly saved. In reality they are simply padding, numbers to up the success rate with a shallow understanding of the true commitment involved.
It’s very easy to look at the work of others and make sweeping and condemnatory judgements. That is not my intention. The harvest is there and needs to be brought in, and in very real terms the ministry of an evangelist is not fundamentally that of making disciples. That is the role of the church leadership and the church as a whole – we are all commanded to ‘make disciples.’
The nature of this process can be seen in the ministry of Christ. For three years, He kept His disciples in His ‘inner circle’ – teaching, guide, revealing, molding, challenging. Discipling someone is not a three step programme or a quick seminar. It’s a committed, daily walk alongside someone. It’s a focused and ongoing training, encouraging, exhorting and supporting ministry. It’s not just for pastors or elders or deacons. It’s for every single born again believer. Its for us, for you and me.
While every believer has a responsibility to take control of their own spiritual growth, it’s imperative that new believers are effectively discipled. Think of our newborn babies. We don’t take them home and expect them to feed themselves, nor do we expect a five-year-old to be able to accomplish things or have the wisdom or maturity that a fifteen-year-old has. The principle is exactly the same. Mature believers are to be as parents to young believers – think of the relationship between Paul and Timothy as a good example.
Discipling ‘younger’ Christians is a fundamental part of our Christian walk. Jesus never ever said to do it if we felt like it. He said ‘Go.’ He also said that the measure of our own discipleship lies in the fruit, for therein lies the glory of God. The fruit includes the ‘children’ we have raised in the faith, the people we have discipled. Children are the expected fruit of every union, and this includes our oneness in Christ. If there is no fruit, we need to ask ourselves whether we’re true disciples. A challenging question.
The biggest challenge, however, when we accept the principles of discipleship, is the ‘goats’ and the ‘tares’ who may be sitting beside us every Sunday. In the apostacy that will undoubtedly come, those who fall away will have a measure of responsibility for their own faith. However, every believer will also be judged according to our righteous works at the final judgement. This will include our obedience to His commands. Making disciples is not optional, it’s a command. And will we ever know how many might have been prevented from falling away, if they had only been properly discipled – by us.
Father God, teach us to be obedient in this, Your purpose for every believer. Help us to reach out, to truly make disciples, to strengthen new believers in the faith and to teach them Your ways, Your truth, Your grace. Help us, Lord, not to simply add numbers to Your Kingdom but to add disciples, who in turn will add others, for Your eternal glory.