Making discipleship a priority for your church

Jake Mulder Image Jake Mulder | May 5, 2017

Photo by Luke Ellis Craven

As you approach the summer season of ministry and begin to plan for the fall, you’re likely going to work on a handful of important questions:

How can we keep our young people connected to the church?
Do I have enough leaders for our mission trip?
What should our fall calendar look like?

But in the midst of the busyness, you might lose sight of your most basic task as a leader: discipleship. Helping people love and follow Jesus in their everyday lives. I recently heard a church leader phrase the problem this way: “Our church has a generic vision of making disciples but no real strategy to make it happen.”

She went on to share how her congregation consists of leaders who are capable, who love God, and who desire for others to love God too. However, helping people love and follow Jesus is often lost or buried in the flurry of planning for Sundays or midweek activities, managing busy schedules, or trying to design a ministry that is interesting enough to actually get young people to show up.

Yet despite all this effort, discipleship may not actually be happening at churches like hers. As Dallas Willard writes, “Non-discipleship is the elephant in the church.”[1] In other words, we spend our time focused on a myriad of activities – but we miss the main point.

To sharpen the focus of our ministries on what’s most important, I’d like to suggest three essential realities to keep top of mind this summer. If we do, I believe they will have a game-changing effect on the present and future of our churches.

1) There is a crisis of discipleship in the American church.

Perhaps you’ve been reading Dallas Willard for years. Or maybe the term moralistic therapeutic deism is part of your daily lingo. Or perhaps you have a strong sense that the beliefs of young people in your church feel watered-down, slightly off base, or flat-out incorrect. A growing number of Christian philosophers, theologians, and researchers are making the case that our churches largely miss the main message that Jesus came to live and teach.

Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Seminary reflects that we’ve replaced adherence to Jesus’ message with a “do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God.”[2] It’s certainly a far cry from what we hope to pass on to a younger generation.

2) Young people are drawn to churches that take discipleship seriously.

In our team’s recent study of 250 churches that are growing young, we found young people are drawn to churches that take Jesus’ message seriously. Approximately 40% of young people specifically mentioned their church is effective with teenagers and young adults because the church challenges them to follow Jesus.

In other words, young people aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them, they are running toward it.

Tweet this: Young people aren't running from a gospel that requires hard things of them, they are running toward it.

And what type of gospel are they running toward? Nearly 7 out of 10 young people in the churches we studied specifically mentioned Jesus when they were asked to describe the gospel.

These two data points reveal a hunger not only to understand Jesus’ message, but also to put it into practice. This is discipleship at its core—and the heart-cry of young people everywhere.

Terry, a 29-year-old in our study, said, “I think many churches have fallen into a consumer mindset as a default mode. Churches have tried to appeal to people’s desire to feel good. But the problem is, if you’re just trying to make people feel good, church isn’t going to measure up to that.”

Adam, another twentysomething, added, “The goal for our church is not really effectiveness with young people but serving and following Jesus. And young people like me are attracted to churches that want to do that.”

3) There is transformative power in asking the right questions

While the questions that began this post (as well as the dozens of other questions you need to focus on as a church leader) are important, I believe we need to carve out appropriate space for a more focused set of questions.

Dallas Willard suggests the following for those of us who preach from the pulpit, teach a class, select curriculum, or otherwise design aspects of ministry:[3]

Does the gospel I preach and teach have a natural tendency to cause people who hear it to become full-time students of Jesus?
Would those who believe it become his apprentices as a natural “next step”?
What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of my message?

In other words, it is crucial for us to pay attention to the long-term impact of our ministry rather than simply its immediate execution. The questions we ask our team and ourselves allow this to become a habit.

Ready to start? Try this.

As you head into summer, I invite you to carve out space for a regular team meeting (perhaps once per month) where there is only ONE item on the agenda: Making discipleship a priority.

Decide together in advance to keep this meeting free from the urgency, busyness, and competing demands of all those other important realities. Spend time in prayer, asking God to enlarge your vision for ministry. Invite the Holy Spirit to inspire you and lead you to the best decisions.

Perhaps you can reflect on the questions Dallas Willard poses above, or come up with your own set of discipleship-focused questions.

Over the next several months you’ll no doubt be asking lots of other questions and making plenty of other decisions. Create a rhythm where you reflect on those decisions in this meeting. Ask: Do the decisions we’ve made for our fall ministry year feel like they’re helping people become disciples of Jesus? Based on my experience and having walked a number of leaders through this exercise, you may be surprised how it can shape your plans.

Our team wants to journey with you

Our team at the Fuller Youth Institute wants to continue to support you on this journey! Here are just a few ways we can help:

  • Read (or re-read) chapter four on taking Jesus’ message seriously in Growing Young
  • Check out our intensive all-church training through the Growing Young Cohort
  • Utilize our free Growing Young Assessment to understand how well your church is positioned to engage teenagers and young adults.
Growing Young Book

Start Growing Young

[2] See Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[3] Divine Conspiracy, 58.

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Jake Mulder Image
Jake Mulder

Jake Mulder is the Senior Director of Strategy at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Fuller's Executive Director of Leadership Formation Division. As Senior Director of Strategy at FYI, he oversees business administration, coordinates new research, develops resources and trainings, and helps the team think strategically. Jake holds a BA in Business Administration in Finance from Western Michigan University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing a PhD at Fuller. Passionate about helping individuals and organizations achieve their full potential, he is the coauthor of Growing Young. Prior to joining the FYI team, Jake worked in a variety of ministry and professional roles, including as a Financial Analyst, Youth Pastor in the Reformed Church of America, Ministry Director with Youth for Christ, and missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Europe and Asia. Jake and his family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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