We in the church are all disciples of Christ and, as such, we have been given the responsibility to take the good news to the world, sharing it with others. Too often we lose sight of the goal of this sharing. We don’t share merely to elicit agreement with our beliefs. While important, this is not the primary goal for which we strive. Neither is the physical response of baptism and church membership the actual goal. The goal of sharing the gospel is taking those who were once enemies of God and making them into mature disciples of Christ. Some will argue that assent to the gospel, baptism and church membership are the definition of discipleship, but I would argue this is only the beginning. Yes, at that point the responder has taken on the status of being a disciple.
There is far more to being a disciple than simply assenting to doctrines, being baptized in water and developing the habit of attending church. A mature disciple is one who exhibits the defining qualities of Christ in the flesh. Because this person has taken on the qualities of Christ, this person responds as Christ would to situations. This person lives as Christ would. The person desires what Christ desired. When one sees the mature disciple, one sees Christ. This is our goal.
Now, think about this definition of a mature believer and ask, “How much of what is done in church actually contributes to this goal?” How many of our programs actually encourage us to live like Christ? Then ask how many of those that encourage this sort of life actually empower us to do this? Think hard about it and I am sure you will notice that few of our most cherished programs actually qualify.
You may say, “Well, Sunday school does this.” You are partly right. Perhaps you will mention Bible Study or biblically focused sermons. I would argue that very little disciplemaking is actually going on in these settings. Before you accuse me of downplaying the importance of preaching and teaching the Bible, allow me to explain. These educational programs are very useful in teaching what Jesus did. They are very useful in teaching what scripture commands us to do—when and where it commands. They teach us what scripture forbids—too often these even throw in a few things it actually does not forbid. But is this enough to learn how to live as Christ in the world? I would argue that it’s a good start, but only a start.
I have taught many people to drive. I’ve taught my wife, my three children and several immigrants how to drive. Let me use driver instruction as an illustration of disciplemaking. When you teach someone to drive, the goal is getting them to be able to safely, legally and responsibly handle a moving vehicle in a variety of situations. The possible situations one will face over a lifetime of driving are so numerous no one could predict all the possible scenarios. Now suppose I want to take someone who does not know how to operate an automobile and make them into a skilled driver. I could start with classes—and classes are important. We could teach them about the parts of the car; the way the parts work; the way to maintain them. When they understand these we might have a class on the laws of the road. Then we could teach them about what to do when the roads are slippery or when driving at night. We would, of course, want to teach them how to merge on to a highway (as one who lives in San Antonio, I can assure you many people need a refresher course on this one!). They need to learn how to change lanes safely (don’t get me started on this one!).
Suppose we sat our prospective new driver down, gave them classroom instructions in all of these and then simply threw them a license and a set of car keys, and cut them loose. You’d have chaos (something very close to Loop 1604 during San Antonio rush hour). You would have just guaranteed that person’s failure. What did we miss? We missed practical application. We missed road instruction. Someone learns to turn safely by actually turning a vehicle—they learn the feel of the car pulling to one side, the feel of the accelerator and the brake. They learn how to change lanes by actually doing it. They learn to merge on the highway by getting onto and off of the highway multiple times. They learn to drive at night by driving at night.
Learning to drive has a great deal in common with making disciples. We want people to live, walk, and talk like Christ. Sunday school and Bible Study lay a good foundation when done properly. Church programs can attract people in, and give them some instruction. However, those who come in will never really learn to be Christ in the assortment of situations life throws at them, unless they observe someone else living like Christ. This is why fellowship is so important—I define that here as the personal interaction between the present and the potential people of God (between those who have been reached, but also between us and those we strive to reach).
We make disciples by being disciples in the presence of those who are either non-disciples or who are immature disciples. We make disciples not merely by teaching what Christ did in the past, or what Christ has commanded. This is insufficient because life is full of decisions that Christ did not have an opportunity to model. This does not detract from him being tempted in every way as we are. However, it recognizes the difference between our world and theirs. Neither does scripture offer a black and white command for every possible decision we face. This was actually a major contributor to the strife between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. Life was full of situations for which the scriptures gave no direct command so the rabbis had to interpret. They often decided a safe choice was to pile rules upon rules. Jesus showed a different way. He lived for years with his disciples modeling the right way to them. They saw how to live a righteous life through close proximity to one who was living a righteous life.
Disciplemaking must include practical field training. This means getting into the lives of other disciples. This requires us to spend time together—to visit with one another; to talk; to interact at various levels. The church has a long history of fellowship—usually defined as a Potluck meal. I would contend that biblical fellowship is far more than a meal, and that biblical fellowship is to be a primary activity of God’s people in church—not something relegated beneath the message, but an essential part of learning the lessons of the message. The church meeting (the service set aside for worship and the message) is the classroom. The world is where we practically apply what we learn. However, our preparation is not complete without the lab between the lesson and the application. Our fellowship is the lab where we learn to apply the things we learned from the message and the exposition of scripture. It is where we learn to interact in a godly way, to handle strife, to forgive, to bless, etc. Then, after we have not only absorbed the facts of the lesson, but have learned to apply them, we are prepared to go out into the world and live them out.
Biblical preaching and teaching are important. But fellowship between those so taught is equally important. We must build into our churches more opportunities to fellowship with one another. We must stop relegating these opportunities to the occasional second tier status to which such fellowship has for too long been exiled. The interaction of God’s people is just as important for making disciples as anything that will ever come from the pulpit.