Why Churches Make so few Disciples


Fuel Gauge
Photo – iStockPhoto.com

The next time you fill your tank, consider this: most of the gasoline you pump into your car is wasted.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, only about 14%–26% of the energy from the fuel in your tank propels your car down the road. The rest of the energy is lost to heat, friction, and other engine and driveline inefficiencies.

In other words that $60 fill-up is producing, at most, $15 worth of forward motion. And that’s if you drive a hybrid.

Churches are similarly inefficient when it comes to making disciples.

When Jesus left our planet, this was his clear command (Matt. 28:19). Yet in most congregations, less than a quarter of the time and money goes into direct, intentional disciple making.

Why? Just like the car, the majority of our energy goes into other things.

In most congregations, the bulk of the energy is spent preparing a weekly worship service. Whatever energy is left goes into meeting the needs of church members and the community. Only a tiny fraction of energy remains for disciple making.

God is all-powerful – but people are not. Christians don’t seem to realize that human time and energy are finite. It’s simple mathematics: if pastors and volunteers expend most of their time and energy preparing and presenting weekly worship services, there won’t be much energy left for disciple making.

Here’s how this dynamic plays out in church.

Pastor Wally leads a typical U.S. congregation of about 150 people. Wally spends about 75% of his workweek preparing for Sunday morning. The other 25% of his time is devoted to the flurry of meetings, counseling, hospital visitation, etc. Wally is frustrated – he wants to personally disciple more people but he’s already working 60 hours a week.

So why doesn’t Wally re-arrange his schedule so he can spend more time discipling? It would mean the death of his church – and the end of his job.

Churches live or die based on the quality of their weekly worship services. Consumers (excuse me, worshippers) visit and make their decision to return based on the quality of the Sunday morning experience. The only way pastor Wally can keep his job or raise his salary is to bring in new customers (excuse me, members).

Churches with bad music and mediocre preaching are being overrun by multi-site megachurches that deliver excellent sermons and songs. Churches with poor children’s programs and facilities are being passed over for bigger congregations that offer “Disneyland” youth facilities and programs.

To provide this quality experience, the church’s volunteers must devote about 75% of their time to creating the weekly worship event. The bulk of the volunteer efforts go into ushering, serving communion, staffing the nursery, teaching Sunday school, and of course, playing in the worship band.

So how do churches mask this scandalous lack of disciple making? By redefining the term. Any Bible teaching event is classified as disciple making. Sermons, Bible studies, classes, community service, children’s and youth ministry – we slap the “disciple making” label on all these activities.

But do these really produce many disciples?

So what if we built a church from the ground up to make disciples? What would it look like? What would we have to jettison to make more time for the intense, one-on-one work of making disciples? How would we organize? How would we train and deploy people?

Would such a church look anything like the churches we have today? Would it even offer a weekly worship service? After all, that’s where 75% of the energy is going.

The good is the enemy of the best. Our current model of church is full of good things. But the energy, time and money it requires may be keeping us from doing the best thing.

It’s great to see men singing, listening to sermons, ushering, teaching Sunday school and cooking at the church potluck. But at some point, every man needs to be discipled by another man. Where will we find the time and energy to do this difficult work? I’d welcome your ideas in the comments section below, or join the discussion on our Facebook page. 


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  • Brian

    Great Article……Discipleship is rapidly becoming a “Catch Phrase” in western church culture. It is my belief that Discipleship and the action verb Making Disciples is best done in the context of one on one relationships or at least a small group of MEN no more than 4 or 5. Sunday Morning to me is more for the seekers or those who are hurting and don’t know where else to turn. Churches need to identify, set apart, train and empower Lay MEn to engage in this process. It all starts with experiencing the Real Jesus Christ not the coffee table version we all see and hear about.

  • Mo86

    But it is not (solely) the responsibility of the pastor to make disciples! The pastor’s job is to train the congregation so THEY can make disciples.

    The pastor was never meant to do pretty much everything in the church! No wonder so many end up disillusioned and burned out.

  • Doug Johnson

    We all are so quick to condemn what we and others do but somehow can’t educate the masses how to do it. Don’t tell me: Show me.

  • The Purity Driven Life | Means

    This is true and frustrating but I think an incomplete analysis…where is believing prayer and faith in the process. I am convinced there are many people who attend church who are not saved. Parroting a prayer is not salvation. (Matt 7:16, 21-23, John 14:15, James 2:14-26)

    Pastors have been serving up a message of milk, grace and ease while avoiding talk of blood, sin, sanctification or holiness for fear of offending and losing attendees. The measure of a “healthy” church has become the size of the congregation. Ultimately, the only reasoning that could lead us to the conclusion that we need to water down the gospel is that we have focused on church growth and popularity as the proof that we are adequately sharing the gospel, not the spiritual condition of the flock.

    If the pastor sees no need to fight personal sin, how can they lead the sheep? As one pastor put it,

    “I was in a six month affair, at the same time preaching and counseling against adultery, and telling myself that God didn’t care because the church was growing.”

    A.W. Tozer writes in The Crucified Life,

    “We have come to our present low state as a result of an almost fanatical emphasis on grace to the total exclusion of obedience, self-discipline, patience, personal holiness, cross carrying discipleship and other such precious doctrines in the church.”

    We have lost faith in the convicting Spirit of God as the compelling factor in bringing someone to repentance and a true relationship with God. We have substituted winsomeness, wit and a warm atmosphere fueled by our desire for success as the modern church world defines it. God defines success as a flock that is healthy and disease free, as a group of individuals who deny the flesh out of love for him. The church of Jesus is meant to be as a bride who longs for the groom’s presence and is with great detail preparing herself for her expectant wedding day.

    The only way that the church could come to the state that we are in today is if the majority of the shepherds of the church are fulfilling 1 Timothy 4:3 and teaching what the people want to hear rather than the entire range of the word. My Pastor used to say,

    “We all love dessert but you have to serve the full meal first, and that includes the vegetables or we all get sick.”

    The job of the shepherd is to care for the sheep, to ensure their health and to rescue them from danger.

    Pastors are called to teach the whole word of God clearly so that the sheep can’t walk away uninformed or misunderstanding. If the message isn’t clearly preached, and the sheep don’t understand grace AND the requirement for repentance, the sheep are not at fault, the pastor is! The word says faith comes by hearing. They can’t hear it if you don’t preach it.

    The call to pastor is a holy calling; you are a man entrusted with aiding the Spirit of God in preparing the bride of Christ for her wedding day. You are responsible for the teaching of his flock. If the flock has ticks, burrs and matted fur and is sickly from drinking bad water, it is your job when they are trusted to your care, to lovingly clean and heal them up so they don’t contaminate the rest of the sheep. Quoting from Chris Braun’s’ book, Unpacking Forgiveness,

    “Tragedies of “cheap grace” are multiple. First, there is a large group of people who think they are Christians when they are not. A second negative consequence of “cheap grace” is that the believers fail to think discerningly about what is right and wrong. When evil is not identified and named is soon flourishes.”

    The Church WILL be the spotless bride when Jesus returns. That means something IS going to change. The Parable of the wheat and the tares comes to mind…

  • Bro. David, I wholeheartedly agree with your observation! Jesus’ Great Commission tells us to “Go and make “disciples”, baptizing “them”… Baptizing who? “Them”… “Disciples”, I’m a pastor. Recently, a man who has been attending our church for approximately four years publicly threatened to leave our church if I continued teaching about the importance of becoming a ‘disciple’. Sadly, this man took half the congregation with him. Yes, Bro David, I am fed up; tired of pastoring consumers, and ready to relaunch by planting a church with it’s purpose plainly stated in it’s name — “The Church of Disciples of Christ”.

  • I was recently asked:

    1. What are the specific duties and responsibilities of pastors and lay believers to accomplish the task of “making” disciples?

    2. What are the responsibilities of the disciple?

    My Reply…

    Every day, every one of us encounter constant battles between self-centeredness and Christ-centeredness. A disciple is one who has forsaken all to follow Jesus Christ. Our pursuit and practice of righteousness is proof of our salvation.

    Here’s a short-list of the duties/responsibilities of a disciple of Jesus Christ:

    Study the Bible — Acts 17:11; Psa. 1:2; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16,17.

    Pray Frequently — Phil. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:7; Matt. 6:9-13; 1 Thess. 5:17.

    Commit to a Local Church — Acts 9:26-28; 11:26; Heb. 13:17; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 4:16, Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1,2. Heb. 3:12,13; 10:24,25; John 4:24; Eph. 4:16; 1
    Thess. 5:11; Acts 11:26; 2:42; 1 Cor. 14.

    Treat Other People Biblically — Eph. 5:22-6:4; Col. 3:18-21; Tit. 2:4,5, Luke 10:25-37; Acts 20:35; Jas. 1:27; Matt. 25:34-40, Rom. 13:1-5; 1 Pet. 2:13,14;
    Matt. 22:17-21, Eph. 6:5-9; Tit. 2:9,10; Col. 3:22-4:1; Psa. 37:21.

    Introduce Others to Jesus — Acts 8:4; Prov. 11:30; 2 Tim. 2:2, 24-26; John 4:28-30,39; 1:40-46; Heb. 5:12.

    Live a Christ-Centered Life– Mark 7:20-23; Rom. 1:26-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal.

    Practice Christian Discipline — 1 Cor. 5; Matt. 18:15-17; 2 Thess. 3:6,14,15; Rom.
    16:17,18; Tit. 3:10,11.

    Do God’s Will — Luke 14:26-33; Matt. 28:18-20; 16:24-27; 6:19-33; Rom. 12:1,2;
    6:1-18, Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9.

    Sharing the Journey,
    Rick Diefenderfer