Rethinking Discipleship, Mission, and Church

“Discipleship” and “missional.”

These are the two big buzzwords on the Christian landscape today. Of course, there is also “simple church.” But that’s another discussion for another time.

As I speak in conferences throughout the world and meet people who have jumped on the discipleship bandwagon, or the missional bandwagon (or both), I make several observations.

Two Streams of Missional

There seems to be two different streams in the missional world:

1)Those who are stuck with D.L. Moody’s mindset. These are those who basically make the mission of God the salvation of lost souls. The church, then, is regarded as either a soul-saving station (the mechanism to save the lost), or it’s something that doesn’t appear on the radar screen as being anything terribly significant.

“Whatever church you attend, whatever form it takes, and whatever practices it observes is irrelevant. The church exists to save lost souls, end of story.” So the thinking goes.

2)The other camp, which I joyfully throw my hat in with, are those who do not see the mission of God as being the salvation of individual souls. While that’s a slice of it, it’s not the whole pie. Nor is it the goal. God’s intention actually began before the fall and it stands outside the reaches of redemption. God has a non-redemptive purpose—an eternal purpose as Paul calls it in Ephesians 3:8-11—that was in God’s heart before the fall ever occurred. And God has never let go of it.

T. Austin-Sparks used to say that you can think of the eternal purpose as a straight line that moves from eternity past to eternity future.

But somewhere in the middle of that line, there’s a dip. That dip represents the fall of humanity. At the very bottom of the dip is a cross. The cross is designed to bring us back onto the straight line.

Regrettably, many Christians have forgotten the rest of the line. In fact, they’ve forgotten the beginning of the line and the end of the line. Instead, they are stuck in the dip. We can’t seem to get past salvation and redemption. Our starting point is Genesis 3 (the fall of humankind) instead of Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 (God’s purpose before time).

Consequently, serving God, helping others, trying to improve the world, saving souls from hell, worshipping God, etc. are routinely stated as being God’s grand mission.

I contend that God’s purpose goes beyond all of that. And it has something to do with a burning intent that is for God Himself, rather than something that simply benefits humans. The eternal purpose is immense, but it’s beyond the scope of this article to unpack. (I’ve done so elsewhere.)

Two Streams of Discipleship

I also observe that there are two streams of discipleship.

Note that in the New Testament, “disciple,” “convert”, “believer,” and “Christian” are all used interchangeably. The word “discipleship” is often used today to refer to the biblical idea of being conformed or formed into Christ’s image. It’s a word that describes Christian growth or spiritual formation. The biblical term for this is “transformation.” But we will use “discipleship” as a synonym for transformation in this piece even though the New Testament never uses it this way.

Here are the two streams of discipleship that I observe:

1) There are those who say, “What’s important is discipleship; the church is irrelevant. Let’s not discuss the church; let’s instead discuss how to make disciples.”

When people talk that way, it shouts one fact: That our understanding of church has gotten far afield from what it was in the New Testament.

When people make such statements, they are really talking about how church has been done traditionally (and that can include “churches” that gather in homes, parks, and pubs).

Whenever people think of “church” through a traditional lens, it’s not hard to see the pressing need for discipleship.

2) The other camp rightly understands that you cannot separate disciple-making from the ekklesia. You cannot separate the forming of people into full-pledged followers of Jesus and a living, breathing, vibrant community that gathers under His headship.

To put it another way, you can’t separate discipleship from the ekklesia any more than you can separate child-rearing from the family. And you can’t separate the ekklesia from Jesus Himself, for it’s His very body.

I want you to imagine a saltwater fish. The fish can only survive in his natural habitat, which is the ocean. Why? Because the ocean surrounds the fish with everything it needs to live, breathe, and have its being.

The fish is also a dependent creature. Fish swim in schools.

Now consider a different image. Imagine that this fish is removed from the ocean and from its school and is thrown in someone’s backyard. People take turns spraying the fish with a water hose every 15 minutes. They also sprinkle salt on its body.

That’s an apt picture of modern discipleship.

Discipleship has been separated from the Christian’s native habitat (ekklesia) and it’s become a highly individualistic event. An individual discipler “disciples” an individual disciplee to become a better individual disciple.

And we have not so learned Jesus Christ.

Christianity has and always will be a collective, corporate life and pursuit.

The issue, therefore, is not discipleship. The issue is restoring the ekklesia as God intended it to be, for the ekklesia is the Christian’s native habitat. And out of it flows everything else.

How Did the Twelve Make Disciples?

The fish metaphor brings us face-to-face with a question that’s rarely asked today: How did the apostles who received the original commission of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” carry out this commission?

If you read the New Testament chronologically from Acts to Revelation, there’s only one answer you can come up with. They did so by planting ekklesias all over the known world.

I invite anyone to challenge me on that point.

Converts were made and sustained into full-pledged followers of the Messiah, naturally and organically, simply by being part of the local ekklesia in their city. For them, the ekklesia was the environment for spiritual training. It was, as T. Austin-Sparks put it, “the school of Christ.”

The Twelve knew ekklesia themselves. They lived in an embryonic expression of it in Galilee with Jesus Himself. For 3 ½ years the Twelve and some women lived in community with one another where Jesus was both the center and the head of their life together.

When a Christian lives in a living expression of the Body of Christ today, he or she is being discipled just by being part of that expression. Just as a saltwater fish grows, is nurtured, and is sustained simply by living in the ocean and swimming with its school.

Ekklesia, therefore, is the birthright of every child of God. By living in it, God’s people naturally absorb Christ. This is because in an authentic ekklesia, the life of Jesus Christ is constantly flowing, being shared, expressed, revealed, and imparted by and to the members. To wit, the Christian is “discipled” by Christ and into Christ through the community of the believers when it is functioning as it should.

I don’t say this theoretically. I’ve watched it happen countless times over the last 23 years in healthy ekklesias.

Those who are called to plant ekklesias today, therefore, carry out the so-called “Great Commission.” They make disciples (converts) and establish them into communities where the Holy Spirit does the work of transformation (what many are calling “discipleship” today).

We Don’t Know Our History

Another observation I make is that people who are jazzed about discipleship (usually males in their mid-to-late 20s and early 30s – their leaders being in their 40s and 50s), seem to have no knowledge of the history of modern discipleship, where it came from, and why it even exists.

The story harkens back to John Nelson Darby’s teachings in the early 19th century. Darby used the art of proof-texting the New Testament to separate conversion from following Jesus.

The gulf between conversion and followership further widened with the emergence of Dallas Theological Seminary and the early teachers there. They perpetuated Darby’s doctrine which separated faith in Jesus as Savior from following Jesus as Lord.

What happened as a result should look familiar to you. The Christian landscape became peppered with many converts to Christianity who possessed fire-insurance policies, but few of them were actually following Jesus as this world’s true Lord.

The antidote was discipleship as a method and a program. Para-church organizations took the helm on this and ran with it. They created the first discipleship “programs.” Denominational churches began picking it up as well.

What did it look like? The “disciple” would meet with their “discipler” at least once a week. They would memorize Scripture together or study a Biblical text, go over sins committed (this is called “holding each other accountable”), pray together, discuss witnessing to the lost, and set a date for the next “discipleship” meeting.

Young Christians were excited about it at first, but in time, they began to see the roteness of it all. This left the door wide open for a strong reaction against the routine, the drudgery, and the staleness of discipleship as a method.

Walking through that door was the greasy grace movement. This was an overamplified version of Darby’s teachings taken to the extreme. “Do whatever you please because you are under grace” was the mantra. While this was going on, the Lord hit America with a huge revival, and many young people in the counter-culture were coming to Christ.

Some very gifted ministers took the wheel of that revival and spawned a new movement that became known as the “discipleship” movement (also called the “shepherding” movement). They reinstated all the old methods of discipleship, but they introduced a new theology and vocabulary to go with it. It was the theology of “submission to delegated authority.”

When the dust finally cleared, the discipleship movement left a trail of bruised and battered souls, some of whom have never recovered to this good day. In the minds of many Christians, “discipleship” became a four-letter word. So the pendulum against legalism and authoritarianism swung hard again.

The Christian landscape became quickly populated with nominal Christians and lukewarm believers who simply “prayed the prayer” (i.e., the “sinner’s prayer”).

As a reaction to the growing lukewarmness and nominal professions, “discipleship” has returned. It’s back in vogue again to try and repair the damage. Yet the advocates of modern discipleship are largely ignorant of the history behind it.  So we are back to spraying fish on the lawn again.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

~George Santayana

What history teaches us is that men have never learned anything from it.

~G. W. F. Hegel

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

When I think of the practice of the church and modern discipleship, that quote comes to mind.

Would to God that we learned our history.

In a word, you cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple-making and transformation take place.

Closing Challenges

So what’s my point? It’s quite simple. The problem is not with discipleship; the problem lies in our practice of the church.

Permit me to share my heart.

You who emphasize mission, where is your vision of God’s eternal purpose?

You who emphasize discipleship, where is your understanding that you cannot separate the ekklesia of God from producing serious followers of Jesus Christ who are mature, tempered, balanced, and free from religious bondage?

What God has joined together, let us no longer put asunder.

I welcome disagreement and even correction on the above. (If you can show me where I’m off using Scripture, then we both get to be right.)

At the same time, please entertain the possibility that those of us who are raising this particular flag just may be on to something. And if we are, what do you plan to do about it?

I’d much rather have fair and rigorous disagreement over this matter than I would a theological head nod. For the latter changes nothing. We Christians are good at bulbously saying “amen” and then going back to business as usual.

May that not be the case here, as this issue is far too important.


The Missio Dei – What’s Missing in Many Modern Discipleship Books

David Platt: Follow Me

Francis Chan: Multiply

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  • Randi


    oh Lord help me live this out daily – help me let go of my expectations of things — the timeframes of when *I* think things should happen it…. and who will be apart of it…. and how we will do things…. and just help me take small steps to grow closer to the ekklesia around me! Help me surrender to your building of your Church!

  • Joe Bob

    Ignorance was bliss when I could drudge along blindly with that old mantra. But there were always questions in my mind about why it felt unnatural and even forced. I even felt guilt for questioning it. The efforts were always about and for Jesus and the expation of the Kingdom, but not really by and through Jesus, it always felt manufactured and obligitory. Now that I have had some light shed on the history of the “Missional”, “Discipleship” movement (or cycle as it seems more accurately described) I feel freedom. Finding local like minded believers to start the true ekklesia adventure with becomes a little more challenging though…or so I am finding. But there is an excited anticipation in my heart to meet my brothers and sisters.
    Thanks Frank for serving our Lord and walking out the vision He has given you. It was a blessing to finally meet you face to face.
    Y’all always have a place in Texas!

  • Greg

    Amen, amen, amen! (times infinity)

    Please don’t ever stop ringing this bell and sounding this siren.

    Thank you Frank for all you do.