The Hard Work of Discipleship


Let me introduce you to my friend, Andrew. I know him as a committed leader who faithfully serves his family, church and community. He is deeply passionate and a joy to know. Here's a short bio and part 1 of his article on integrating people into the life of the church. 

Andrew Rehbein is the Lead Pastor at First Church of God in Pryor, OK.  Andrew has served this congregation for 13 years as an Associate Pastor and Lead Pastor.  Andrew completed undergraduate studies at Mid-America Christian University and graduate studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan.  Andrew is passionate about revitalizing established churches, multi-generational ministry, and discipleship.  Andrew enjoys life and ministry with his wife, Courtney and two daughters, Andi (7) and Hope (4).


Part 1:  Admitting our Problem

It doesn’t take much time in leadership of the local church for Dallas Willard’s words to ring true, “Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ.”  It may sound harsh at first, but the premise of Willard’s statement is based in the notion that “churches are filled with ‘undiscipled disciples’.”   From his book, The Spirit of Disciplines, Willard explores the notion that our modern church has abandoned aspects of Christ’s discipleship commission.  He suggests that there are three aspects to the Matthew 28 plan set forth by Jesus.  First, we are to make disciples.  Second, we are to baptize them in the name of Father, Son and Spirit.  Third, we are to teach them the commands of Christ.  Willard contends that today’s church has omitted the first and last aspect of this discipleship process.  We may be eager to baptize a new believer, but what preparation has gone into helping them understand the cost of followership?  What support emerges with them from the baptistery pool to teach them the way of Christ?


These questions haunted me over the past few years of local church leadership.  Our congregation was experiencing growth and unchurched people were being drawn to our fellowship.  I believe they were genuinely encountering Christ’s love at our church.  I believe they were convicted by the Word, and compelled to give themselves to the beauty of the Gospel.  Consequently, more people than ever before were accepting the saving work of Jesus in their lives.  They were seeking us out to become Christ followers and to be baptized.  I was overjoyed to see how God was moving in the hearts of people, and was so honored to be a part of this work.  I would personally visit with these converts and listen to their stories.  I have no doubt they were genuinely moved to a place of faith in Jesus.  I was honored to stand with them in our baptistery on a Sunday morning and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Our congregation would applaud, we would celebrate the occasion with them, and we would chalk another tally on our annual baptism stats.  We would encourage these folks to get plugged into a Sunday School class and find a place to serve.  Many started with great zeal.  They would try a class or mid-week Bible study.  Some would find a place to volunteer for awhile.  But then I saw a troubling trend emerge.  


As a year drew to an end, I began revisiting those statistics.  Instead of being overjoyed by an historic number of baptisms, I was faced with the reality that a good portion of those new disciples had disappeared.  They had either fallen into old habits, had disengaged from the church, or were simply coasting on a path of nominal Christianity.  At first I reasoned that this was what the parable of the soils was all about.  Our job was to sew seed, but sometimes it would fall on rocky ground or be choked out by competing weeds.  This was the easy answer, but not the right one.  I began to ask myself, “What had we intentionally done to help cultivate the soil of these people’s hearts?”  The bottom line was that we weren’t being very intentional.  We had neglected part one and part three of the great commission.  We were eager to baptize people, but not diligent in our preparing them for a life in Christ.  Similarly, we were hoping for a more organic discipleship to emerge once people had been baptized, but we had no intentional strategy to help build the truths of Scripture or the core teachings of Jesus into their lives.  We were baptizing, but were we really making disciples?  Were we really doing our part to teach them all He desired for them?  I soberly concluded that we were not.


This set us out on a journey to do discipleship better.  We had to stop relying on discipleship happening on accident, and decide that we were going to do our part to make discipleship happen on purpose.  This meant that we needed a clear path for a new convert or new member to our church.  We needed to become more intentional in helping people identify where they were in relationship to Christ.  Once we could identify where someone was, we needed to relentlessly direct them to the right onramp to the discipleship path, and not allow ourselves to become distracted from helping them move forward on the road to Christ-likeness.  The following entries will map out how we have met each of those needs.  We are a work in progress, and are in the early stages of living out this intentional discipleship plan.  We hope that in our authenticity you will find encouragement to begin the hard work of mapping out an intentional discipleship plan that fits your context.  I would suggest that the first step in this process is acknowledging where you are currently deficient.  While this can be sobering, it brings us back to the center of what we are called to be, and reminds that making disciples is both our greatest reward and our greatest challenge.


I’ll leave you with these piercing words from Dallas Willard.  He reminds us that the cost of non-discipleship is far greater than any price we will pay in making disciples.  Here is what the toll of an ‘undiscipled disciple’ looks like:


“Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.  In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.


Questions for Consideration:

  1. What level of new converts are you seeing in your fellowship?
  2. What is your retention rate for people who come to faith in Jesus and/or are baptized?
  3. If you were to put yourself in the shoes of a new believer at your church, would you be confused about what comes next, or would next steps be very clear?