Why discipleship feels impossible

In a recent study, the Schaffer institute found that 50% of all pastors polled reported that they felt inadequate to the job.  On the one hand I’m sort of surprised that number isn’t higher.  After all, the commission we’ve been given is to reach all nations and all peoples and all tongues, not only with the Gospel but to see all these people discipled as well.  That sounds kind of impossible.

On the other hand, though, I’m not sure this is what most of these self reporting unqualified pastors are really referring too.  I suspect that they are looking at the job as it’s been handed to them, with its admittedly impossible expectations of time (on call 24/7/365), energy (sabbath is for everyone except the pastor), objectivity (sure I hate your sermons, kids, spouse, and philosophy of ministry, but don’t take it personally), and isolation in the midst of mini-celebrity (everyone knows you and yet nobody does.)

Either way, how can we expect anyone to persist day after day, year after year in a job they feel desperately unqualified to do, particularly when they care so passionately about it being done?  

Well, really we can’t, and they don’t.  According to this same study 90 percent of pastors leave the pastorate in pursuit of another career.

It’s not a lack of instruction. New books on “how to” disciple or grow a church come out several times a year, but I suspect that our seeming inability to disciple is based not so much on a lack of know how as it is on other problems which convince us we’ve failed even before we can effectively figure out “how.” Here’s three quick thoughts.

Discipleship feels impossible because we don’t know how passionate God is about it.

We’ve forgotten that the reason we’re doing this job is not because Jesus arbitrarily gave us busy work to keep us occupied till He returns, but because it’s a job about which He is extremely passionate!  Sometimes we must think God is either very stupid or really uninterested in the results.  The truth, of course, is that He is neither of these things and therefore it must be not only possible, but preferable to Him to have us involved in discipleship.  As pastors we need to reconnect with God’s passion for discipleship. It’s not merely a task, but a mission.  It’s not merely about members, but about people.  It’s not merely about obedience, but about people coming to life and living life as God intended it and they crave it.  At its largest, discipleship is about the unfathomably large plan to bring all things under headship of Christ in redemption, joy and glory.  At its smallest it’s about individual lives being changed forever.  These are passions we can share if we seek to remember.  No how to discipleship will ever grab our hearts if the why doesn’t first.

Discipleship feels impossible because we don’t recognize that it’s already happening around us.  I guarantee it.  More importantly God guarantees it.  

Matthew 18:20 (For where two or three gather in my name I am with them) is not specifically about prayer or even fellowship. The context seems to indicate this is about authority, specifically authority of the church as regards discipleship. First he talks about how Jesus seeks everyone out in the parable of  the wandering sheep.  Then he talks about winning over a brother or sister who sins, and how to do this in community of a church, indicating that this is part of the way God seeks out his wandering sheep. Then he talks about the authority he gives the apostles to bind or loose, also seemingly connected to the previous exhortations about winning over your brother or sister or setting them loose if they refuse to follow Jesus.  Finally he says that wherever two or three are gathered He is among them.  I believe He’s expressing his own authority in the midst of their community. He’s explaining that in community Jesus will exercise His authority and power to disciple.

In other words, it feels impossible to disciple because it is. And yet, the idea that with God all things are possible is not just theory in this case but practical reality. Of course we are not up to the job if it’s merely a task God set for us before he left; but it is more than metaphor to say that Jesus is the head of the church.  Paul and Peter, James and John all express in one way or another in their epistles that it is Jesus who does the actual discipleship in the church body.  

This means it’s happening somewhere in your church right now, with or without your blessing.  Likely it’s happening in meals and informal gatherings of friends who are not even aware that the strength, prayers, support, love, challenge and encouragement they give each other are precisely what discipleship looks like.  They are possibly unaware because no one official has ever made that clear.  In fact, the official routes for discipleship may look very different.  How often, I wonder, do we pull people away from discipleship by insisting they attend our programs leaving them less and less time for the connection and relationships that truly disciple?

 Just like we need to reconnect with why God is passionate about discipleship, we need to reconnect with what discipleship actually is.  How can we figure out how, until we are clear on what?  Look around pastor.  Where are lives changing? Where is the grace of God flowing from person to person?  Can you emphasize these moments and structure such that more of these happen?

Discipleship seems impossible because we’ve accepted the wrong expectations.  

A pastor friend of mine recently told me that he’s had to tell the local funeral parlor that he can only do two funerals a week that are not for people in his church. He said this with regret and a slight degree of defensiveness.  This same pastor told me that he can no longer drive a two hour round trip several times a week to visit congregants in hospitals.  This he said with outright guilt.  This church is a loving and amazing church and yet due to the emphasis (and no doubt love and other admirable qualities) of the previous pastor, they developed the idea that their pastor is supposed to spend hours on funerals and hospital visits, prepare sermons for four different services, administrate every ministry, disciple every leader, keep an eye on the budget, the building, and on and on and on.  

Years and years of loving pastors willing to try meeting every need along with congregations who have become increasingly accepting of their role as consumer or patient or client have lead to a not only unbalanced approach to discipleship but a completely untenable and unsustainable one.  Pastors who are desperate to get back to the work of equipping saints to serve each other are faced with tough decisions as they discover that saying yes to discipleship means saying no to so many other expectations and pressures.

Pastor, not only do we need to reconnect with why discipleship matters to God, and what discipleship actually looks like, but we’ve also got to reexamine our understanding of our role and our congregation’s role in this whole process.  As I understand it, scripture says that pastors (among others) equip their congregations to serve each other in love, congregations serve through the Grace of God and as a result it is actually Grace which does the discipling. This distribution of the Grace of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, by the appointment of God the father can indeed be 24/7/365 in a way that no individual can be.  

The truth is that discipleship is impossible if it is a task we seek to manufacture apart from the grace of God.  The good news is that the Grace of God is freely available, Jesus is ready and eager to lead His church and the Holy Spirit is ceaseless in His work in our churches.  

As in everything else Christ did not give us a truly impossible task, but He did give us one that requires constant surrender and dependence upon Him.

If you’d like to hear more, or are open to help and encouragement visit discipleshipmatters.online where you can sign up for my online course or contact me for more information on a multitude of other resources to support you in your important work.

 Together we can build a fresh crop of discipleship communities of Grace all across this country and beyond.

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