Where are all the Disciples?
Jesus commanded His followers to make disciples of all nations in Matthew 28:19-20. Since it has been nearly 2,000 years since Jesus Christ was taken up into heaven it is important to ask how are we the American church doing in fulfilling the Great Commission mandate?
As the Great Commission instructs followers of Christ to make disciples of all nations is the primary command of Scriptures it merits investigation to determine the progress we have made.
Answering this question requires a clear definition of being a disciple of Jesus. The definition I used in my Liberty University research is that a disciple is a person who has an unwavering commitment to the Lordship of Christ. This is illustrated by Luke 9:23, in which followers of Christ are told to deny themselves and carry their crosses daily if they want to be a disciple.
My research found that the way Evangelical churches in Pennsylvania are being led is impeding discipleship formation, as there is a scarcity of disciples of Jesus Christ in our churches.
Although my study was officially limited to one state and didn’t include Catholics or other churches, my belief is that the issue is in no way limited by state lines or variety of churches.
There are churches, individuals, and ministries that are making disciples who are not being conformed to the culture but are instead being transformed by having their minds renewed so they can discern and do God’s will like Romans 12:2 describes. But unfortunately these churches are the exception and not the rule.
About 1,000 Evangelical churches and pastors in Pennsylvania were contacted and it found that few disciples are being made, which I believe represents of a wide variety of American churches.
An online discipleship survey and pastoral interviews were used to determine what aspects of how churches are led have contributed to the shortage of disciples in Evangelical churches.
The problem of churches making too few disciples is well enough known that a large number of church leaders had observed the issue and promptly pivoted to developing solutions to resolve it.
There are more than 100 references from Christian leaders who are either providing solutions to the shortage of disciple-making, investigating the issue like Lifeway Research and Barna, making disciples themselves, exhorting the church to start obeying the Great Commission, etc.
I found so many pastors, teachers and others who saw the shortage of disciples in churches as a problem and promptly pivoted to developing solutions to make committed followers of Christ.
A great deal of these godly leader either demonstrated that their solutions worked or showed evidence that they would likely work to ameliorate the problem of too few disciples being made.
However, no matter how effective the solutions that these well-meaning leaders provided, these methods only work if the church leaders were putting them into practice and making disciples.
Unfortunately, no matter how good the quality or abundance of quantity of what seem to be viable solutions, the vast majority have hardly, if ever, been used by the churches which so desperately need them to start obeying our Lord’s command to make disciples.
Too many pastors have never been discipled themselves, been taught the practical implications of Jesus command to make disciples, been trained in making disciples, or been around others who were making disciples. Where does this leave the church?
In addition to my findings, Bill Keith recently wrote “Whatever became of Sin?,” in which he determined that American pastors, priests, and preachers hardly ever mention sin anymore.
I have read his book which provides the context in which our churches are also not producing many disciples of Jesus Christ who have the courage to stand for their faith in a sinful culture.
His alarming discovery was the result of his extensive review of several hundred sermons of many types of churches throughout the United States.
Keith found that most Americans no longer feel they need forgiveness for their sins because they no longer hear about the need to repent for their sins. This is a sad state of affairs.
He noted that his was not a scientific study, but he believes that his findings are a microcosm of the state of contemporary preaching in America, citing Barna Research, Chicago Divinity School, and other sources on the scarcity of preaching about heaven, hell, sin, or salvation.
This agrees with my finding that the problem is very likely not limited by church or location. What Mr. Keith encountered does not surprise me with my research on the relationship between contemporary Evangelical church leadership in Pennsylvania and church discipleship formation.
Although I only investigated the state of Pennsylvania Evangelical churches my travels, experience, and discussions of this subject lead me to believe that this is unfortunately pretty representative of what is going on in the vast majority of American churches.
Our situation is very different than what I encountered persecuted Christians when serving the persecuted church with Open Doors. Despite so many of these followers of Christ having suffered so much for obeying Him they were still willing to give their best efforts for Jesus.
I remember meeting pastor Alan Yuan who spent more than 21 years in prison for his faith while his wife raised their children. His only crime was he refused to put Chairman Mao above Jesus.
Although he was short, frail, and about 80 when I met him, he earnestly picked up the heavy Bible bags I brought him as he was determined to make sure needy Christians got them.
He said he nearly died doing hard labor in a cold prison and showed he was a disciple by stating “stand firm to the persecution” with eyes of steel and a face set like flint as Isaiah 50:7 describes.
I have seen higher level of commitment to Christ in my interactions and prayer for followers of Christ in persecuted countries where it has more closely resembled New Testament Christianity.
The New Testament reveals that although the disciples all were sinful like us, they eventually matured and were so committed to Christ that most of them were martyred for their faith.
Following Jesus in the New Testament was very risky, which weeded out the superficial believers. As a result the New Testament has many examples of disciples.
Peter went from denying Christ three times to boldly proclaiming his faith. But the type of committed disciples that Luke 14:27-33 describes is not only found in the New Testament.
Disciples still exist and in some parts of the world are not uncommon in churches. The question is what will it take to make more whole-hearted followers of Christ in America’s churches?
Dr. Jim Marshall is a businessperson with a Doctor of Education in Christian Leadership from Liberty University. He and his wife live in Harrisburg, PA.