About once a quarter, Catapult invites five thought leaders (and practitioners) to share their insights around the same five questions, all geared around a certain topic. The topic this quarter? The Future of Discipleship.

In almost every way we can measure, and every way we can see, it feels like the Western Church is at an inflection point. Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than what we’re seeing in the discipleship crisis that has been bubbling up and has now reached a boil. (If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, we released an infographic that has insights from a pastor’s survey we did with 3800+ respondents on the topic of discipleship. You can read it here.) There’s a lot of difficult, hard things to swallow. But it’s also not hopeless and there are things to be optimistic about. 

We loved getting to read and think through the responses from this 5-on-5 on discipleship and hope and pray it stirs your heart, mind and imagination for the future.

 

The 5-on-5 Voices

Rich Villodas

David Bailey

Mandy Smith

Bobby Harrington

Rob Wegner

Q1: What do you think the last decade has revealed about the state of discipleship in the North American church?

Rich Villodas

 

I think the last decade has revealed a few things about the goals and fruit of our discipleship strategies. First, it’s revealed the formational compartmentalization that too often shapes our approach. By formational compartmentalization, I’m referring to the segmented ways we separate core discipleship areas like addressing racism, justice, and the interior life from the gospel. Second, it’s revealed the gaps in catechesis. The lack of discernment related to politics, the inability to hold space with those we disagree with, and the measuring of our maturity through activity has shown how shallow our discipleship approaches have been.

Mandy Smith

 

We’ve come to the end of ourselves—our discipleship programs have fallen flat, our discipleship institutions are crumbling. But what feels like a crisis can become an opportunity—to remember that the One we follow has not gone anywhere. He’s just waiting for us to stop working so hard, hoping we’ll get over our self-sufficiency and remember our need for him again.

Bobby Harrington

 

At Discipleship.org we completed a national study that was an exhaustive look at disciple making in churches throughout the USA.  We found that less than 5% of churches have a disciple making culture.  Furthermore, there is massive confusion about what it means to be a disciple and to make disciples.  We will not move forward until senior leaders get very clear on what it is to be a disciple, what it is to make disciples, and the best methods.

David Bailey

 

I can’t speak for Mexico or Canada, but I definitely see within the church in the U.S. — whether it is a conservative, progressive, or liberal expression of Christianity — that the practice of reconciliation is considered optional. Engaging across difference and conflict is not recognized as a part of discipleship, and when that happens, the ends justify the means. This practice forms us into a type of Christianity inconsistent with the Scriptures. The consistent mindless consumption of media—again, no matter whether the source is secular liberal media or secular conservative media—is too often the primary form of discipleship for many American Christians. When Christians spend more time in consuming media than being formed in Scripture and spiritual practices, they begin to discern the Scriptures through their lens of the media they consume instead of discerning the media through the lens of the Scriptures.

Rob Wegner

 

We have a crisis in the church in America; Dallas Willard calls it the Great Omission.  The last command Jesus gave the church before He ascended was the mission to “make disciples.” Yet, whether it’s the landmark Reveal study released by Willow Creek, the sobering stats from Barna on the unchanged lifestyles of the people attending churches, or that growing splinter in our own minds, the evidence points the same direction: making disciples who can make disciples has been the Great Omission in much of the Western Church.  The Covid-19 Pandemic revealed the fragility of the current structures and systems in our churches, which are primarily built around public gatherings and teaching, not the long term relational ground work of real discipleship.

Q2: If the average adult Christian was one of the following (spiritual infant, child, young adult, adult or elder)…what would they be and why?

Rich Villodas

 

The elder would be someone marked by patience, self-control, and fewer, but more discerning words. The elder is someone who listens deeply, and offers wisdom out of much contemplative reflection. The elder doesn’t live for the validation of others, because she knows who she is in God. In this way, the elder need not be someone advanced in age, but someone who has regularly faced her false self, and lives from the center of God’s gracious love.

Mandy Smith

 

I’m hesitant to make generalizations because it depends on where you look. If you look at those Western Christians who are seen as representative, they might look mature because they’ve done all the right things. At the same time, on the margins, in the places where we may not usually look to find the “average” Christian, I see people who are spiritual giants. And the irony is that these ones who are most grown up in their faith seem so to me because they’ve never forgotten how to be children—not childish but open to input, willing to follow, receptive to every longing of the Spirit, courageous and joyful.

Bobby Harrington

 

We use a paradigm where we add grand-parent after adult, meaning someone who makes disciples, who makes other disciples, as a grand-parent has grand-children.  The average North American Christian is either an infant, or a child because that is how we have raised them and  allowed them to become stunted.  I estimate that only 15 to 20% would be qualified as adults, parents and grand-parents. 

David Bailey

 

I would say puberty. Puberty is the awkward stage when a child begins the process of becoming an adult, while still not yet having left all the childish things. If you’ve spent any time with middle schoolers, you understand the challenge of not knowing if the maturing adult is going to show up or the child. I think we are seeing in our day a combination of some childishness and some maturing. The practice of engaging in biblically rooted reconciliation is one of the most significant pathways to maturity. Biblically rooted reconciliation focuses on transformation from the inside-out instead of resolving conflict from the outside in. The common practice for fallen humans is to say, “the problem is with those people,” but maturing Christians say, “Those people may have a problem, but let me self-examine first and see what God wants to change in me before I try to change something in them.” I’ve found this to be true when I practice this in my marriage and anytime I put this into practice. 

Rob Wegner

 

Child stage or young adult, at best.  In the Kingdom and in nature, mature things have the capacity to reproduce.  The ultimate outcome of the creation narrative, and God’s first command to humanity, was, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28 NLT). Later God entered the creation through his Son to recreate this world and restore shalom. That plan for restoration would once again be contingent on the ability to reproduce and multiply. The same command he gave humanity in the garden he gives now to the church in the Great Commission: “Multiply and fill the earth!” In the creation narrative it was, “Make babies! Fill the earth!” In the new creation narrative, it is, “Make disciples! Fill the earth!” When you consider the statistics,  that virtually no adult Christians actually make new disciples via personal evangelism and discipleship, then it’s clear that the average adult Christian has not reached the adult or elder stage.  They are missing the greatest joys of the faith.

Q3: What practical coaching would you give pastors looking to create a culture of increasing spiritual maturity?

Rich Villodas

 

My first point would be to create a regular, unhurried environment of teaching and community, where key leaders are developed first in their character formation. Second, I would—especially in this pandemic—provide spaces to guide people in prayer. I’ve discovered over the past year that many, if not most people, don’t know how to pray. Pastors must model prayer for their people, much like Jesus did with his disciples.

Mandy Smith

 

Set aside the Western mindset of expecting to ever feel finished, or to be able to measure all the outcomes, personally and in our work. If God is mysterious and humans are messy then one of the best cultures for spiritual maturity is one that has capacity for mess and mystery. It means being able to lament what is broken, rejoice for the healing we can’t see, and trust that God does some of His best work when we feel deeply confused and uncomfortable. There are people (often marginalized people) who already have capacity for this mess and mystery so invite them to help shape the culture.

Bobby Harrington

 

The first thing that I would do is press a pastor on the theological necessity of disciple making.  I would try to get them to see that behind everything in the New Testament is God’s desire that people would form their lives around Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit – and that is the focus of disciple making.  I would want them to see that it is the core mission of the church and then I would seek to win them over to replicate Jesus’ method of disciple making.

David Bailey

 

In any great movie, conflict is essential—for character development and for the satisfaction of resolution at the end of the movie. Over the last 40+ years, much of the predominant church growth strategies have been predicated on marketing to consumer preference of targeted demographics which has consequently often minimized diversity. When communities do have diversity of experiences and perspectives, the opportunity for conflict increases. If a pastor sees conflict as something to be avoided, then the objective is to deflect conflict. If the pastor sees conflict as an opportunity for character development and Kingdom resolution, then learning how to engage in effective cross-cultural conflict resolution skills is essential practice for your community’s spiritual maturity.

Rob Wegner

 

Begin with yourself.  Find your twelve and begin to reorder your life to meet regularly, do life together, and practice a basic set of spiritual habits that are focused on developing the Spirit’s outcomes: Character and Calling.  Together identify where each of you has been sent as a missionary to make new disciples.  Debrief on that mission each week.  Ask each other, “What is Jesus saying to you?   What are you doing about it?  How can we help you?  Who will you share this with?”    As you build your twelve, invite them with a high challenge and maintain high accountability.   Build expectation that they will be changed and that they will do what you are doing for them…make disciples.   

Q4: What’s the most significant leadership lesson you’ve learned about discipleship in the last 5 years?

Rich Villodas

 

I’ve learned that my biggest task as a leader is to be a non-anxious presence. This is not easy by any means. The last 5 years have brought many polarizing issues to the surface in compounding ways—political hostility, racial injustice, economic disparities, and a global health crisis to name a few. I’ve learned that my most important task is to remain close to myself, while remaining close to others in times of high anxiety.

Mandy Smith

 

That while it makes me (as a perfectionist and introvert) incredibly uncomfortable, the most powerful lessons people in my congregation say they have learned from me are from the ways they’ve watched me follow the Lord. I’m choosing to get used to that discomfort because it also means freedom for me to discover that my job is not to be the perfect one people follow but simply to model what it looks like follow Him, inviting people behind the scenes of my joy and longing, my hope and wrestling. It’s hard to do it well but I have to trust that there’s a way that our leadership doesn’t have to be divorced from our personal relationship with God.

Bobby Harrington

 

We must train those who are leaders in the church that their job is not just to make disciples, but to make disciple makers.  If everyone in the leadership position in the church would see that their primary role as a leader is to make other disciple makers, we can start to make progress on the church becoming a disciple making movement.  The other leadership lesson I have learned is that if we want to sustain a disciple making movement, we have to have a theology of what it means to be a disciple and how it necessitates disciple making.

David Bailey

 

My friend Jason Caine taught me that “Proximity brings empathy and empathy brings unity.” This pithy statement articulates the significance of Jesus’ ministry of incarnation. If God thought it was important to get into proximity with humanity for unity and transformation, then I need to do the same. We can’t “phone in” transformation. We can’t ideate transformation. We have to get into proximity with those we hope God uses us to bring transformation. Why? Because empathy is key to transformation. Hebrews 4 and 7 teaches us that Jesus’ prays differently because of being in proximity with humanity. My prayer life is different now that I understand the power of proximity. 

Rob Wegner

 

The need for two different types of discipleship pathways.   Two forms of disciple-making are required in post-Christian, postmodern America.  Churches that discover both forms of mobilization will have the “best of both worlds,” revival in the church, and spiritual awakening among the lost.   They can operate synergistically, like a flywheel.  

Disciple-Making Movements (DMM): a rapid, immediately viral, multiplicative, indigenous movement, creating new disciples from lostness four generations deep on multiple strands. The direction of mobilization is from the harvest toward the church. The focus is regeneration of the lost into disciple-makers.  

Movement of Disciple-Making (MDM): a slower, eventually viral, multiplicative, indigenous movement, creating new disciples from believers in the church four generations deep on multiple strands. The direction of mobilization is from the church toward the harvest. The focus is catalyzation of believers into disciple-makers. 

Churches can actually engage both at the same time, but will likely major in MDM, and begin a “skunk works” DMM effort. These can run in tandem and even help amplify each other.  We dig deeper into this in The Starfish and The Spirit, with examples of both pathways. 

Q5: Let’s talk about the future of discipleship in the western Church. Where do you have the most trepidation and where are you most optimistic? 

Rich Villodas

 

I have most trepidation around the issue of Christian Nationalism. This is an issue that is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is a rival god with the deceptive trappings of evangelical language. I’m most optimistic about the emerging generation. I think the emerging generation is passionate about holding together aspects of discipleship that are often segmented—like justice and the interior life. This is cause for hope and optimism.

Mandy Smith

 

My trepidation and optimism come from the same thing—this current crisis we’re watching in the church as denominations split, congregations shrink, individuals walk away from Jesus. This is a wonderful moment of truth revealing that what we’ve been doing doesn’t work. Will we  just walk away or will it be a moment of redemption, even of revival? To me the difference lies in our hearts—will we continue in this desperate habit of fixing, controlling, understanding, which ultimately makes us independent from God?  Or will we finally have a moment to confess that we cannot do this on our own? That turning in our hearts will, itself, be our salvation. I’ve watched it become a moment of revival in myself and others as we discover that our despair holds an opportunity for dependence.

Bobby Harrington

 

My biggest trepidation is the difficulty of transitioning to the new operating system needed for disciple making in contra distinction with the established ways we have been raising Christians. Most optimistic: Ten years ago very few people bought the idea that disciple making was the core mission of the church, and now most people are gravitating to the idea, at least disciple making should be a big focus. 

David Bailey

 

I love reading history and the Bible (especially the Old Testament) because it helps me see how the story of humanity is the same throughout history, just the names of the characters change. When I see the pattern of Israel going in and out of idolatry over and over again, I see that they had a hard time not putting faith in the things they could make and control (idols). Over and over again God told them not to put the faith of their salvation in other nations because it would cause them to compromise. When we look at the history of the church in America, there has and currently is a lot of faith in our man-made systems and especially faith for salvation in our government to the point where there is a significant amount of compromising going on. My trepidation and optimism are on the same coin. I believe God has and is sending many prophetic voices telling us to “Wake up! Repent! Find your hope in King Jesus and the Kingdom of God!” My hope is that we would respond like Hezakiah responded to Micah and repent. My fear is that we will be like the other kings who didn’t.

Rob Wegner

 

My greatest trepidation is for those church leaders who are waiting for the time when “things will get back to normal.”  They will have missed the greatest opportunity in a century to reboot their church culture around disciple-making.   I am most optimistic about the growing remnant of church leaders, who hungry and humble in this time of upheaval.  They are beginning again in prayer, fasting,  and seeking to return to Jesus’ way of disciple-making.  We need Jesus methods, not just His message.

BONUS: If a pastor or Christian leader has never personally been discipled before, what should they do?

Rich Villodas

 

Do what I’ve done for many years; identify as many people that I want to learn from. More than anything, I look for people whose character I want to emulate. I email, DM, and call until someone is willing to take me on. I ask them to meet with me once per month or more if their schedule is open. I come with lots of questions—personal and vocational. I take lots of notes and ask if we can do it again. When that season is up, I look for someone else.

Mandy Smith

 

Don’t despair because ultimately, we are discipled by Jesus so no circumstance or lack of mentors can keep us from following him. But it is important to have friends on the journey to help us listen to Jesus. For me, regular spiritual direction is essential. My friends, Sandie and Owen Brock, have helped me through many difficult seasons. They do amazing work and will do one-time calls so no commitment necessary and will meet virtually so distance is not an issue.   http://antiphio.com

Also Catholic monasteries often have trained spiritual directors so look for one in your city. I’ve met monthly with a Benedictine nun for the past 4 years and found it deeply transformative.

Bobby Harrington

 

Get discipled by another leader, even if it is online discipling, punctuated by face-to-face meetings every month or two. 

David Bailey

 

I believe that every Christian leader should have five types of relationships: someone who is discipling you, someone you are discipling, a therapist, a coach, and a peer companion. You gotta practice what you preach. I don’t trust anyone who is discipling people and not being discipled themselves. You shouldn’t trust them either. If you don’t have someone who is discipling you…pray, seek, and find. Be a disciple yourself. At the same time, go even further to make sure you are healthy as a spiritual leader by establishing a rhythm with a therapist. Being a pastor or Christian leader comes with so many temptations that can pull you toward being an emotionally unhealthy person. A rhythm with a therapist is a great guardrail from going off the deep end. A coach helps you to get from where you are to where you want to go, and a good peer companion helps you to be and stay honest. Everything starts with being discipled, but don’t have the expectation for that one person to be everything to you. 

Rob Wegner

 

Go back to question 3.   The Lord will be faithful.   Ask Him to give you a mentor as you begin to make disciples.  He will provide.  Currently, with Disciples Made we have a cohort of pastors from one conference of a denomination with an incredible origin story of disciple-making.  This cohort is made up incredible men and woman, who are doing their best to lay their life down for the church.   Most would admit that although their denomination has this great heritage, they personally have been challenged by the lack of transformation in their discipleship culture and programs.  About a month or so into the cohort process,  about 25% of the pastors realized, “I’ve never personally been discipled.”   We reorganized the cohort, so those pastors could go through a sixth month disciple-making experience called Followers Made.   The rest of the cohort continued with a focus on moving toward four generations of reproduction in disciple-making.   I was humbled and amazed that none of the 25% dropped out.  None of them caved to shame, pride, or condemnation.  They humbly said, “Disciple me.”   I have GREAT hopes for their disciple-making future.

Resources from These Leaders

Race, Class & the Kingdom of God Study Series
by David Bailey and the Arrabon Team