According to a 2018 Barna study, 51 percent of churchgoers didn’t know what the Great Commission was; only 17 percent of churchgoers could recall what it meant. Two years later, Barna studied disciple-making in the American Church and found seventy percent of the respondents did not believe that discipling others is expected of them as followers of Jesus Christ. Critically, only 17 percent of the respondents in the American Church said that they had been discipled. These numbers tell us the purpose of discipleship is to lead men and women into the depth and knowledge of God and Scripture.
With numbers like these, we continue to see church participation is in decline, biblical literacy is staggeringly low, discipleship is absent, and Scripture seems more like a weapon for culture wars than a means of following Jesus.
We find ourselves in a pivotal moment in the life of the Church within America, and discipleship is essential because the world is at stake.
We’ve noticed the current generation’s failure to articulate a Christian worldview, and the above numbers corroborate our observations. This generation’s ability to explain a historic Christian belief is radically deficient. This inadequacy is one of the significant contributing factors is the Church’s failure to teach the whole counsel of God to the younger generation and its relevance to every issue of life.
There is a shallowness to the broader Church—a lack of sober-mindedness where men and women of God are girding up their minds for action and eliminating worldly distractions so they can fix their eyes entirely on Jesus Christ. Many Churches and ministries exist that address discipleship, but there is still a need. Data like this dramatically highlights why the Lord has called us to work together to influence the Church in our community.
Through the Veritas Institute, Emet Ministries is dedicated to helping the Church in our community to change these devastating statistics and—God willing —alter the trajectory of discipleship in the Church.
Within the Barna study, respondents explained why they didn’t feel like discipling others was their responsibility. For example, they did not feel qualified to address complex topics, did not believe they would be good at it, and did not think they were knowledgeable enough about the Bible to disciple someone. Others simply felt it was the job of the Church leadership.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that discipleship is not happening.
In Matthew's final chapter, Jesus gives His disciples his last words while on earth. He tells them to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” We’ve come to call this the Great Commission. In light of the shockingly low numbers above, we believe this is one of the most important places to start when discussing discipleship: Jesus commanded it of his disciples.
Discipleship is a buzzword within Christianity. You’ve likely heard it a lot throughout your life, but I suspect you haven’t heard it defined often. To talk about discipleship probably conjures up many different images and ideas about what that means; some of those may not be positive ideas or memories, like forced scripture memory or awkward small groups.
There are many different ways you could define discipleship and what it looks like, but we believe discipleship is the process of being formed into the image of Christ for the sake of others. It’s something we all need to go through, and likely something we’ll never complete.
For us, it involves discussing life issues, teaching young men and women how to pray, studying the Bible, and living life together. All of these things take time but are important ways for us to be formed into the likeness of Jesus.
Like any habit or process, you won’t become an expert overnight. Like when learning to ride a bike or shoot a jump shot, you progressively get better and more competent as you practice and give time to a specific discipline. When you start riding a bike, you’re thinking about balancing, pedaling, and being afraid of falling over, but with time that part of riding a bike becomes instinctual. I’m guessing if you rode a bike recently you started pedaling without thinking twice. But, your discipline to a task begins to produce results. The purpose of discipleship is found and strengthened through discipline.
Discipline and being committed to a process is illustrated well in the book by Daniel James Brown entitled “The Boys in the Boat.” Daniel Brown tells the story of the 1936 University of Washington crew team who dedicated themselves to an extraordinary daily discipline of rowing so they could win the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics.
In his book, Brown describes a phenomenon that crew teams have difficulty in achieving called “swing.” As Brown describes it, swing only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in unison so that no individual action by any one oarsman is out of rhythm with the others. As Brown states, “Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. . . Only when this is accomplished does “rowing then become a kind of perfect language.” (161)
As rowers, they’ve achieved extreme competency through practice and discipline. But there is another aspect that is vitally important in this analogy.
As Brown explains, although smaller than any of the other rowers, the coxswain is one of the most important members of a crew team. He’s the smallest guy at the end of the boat, and his purpose is to communicate clearly and with purpose and authority to the other rowers in order to maneuver the boat and push everyone past their pain barrier to keep pulling the oars and win the race.
The sport of rowing is grueling and exacting. Some have suggested that rowing in one race is physiologically the equivalent of playing two basketball games back-to-back, but all within about a six-minute period of time! You don’t take time out in a boat race. There is no place to stop, get a soft drink, or relax your body. You focus your eyes on the rower ahead of you and row until the coxswain tells you it’s over.
Without a coxswain, a rowing team will underperform, and each teammate will row as an “individual” rather than in unison. As followers of Jesus, we can falter and underperform when we don’t have a spiritual coxswain. We need someone engaged in our life who can provide us with input and feedback to help us maintain our focus on the prize, which Paul calls the upward call of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The purpose of discipleship is to be a coxswain.