Discipleship Confusion

Article—Issue 22 (August, 2017)

Rev. Dr. Victor W Chan[1]

Abstract: this essay draws from the discussion of the pastoral studies course at Divinity of Chung Chi College “Transforming Discipleship: Life Directed Disciples-making”. Discipleship has become a common term that has lost its meaning, especially in two areas in pastoral ministries. Church is often confused by what discipleship is about! Is discipleship necessarily led to leadership? Is discipleship and evangelism two different events? Part of the mishap may have to do with Un-scrutinized Gospel message and the separation of evangelism and discipleship.


Yes, church is confused about discipleship.

Discipleship is a hot topic at every conference, church retreats and strategic planning sessions. If it is not the main subject, it is at least a tag word. However, as popular as the subject, what it means may be a garden varieties. Disciples-making is fashionable, but with no concise meaning. Programs are plenty but without a clear concept.

There are mountainous materials in the market under the subject of discipleship. But most materials are just duplicates from one program to another, like popular TV shows that each Network will just copy off from one another. Publishing companies are more interested in the profit margins than whether those materials are making a difference in the health of the church.

Michael Wilkins in Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship is among a few books that raises question on current status of discipleship in the church. It is a worthwhile reading and study. About discipleship confusion, Wilkins said,

In the last twenty-plus years, a virtual flood of discipleship studies has swept over the church, yet people may be more confused now than ever. The reason? No consensus reigns in understanding what Jesus was doing and in what we should be doing in making disciples.[2]

He questioned the current understanding about discipleship and found them short on Bible and Theological enquiry. He then outlines popular models by various celebrated pastors/teachers.[3] But that is just an example to amplify the garden variety understanding about discipleship.

I want to tag on to what Wilkins has stated and speak on two confusions relating to discipleship: Discipleship and Leadership and Discipleship and Evangelism.

Discipleship and Leadership Confusion

Let me pick up the first confusion.

Is Discipleship the same as Leadership? If you are to take out recent books on Discipleship, the chances are that these books are leadership in disguise. The book cover may say Discipleship but the content is more about leadership training. Most of them lay out like a Sunday school classes, small group courses or simply trainings to become a successful church leaders. Using a cliché: “not that there is something wrong with leadership”, but we should not confuse leadership the same as discipleship.

Leadership is attractive. Leadership connote confidence, and success. Whether in the local YMCA or Teens club, leadership sells. Church needs confident people to lead. Committee needs capable people to serve. The mark of a successful Christian is the leadership quality and performance. Let me cite a few recent copies as examples:

  1. Lead Like Jesus: Lessons from the Greatest Leadership Role Model of All Time
  2. Called to Lead: 26 Leadership Lessons from the Life of the Apostle Paul
  3. Being Leaders: The Nature of Authentic Christian Leadership are easy examples

Since the 1980’s, leadership model has replaced spiritual model in the realm of discipleship. Like we have said, leadership is tangible and easier to visualize. We know what a leader looks like. If we are going to have a successful discipleship model, then we tend to look to leadership training as our mode of operation. Thus, discipleship is in name but leadership is substance.

Instead of working with the Bible, church and denominational leaders look to the business world for leadership trainings. There are CEO, CFO, MBA like materials. Experts (Christian) from those fields are often speakers in Church conferences and training seminars. With inserted Bible verses and theological tones, we come up with leadership training materials in the name of discipleship.

Since leadership talks about goal reaching, stages and level achievement, we soon create a group of higher end Christian. Not that church wants to rank their fellow members, naturally and inevitably we separate church folks into inside and outgroup, the former as discipleship groups. But all along, no one begs the difference. As I said on the outset that this is more of a confusion than an improvement in the realm of Discipleship. More confusion comes because after a little while, we notice that the state of the church is not getting better. What’s the problem then? Should we be more training with the materials we have in hand? What does more training mean? Have we gotten to the core problem yet?

Before I move on, let’s pause and consider a problem raised by Eddie Gibbs from Fuller Seminary. Eddie Gibbs said in “In name only: tackling the problem of nominal Christianity”[4] that the nominal phenomenon in church was evidenced by the 80/20 index. Based on the Lausanne Committee[5] report, churches across the globe are showing that 20% are supporting 80% of the church’s works.

Let us draw an example by applying the Lausanne statistics. When a church has a 1000 on Sunday, the Lausanne report 80/20 index will estimate a group of 200 in leadership positions. For an average pastor, to have 200 leaders is a very successful story. He would be a well sought speaker in the church conference circuit. His church will develop training materials. Hundreds of pastors will flock to his church to learn about church growth.

However, the Lausanne index will also indicate that there are 800 who will be called “In Name Only”! That is the question begging our attention.

Coming back to my point about confusion on discipleship and leadership, I attribute this phenomenon to the lack of differentiation between the two. While all attention is giving to leadership, the actual works on Disciples-making are missing.

We ought to rewind and rethink about giving discipleship her own space. But consider Jesus’ final saying in Matthew 28:19. The focus is on disciples-making. But when people enjoy successful stories, becoming leader is an attractive slogan. People feel empowered if they are moving into leadership roles. We feel more at home when we deal with leadership than discipleship.

The connotation of Biblical discipleship shades with sacrifices, self-debating and cost. Not everyone wants to be so solemn. We want celebration and celebrities. Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship[6] is just for saints and the committed kind. Discipleship can be such an uneasy concept. We often qualify it with the word “radical’. Leadership would be an easier substitute. Easier but we are left without a clear understanding about discipleship.

Discipleship and Evangelism Confusion

The second confusion is Discipleship and Evangelism. Modern day Evangelical Movement began with Billy Graham in the 1950’s. What we experienced today are remnants of those high tides of preaching, revival and missions. There was strong emphasis on salvation, heaven and hell, zero soul perishing, 20/40 windows mission strategy, etc.

Common goal is reaching more people for the decision for Christ. Reports on how many saved souls are like sport score cards being glorified in Christian magazines and even local paper headlines.

Church in that span of 50 years has certainly enjoyed her hey days. But significant decline seemed to show up at the turn of the second millennium. Statistics, charts showed a clear decline pattern. Other than numbers decline, spiritual climate decline as well. Morale in church is at an all-time low.

These declined patterns seemed like a contradiction, especially for US churches. In the same period, there were more methods, tools and money for evangelism than ever before. There were inputs from sociology, psychology and anthropology giving to evangelism research. Yet, both the decline patterns and the 80/20 index are haunting.

My thought to the declination lies on the misconception of discipleship and evangelism. I give this in two counts.

Un-scrutinized Gospel message

Are we preaching a proper gospel message? So much efforts have been put into revival meetings, evangelistic events, personal evangelism training every year. However, there is no effort to scrutinize whether the Gospel message is Biblical and relevant to the listener.

What kinds of evangelistic message or messages are there? I could count 4-kinds, which are most often used, being communicated in church, in evangelistic meetings or personal conversations. I did an informal survey with pastors and students. There are always these four kinds of messages.

  1. Eternal life driven. A famous “pickup” line is “If You Died Tonight, Do You Know Where You’d Go?” This is sort of a heaven and hell choice of question. Despite criticism, this kind of training is still popular. This is most popular among the evangelicals.
  2. Sin and repentance driven. This kind of message hammer the guilty conscience of people. At a time when moral value still has her say in society, the guilty conscience appeal worked well. However, in the relativized moral values world view, guilty conscience is easily explained away by other reasoning, we are losing the grip. This is most popular among the conservative evangelicals or fundamentalist.
  3. Wealth and Health driven. “Poverty and illness are signs of spiritual malaise, for God wants us to be wealthy, healthy, and live to our full potential in victory here on earth.”[7] We hear such presentation from Charismatic evangelicals or simply Charismatic preachers. Since health and wealth are dominate themes in our modern society, folks are flocking to these messages.
  4. Purpose driven gospel. This message hit home in the United States among the baby boomers (born between 1946–1964). Out of the counter cultures from the 60s, the boomers eventually were lost. In their middle-class status, finding purpose in personal life, family life, friendship etc. was another good “trip”. Church has given them orders in a chaotic world.

Eternal life, Guilt free life, Wealth/health life and purposeful life became the four-basic evangelistic driven messages. I am not questioning that there may be a fifth and sixth kind but these four are mostly used today. More so, most of us are raised by the four-kind, one time or another. Therefore, we have accepted them as it is without questioning the validity or relevance.

However, a closer inquiry will yield two further questions. Are they proper evangelistic messages? Are they cultural and Biblical relevant? More importantly, what would such evangelistic messages do to the concept of discipleship?

Before I go further, let us ask what is the commonality from the four-kinds driven presentations! They share a common point. They are “needs or itches” driven messages. They sound so much like commercials. A pastor said, “if I find their needs and fill them, they will show up in my church.”

There is no doubt in that statement. Churches in the last 50 years are using this evangelistic philosophy to attract people to come to church. Find their needs and fill them! This is so mantra. One mega church would even compare the church like the mega mall in the neighborhood that whatever one needs they can find it in the church.

Corollary to that, pastoral ministries become need-filling ministries. Pastoral staff meeting’s priorities are set against the needs of the congregation. Pastoral cares took up most of the energy. Thus, Church has lost her focus on what are the priorities. We should be reminded what the apostles said when facing congregational needs, “we will turn this [needs problem] over to [the disciples] and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”[8]

“Find the needs and fill them” will produce a generation of Christians whose reasons for going to church is no different from going to a local Spa and Clubs. We emphasize so much of the sense of “belonging”. We find quick fix to whatever seems uncomfortable. Such environment creates a subconscious contentment mentality in the congregation.

Without dissecting too deep into the issue here, let me jump quickly to the meaning of this subconscious state of mind. Simply put: if their needs are filled then what is there to motivate them? Pick any of the four-kinds mentioned above, the “recipient or convert” came to faith is because their needs are filled.

The Lausanne task group which studied nominality identified five types or pattern of nominal Christian:

Attends church regularly and worships devoutly, but who has no personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Attends church regularly but for cultural reasons only.

Attends church only for major church festivals (Christmas, Easter, etc.) and ceremonies (weddings, baptisms, funerals).

Hardly ever attends church but maintains a church relationship for reasons of security, emotional or family ties, or tradition.

Has no relationship to any specific church and never attends but considers himself a believer in God (in a traditional Christian sense).

While on the surface, they look like a regular normal everyday Christian. However, the real problem lies at the subconscious level. Subconsciously, they feel fine with their faith standing. They have needs but now filled. What more is needed? There is really no point to go further in the Christian life. After all, church life is just another corner of their busy life.

This leads to the problem with discipleship. Why do they need discipleship anymore? When they are invited to think about discipleship, they are confused. Is there more to Eureka![9]

Our un-scrutinized evangelistic message has led many to an un-scrutinized faith. Discipleship is being stifled. This leads me to the second count in this confusion.

Discipleship as post decision follow up

We have made discipleship training as a post evangelistic event, after a personal decision for Christ. Therefore, the congregation in general look at discipleship program as an “advanced degree” in Christian life. Most (80%) would think that these classes are only for the more committed, dedicated and loyal group of folks in Church.

Sometimes, new believers feel trapped and confused when they are asked to join classes after classes. They feel as if their decision for Christ is incomplete.

Let’s look at the so called Great Commission passage in Matthew 28, “19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Traditionally, we placed the emphasis on the word “Go”. However, in proper English, it should be as “having gone”, a form of participle, supporting the main verb. The main verb then is “disciple”, which is a noun make into a verb form.

Proper way to put this verse goes like this

Make-disciples of all people. By going! Supporting your effort with baptism, teaching and lessons on obedience.

There should be no separation of Evangelism and disciple making. The actual word “Evangelism” is quite recent, first used in 1626.[10] It was during the time Christian churches were a dominant force in the Western world. Getting people to church is an honorable thing to do. Evangelism means getting people into the church. We want to see a pack church hall. Discipleship received less attention.

Lee Camp in his book, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World[11] traced the cause of this confusion as Constantinian cataract. As the term implies, it is a disease of vision impair. When the Roman emperor Constantine the Great gave Christianity and the Church the royal reception in the 3rd century, from that time onward, Christian history has entered the era of “Christendom”. What has that to do with discipleship? Lee said,

“In such a way, Christianity becomes its own worst enemy: the triumph of Christianity actually inhibits discipleship.”[12]

To spare the long discussion of church history, Lee Camp placed the timing on the decline of discipleship at the time when Christianity and Roman empire married each other. Since that time, Christianity may be in exact opposition to the call of discipleship from Jesus. Lee Camp’s analysis is alarmed indeed. Unless we start to turn around quickly, the church’s role in discipleship will drift afar in a haunting rate! Nominality will rule the days.


I hope that this short essay will awake the many of us who want to see genuine or radical discipleship. The decline of our Christian culture is not caused by secularism or materialism. The main cause is that we have move away from reading Jesus’ way of disciples-making. We do not speak to people like Jesus spoken in his days. We are losing the Kingdom mindset. Instead we are onto Christendom. We are not viewing the world in the lens of Jesus. Lee Camp talks about Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. Radical means to go back to the root of discipleship from the Lord Jesus.

The first words out of Jesus’ mouth as far as preaching the good news or evangelism can be seen in his first act in Mark 1:

Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”[13]

Let’s imitate how our Lord has proclaimed the good news. We shall also do likewise for our culture and generation. Let’s not confused discipleship for something else! To spare the confusion, shouldn’t we simply just say a Jesus Driven discipleship!


  1. ^ Rev. Dr. Victor Chan, is a visiting adjunct assistant professor for pastoral studies at Divinity School of ChungChi College since 2007. He has taught annually (second semester) and has offered courses on TransformingMinistries: spiritual renewal; Transforming Personality: building personhood and church conflict management.He is Pastor Emeritus of the East Bay Alliance Church since 2015.
  2. ^ Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship, Zondervan, 1992.
  3. ^ Ibid, p.12 Charles Ryrie, Juan Carlos Ortiz, Paul Minear, Donald MacGavran, Dallas Willards.
  4. ^ Eddie Gibbs, In Name Only: Tackling the Problem of Nominal Christianity. Eerdmans, 1994.
  5. ^ The Lausanne Movement grew out of the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization (ICOWE) and promotes active worldwide evangelism.
  6. ^ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Macmillan, 1959
  7. ^ Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Oxford University Press; 1st edition. 2013
  8. ^ Act 6:4 (NIV)
  9. ^ Eureka in Greek means “I found it”. 1976: Campus Crusade launched a $1 million advertising campaign that featured ads and bumper stickers saying “I Found It!”
  10. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  11. ^ Camp, Lee C. Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. Baker Publishing Group. 2003
  12. ^ Ibid., p, 23
  13. ^ Mark 1:14-15