Lack of Discipleship in the Local Church

Earlier, we examined the need for discipleship in the local church. We saw how that many Christians are struggling to live differently than the rest of the world. We noticed some of the statistics that show how there is not much difference between believers and non-believers in the way that they live. There is a great need for discipleship in the local church simply because true discipleship is severely lacking in the church today. There are four areas in the church today that contributes to the lack of discipleship and those areas are listed as follows: spiritual apathy, spiritual laziness, lack of knowledge, and lack of spiritual leadership. Each of these areas will be carefully examined in this chapter.

Notice first of all, spiritual apathy. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Thesaurus defines apathy as: “lack of emotional responsiveness or lack of interest or concern.”[1] Sadly, this is all too common in many local churches today. We have become unresponsive to the things of God and as a result we have very little interest or concern for doing anything for the cause of Christ. This is something that pastors battle with on a regular basis no matter where they may serve. Sometimes, churches will go through seasons of apathy for various reasons. Perhaps it is caused by being burned out or a lack of passion from the pulpit. For whatever reason, we must understand that apathy is a sin and should be addressed as such. In a blog post I wrote the following: “I am greatly concerned over the fact that so few people have any desire to serve in the church. Those that do serve are getting burned out and are slowly fading away. There is very little excitement. There is very little passion. And there is no vision. I see parents who are setting poor examples to their children by putting other things ahead of church attendance and just simply being lazy when it comes to the things of God and the church. I have also witnessed Satan’s most destructive and subtle attacks by using so-called Christians to spread lies and deceitful doctrines. However, the cause of such attacks and spiritual decline is the fact that we have let our guard down. We have gotten to the point where we just don’t care anymore. We are tired. We are weary. We are not willing to fight. Spiritual apathy has set in.”[2]

Cross Leadership identified several reasons or causes for apathy in the church which include: material prosperity, trials, and coasting.[3] We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Even our poorest is considered wealthy compared to the plight of others around the world. I have been to other places in the world where I witnessed extreme poverty. We, living in America today, have it made. Most all of us have houses to live in and a bed to sleep in. Many of us have multiple cars to drive and nice clothes to wear. We have plenty of food to eat. God has truly blessed our nation. Because we have so much, it is easy for apathy to settle into our lives. We really don’t know what it is like to trust God to provide because we already have so much. We have many luxuries in our homes. I know in my house we have a nice television and game systems. We have too much furniture and comfortable beds. It would be very easy to get comfortable in my recliner and become lazy as I enjoy the luxuries that I have. There is nothing wrong with having such luxuries; however, when we allow those luxuries to overtake us and cause us to become lazy, then it’s a real problem. Many Christians, if not most Christians, will spend more time watching television than they will in study of God’s Word. As a result of this we find spiritual apathy running rampant in the church. No one cares. No one wants to go the extra mile. No one wants to serve because they are ‘too busy’ taking care and indulging in all their stuff.

Another reason that there is so much apathy in the church today is due to the many trials that we face. The article from Cross Leadership elaborates on this: “On the contrasting side, apathy can set in when we face hard times. For example, perhaps you are facing a difficult situation with coworkers. Every day, you hear taunts from your officemates, ridiculing your God-believing, faith-holding, Bible-reading lifestyle. You are mocked because you refuse to sleep around, get drunk, cuss like a comedian, or view porn. You are scoffed. After a while, your spiritual resolve goes slack. You think to yourself, “is it really worth it?” After a while, your spiritual walk becomes a slow, tired swagger. Eventually, you slide right into the stultifying slog of apathy. It happens with other types of trials — perhaps an extended illness of a family member, or a disease that ends in death. Things like this try our faith, they drain our hope, and they sink our spirits. We become apathetic.”[4] I have experienced such things in my own life as well. As a pastor, there are times when I am deeply burdened and concerned for the church. There are times when I will spend many sleepless nights with never-ending thoughts and concerns. There are times when I will feel that it’s no use, because of the lack of response and change in the lives of those in my church. These burdens will sometimes lead to a depressed state of mind and spirit which leads to apathy. There are seasons in our lives when our burdens weigh so heavy upon us that we just don’t care anymore. The church is filled with people that have many troubles and trials. Often times, those troubles will overwhelm them in such a way that they have grown cold and indifferent to the things of God and the work of the church. It is of little concern to them anymore.

Another reason or cause of spiritual apathy is coasting through life and ministry. The day to day grind can often rob us of our spiritual vigor and fire. The church will often find itself in a state of being lukewarm due to just ‘going through the motions’ of ministry. We are creatures of habit. We do not like to change. We are comfortable with our routine and the way we have always done things. This ‘going through the motions’ and ‘coasting’ through life will sometimes created in us a sort of bordness to life. There is no excitement, there is nothing new. It is the same thing week in and week out. We grow so accustom to our routine that we slowly fade away and wither to the point of not caring about anything anymore. Certainly, coasting through life can contribute to apathy.

Now that we understand the causes of such apathy in the church, which is why discipleship is lacking, we will now turn our attention to how we can overcome such apathy in our lives and in the church. The first step to overcome apathy is to call it out for what it is. Apathy is sin. Therefore, we should seek forgiveness and repent of our apathetic ways. When apathy sets in the church for whatever reason, the church as a whole should repent. Another step in overcoming apathy is to understand who we are in Christ. Scripture warns Christians to make sure that they are indeed in the faith. Apathy may be a sign of no faith at all. If you are a believer, then you must live as one. Growing as a Christian is a process, a progressive journey. Generally speaking, Christians don’t start their Christian life with a great deal of spiritual maturity. Maturity grows over time. There are ups and downs along the way, but the general trajectory is more like Christ, not less like Christ. Fighting against sin is also a way to overcome apathy. Usually, it is our sinful habits that lead to the sin of spiritual apathy. Therefore, we must be determined to fight against the temptations and the sins that so easily distract us from being who we should be in our walk with God. It is certainly a fight and we must put on the armor of God and gear up for the fight.

Spiritual apathy is a huge contributor to the lack of discipleship in the local church. When spiritual apathy sets into a church, the desire to make disciples falls by the wayside. Ministries that were once filled with spiritual vigor and power are now powerless and fruitless due to the apathy of the believers. There is another contributor to the lack of discipleship in the local church and that is spiritual laziness. The sin of apathy will lead to spiritual laziness. Since we have lost our fire and our will to serve, we become lazy in the things that we do. Such spiritual laziness will prevent any church from being a disciple making church. The same things that contribute to apathy may also contribute to laziness.

Such laziness in the church can stem from burnout. In most churches there is a small percentage of the people that is doing all of the work. This causes those who do serve to get discouraged and tired to the point of no longer putting one hundred percent into the work. Eventually, there are many things that go undone simply because we are too lazy to do them.

The reason for such laziness in the church can also be attributed to the lack of teaching and training. People are often placed into areas of service in the church without being properly trained and equipped. Eddie Rasnake, in his study on spiritual gifts said, “As it takes more than a uniform and rifle to make a soldier, so does it take more than just an altar call or invitation to minister effectively-it takes training, or to put it Biblically, equipping.” [5] Churches are prone to put people into places of leadership and service without properly equipping them to serve. In other words, we fail to disciple people to serve. When discipleship is lacking in the church, it fosters an environment of spiritual laziness as people serve in areas where they are not gifted, have no desire, and are not equipped.

With the lack of discipleship in the local church, there also comes a personal spiritual laziness. When people are not properly discipled through the ministry of the local church, they will become lazy in their personal walk with God. If the church is not encouraging them to grow in their walk with God, they will become slack in their personal prayer and Bible study time. They will grow bored and cold toward God and His Word. Such spiritual laziness will lead to temptation and sin, but in the long run, if properly addressed, could cause one to enter into greater heights in their walk with God. “Faith doesn’t always come to bear until we are faced with our own fallibility. When we “enter into temptation,” it often means we haven’t been vigilant—that we’ve stopped pursuing the God who has pursued us. In the aftermath of temptation, we recognize our spiritual laziness. We become wise—but remorsefully.”[6] The fear is that many will continue in their spiritual laziness, unless proper discipleship is applied through the church.

The lack of discipleship in the church will cause laziness when it comes to the area of serving in the church. Chambers writes, “Supposing you are asked to speak in the open air—“Oh, I can’t!”; to take a Sunday School class—“Oh, I can’t!”; to write an essay—“Oh, I can’t!”; to expound a particular passage—“Oh, I can’t!” What is the matter? We have not been educated on the right line. Some of us do not know what to do in certain circumstances spiritually because we have never stored our memory with the counsels of God, never watched the way God’s servants conduct themselves. If we have been storing our minds with the word of God, we are never taken unawares in new circumstances because the Holy Spirit brings back these things to our remembrance and we know what we should do; but the Holy Spirit cannot bring back to our minds what we have never troubled to put there. “My people doth not consider,” God says; they live on “spooned meat” spiritually, go to church on Sunday and expect to live in the strength of it all the week without doing anything. We should be so in the habit of obeying the Holy Spirit as He interprets the word of God to us that wherever we are placed, we extricate ourselves in a holy and just and unblameablemanner.”[7] The point is that if we are properly discipled and taught the Word of God, we will be much more apt to involve ourselves in the kingdom work. As a pastor, when I see a lack of willingness to work and serve amongst my congregation, the first thing I do is evaluate the discipleship ministry of the church. If we are properly discipling, the people will have a desire to be obedient to God and to use their spiritual gifts in the work of the ministry. Before we blame the people themselves for their lack of contribution, we should first examine how we are doing when it comes to making disciples. Spiritual laziness is found in any church that lacks true and effective discipleship.

Not only is apathy and spiritual laziness stem from the lack of discipleship in the local church, but we also see that the lack of spiritual knowledge also stems from the lack of discipleship. There is an increasing Biblical illiteracy in the local church today. Unfortunately, most people that come to church have very little knowledge of the Bible. There is a great deal that we can learn from the Bible. Knowing the Bible is possible for all those who have access to the Bible. The reason we do not know the Bible is because of our lack of desire or will. “A serious Bible study should be approached first with the knowledge that the Bible invites our inquiry and that it is possible to learn deeply from it if we take the opportunity to do so. As in any other serious endeavor, it will take time and patience to build a good, working knowledge of the Bible. And like any other important and complex subject of study we undertake, we must be prepared to invest ourselves in the work, giving it both concentrated time and energy.”[8] Our attitude towards the Bible will play a huge role in how much we know of the Bible. “Like any other subject we have decided to learn, how well we do will depend on the kinds of attitudes with which we begin. For example, if our minds are already made up on what the Bible says or means and we are basically closed to new understanding, there is no real reason to study the Bible further. Openness in learning, as opposed to being closed minded, is the first key to studying the Scriptures. This is an attitude that says, “I am teachable because I do not know everything but want to learn more.”[9] A disciple making church will be one that will create an attitude amongst its people that is hungry for the scriptures. A disciple making church will have those present who have a teachable spirit. We must be willing to learn. The nature of most of our churches does not foster an atmosphere for Biblical learning. Most churches are so dogmatic in their beliefs and in their man-made theological system to the point that there is no room for the individual believer to expand his or her knowledge of the scriptures. We have our theological biases and hold so strongly to them that we create closed-minded people that are not willing to learn. No one really gets into the habit of studying the scriptures for themselves because the church tells them everything that they are suppose to believe. A disciple making church will not just tell people what they have to believe, but it will wet the appetite of believers for more of God and His Word. The answer to such a lack of spiritual knowledge is found in the pulpit. Pastors must understand that their role is to teach and equip the saints. Many pulpits across America are filled with those who tell stories rather than preach the truth of God’s Word. Many pastors shy away from teaching Bible doctrine in order to please the ears of those in the pews. As  goes the pulpit so goes the church. Everything begins and ends with what is taught in the pulpit. If there is no spiritual vigor and fire in the pulpit, there will be no fire in the church. If there is no passion for the things of God displayed in the pulpit, there will be no passion in the church. If there is no deep searching of the scriptures in the pulpit, there will be no desire for personal Bible study in the church. If there is no carefully prepared and planned teaching from the pulpit, there will be a Biblical illiteracy in the church. As the truth is preached in the pulpit it is then carried over in other church ministries such as Sunday School, small groups, mentorships, and other discipleship ministries of the church.

This leads us to the final factor that will cause a lack of discipleship in the local church and that is a lack of good spiritual leadership. As mentioned earlier, everything begins and ends with the pulpit. The pastor of the church sets the tone of the church. If the pastor is not engaging in personal discipleship, then it is very unlikely that the church will be engaged. If the pastor does not practice spiritual mentorship, then neither will the church. If the pastor is not actively engaged in the discipleship ministries of the church such as Sunday School, mentorships, small groups, student ministries, etc. then the church will not see the need for such ministries and will not involve themselves in them. Over time, churches will take on the personality of its pastor. If the pastor is not growing spiritually and excited about the things of God and the ministry of the church, then the church will follow suit. If the pastor is lazy, so will be the church. If the pastor is lukewarm, so will be the church. If the pastor is not involved in people’s lives, neither will the church.

Many leaders in churches today do not understand what it means to be a shepherd of the flock of God. MacArthur writes, “Many contemporary church leaders fancy themselves businessmen, executives, entertainers, psychologists, philosophers, presidents, or lawyers. Yet those roles contrast sharply with the symbolism Scripture employs to depict pastors and spiritual leaders in the church. In 2 Timothy 2, for example, Paul uses seven different metaphors to describe a spiritual leader. He pictures the minister as a teacher (v. 2), a soldier (v. 3), an athlete (v. 5), a farmer (v. 6), a workman (v. 15), a vessel (vv. 20–21), and a slave (v. 24). Each of those images evokes ideas of sacrifice, labor, service, and hardship. They speak eloquently about the complex and varied responsibilities of spiritual leadership. Not one of them makes out leadership to be glamorous. That’s because it’s not supposed to be glamorous. Leadership in the church is not a mantle of status to be conferred on the church’s aristocracy. It isn’t earned by seniority, purchased with money, or inherited through family ties. It doesn’t necessarily fall to those who are successful in business or finance. It isn’t doled out on the basis of intelligence, education, or talent. Its requirements are faultless character, spiritual maturity, skill in teaching, and a willingness to serve humbly. God has ordained that leadership is to be a role of humble, loving service. Church leadership is ministry, not management. God calls leaders not to be governing monarchs but humble slaves, not slick celebrities but laboring servants, not charismatic personalities but faithful shepherds. The man who leads God’s people must above all exemplify sacrifice, devotion, submission, and lowliness.”[10] Sadly, such spiritual leadership in the church is found wanting. Very few churches are blessed with such Godly leadership that understands their role as God’s servant. “With the trends in the church headed where they are, nothing is more sorely needed today than a return to biblical leadership principles. Solid men willing to take on the true realities of leadership are appallingly rare.”[11]

Spiritual leadership as described by MacArthur requires a certain boldness and willingness to take risk. Strong, Godly leadership in the church is usually met with resentment. As the days grow closer to the return of Christ, people are wanting to have their ears tickled. They desire to hear what pleases them rather than to be challenged to live Godly lives. A discipleship making church requires men who are willing to provide brave and strong spiritual leadership. Such leadership is not exercised by the weak, but by the strong and the bold. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of the deed could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checked by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in a gray twilight that knows little victory nor defeat.”[12] I have often said that I would rather go to the grave a complete failure than go to the grave as one who did nothing.

To be such a leader, it does not necessarily take authority, rather, it takes influence. A good leader is one who is respected because he is an authority, but because his life has such an impact on others that it natural demands respect. I have known few people in my life that had such an influence on those around them. One such man was Pastor Bobby Edwards. I had the privilege of serving as his associate years ago. Though he lost a battle with leukemia and is with the Lord, His life still impacts many people today. He was not a man of prestige or great education. Rather, he was a man that exemplified the love of Christ. He was one that noticeably spent many hours with Jesus. When he walked into a room, the atmosphere would change. People would sit up and take notice and listen very carefully to what he had to say. Such godly men and women, sadly, are lacking in churches today.

In the book Transformational Discipleship, the authors mention that “love is the mark of discipleship. But here’s the problem: you can’t teach love.”[13] To lead well, you must love naturally. This is how Pastor Bobby Edwards led. He had a natural and genuine love for those he served. This is how Jesus served as well. “That’s actually why love is the defining characteristic of discipleship-because love-true love-can only come from a true, vibrant, and constant experience of the gospel. The gospel is what love is-that’s the true measure of love. Those who truly love demonstrate they have been loved and are growing in their understanding of the great love of God in Christ.”[14] Essentially, a strong spiritual leader will be one who is constantly growing. A good leader will never graduate from the gospel, but will go deeper into the gospel. “Leaders must decide to press love to the forefront rather than information.”[15]

Good spiritual leaders in the church will produce good spiritual leaders. The goal of ministry is not how many followers we can accumulate, but how many leaders we can create. Success in ministry should not be measured by how many we can gather around us, but rather, how many we can send out from us. This, I believe, is my role as a pastor. I must disciple men and women in such a way that I am producing spiritual leaders who will go out and do the work of the ministry wherever God may call them to.

Unfortunately, there is a shortage of Christian workers today. Fewer and fewer are answering the call to ministry. Why is this? It is because we are not making disciples. There is an unprecedented lack of discipleship in the local church today due to spiritual apathy, spiritual laziness, lack of knowledge, and a lack of spiritual leadership. To turn the tide, church leaders must first repent of their own sins and make a fresh commitment to building the church God’s way. This can only be done through the conviction and empowering of the Holy Spirit. Such a discipleship revival should be the greatest subject of our prayers.

[1] Merriam-Webster Collegiate Thesaurus 10th Edition

[5] Rasnake, Eddie. Using your spiritual gifts. AMG Publishers 2008.

[6] Barry, J. D., & Kruyswijk, R. (2012). Connect the Testaments: A Daily Devotional. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[7] Chambers, O. (1936). The moral foundation of life: a series of talks on the ethical principles of the Christian life. Hants UK: Marshall, Morgan & Scott.

[8] Dockery, D. S., Butler, T. C., Church, C. L., Scott, L. L., Ellis Smith, M. A., White, J. E., & Holman Bible Publishers (Nashville, T. . (1992). Holman Bible Handbook (p. 88). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[9] Dockery, D. S., Butler, T. C., Church, C. L., Scott, L. L., Ellis Smith, M. A., White, J. E., & Holman Bible Publishers (Nashville, T. . (1992). Holman Bible Handbook (p. 89). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[10] MacArthur, J. (1996). Different by design (pp. 124–125). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[11] MacArthur, J. (1996). Different by design (p. 125). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[12] Hamilton Club speech, Chicago, 10 Apr. 1899

[13] Geiger, Kelley, and Nation. Transformational Discipleship. B & H publishing. 2012.

[14] Geiger, Kelley, and Nation. Transformational Discipleship. B & H publishing. 2012.

[15] Geiger, Kelley, and Nation. Transformational Discipleship. B & H publishing. 2012.

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