Bungling the Discipleship Equation


Jesus’ command to make disciples doesn’t require higher math or years of advanced study. Being no fan of arithmetic, I’m thankful He solved the “discipleship equation” so simply that even a young child can follow. In Matthew 28:19-20, He adds up the three essential parts for us:

“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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Mat 28:19-20 NIV 

See? No big numbers, equations, fractions, or calculations—just three simple things mark the life of a true disciple.

First, we are to help people learn to develop a relationship with Jesus and walk together with us as we follow Him. The idea is that we follow Him so closely that the dust from His footsteps covers us. The result is an ever-growing relationship with Jesus and others on the road.

Second, we are to be baptized. Aside from the various debates—denominational, dunking, sprinkling, the age, etc., the call is clear. Baptism is a public statement of our identity and allegiance which declares we are set apart for life connected with Jesus. Our old loyalties wash away as our lives are immersed entirely in His.  

Third, we teach people how to follow and obey Jesus as we walk together on our journey.  

This. Is. Simple. 

So, why is the church in the US bungling the “discipleship equation” so badly? And why does research about the state of the church and Christians in the US look so sad? 

The numbers indicate that we have overcomplicated the basic math of discipleship to such a degree that many calling themselves Christian are hopelessly confused. It's like we’ve ignored Jesus’ simple command or somehow forgotten its beautiful simplicity. 

Some of the numbers from Barna indicate just how sad the state of discipleship is in the US.

  • In the US today, 68% of people identify themselves as Christians, but only 15% are practicing Christians. (Barna defines a practicing Christian as someone who attends church in person or online at least once a month.)

  • Only 12% of adults identifying themselves as Christians know and understand the Great Commission. For “practicing Christians,” only 26% know and understand its meaning. 

  • Just 49% of self-identified Christians in the US agree with the statement, “I desire Jesus to be first in my life. That number rises to 84% of practicing Christians.

  • Only 34% of self-identified Christians agree strongly with the statement, “I believe the Bible has authority over what I say and do.” The number rises to 75% for practicing Christians.”

  • A mere 7% of US Christians are what Barna calls “4-Point Christians.” These believe that 1) Jesus is Lord, 2) the Bible is reliable, 3) evangelism is important, and 4) salvation is by faith.”

  • Sadly, most US Christians (56%) consider their spiritual lives entirely private.  

With numbers like these, making disciples seems more complicated than ever.

A survey of over 2,000 churches in the US known as Reveal was no more encouraging. At a conference, I listened to one of the pastors who was instrumental in developing the data. He reported, “we are creating a generation of self-centered Christians” whose primary concern is “what’s in it for me.” The numbers from the study show:

  • On Sunday morning, nearly half the congregation has a nominal relationship with Jesus (38%)—or none at all (10%). 

  • 27% of the congregation report having a relationship with Jesus but are motivated by the desire for self-improvement. (Spiritual life is about optimizing their individual lives.)

  • Only 25% of the congregation is deeply committed to walking out a vibrant relationship with Jesus characterized by a deep love for God and others. 

Has the discipleship equation Jesus gave us been disproven, or have US Christians created some new math that “better serves” their interests? Blaming the devil, culture, society, or specific generations for the current state of discipleship is too easy. Early Christians lived in an absolutely hostile culture, yet somehow, they were able to grow spiritually, make disciples, and thrive in community. 

These numbers are distressing for anyone who takes Jesus’ command to make disciples seriously. Continued reliance upon the bungled equations for making disciples and hoping for a different result is the very definition of insanity. We need a refresh of the fundamentals and a fresh approach to discipleship. That’s why I’ve written Becoming a Face of Grace: Navigating Lasting Relationships with God and Others and Beyond Becoming: A Field Guide to Sustainable, Transformational Communities. Both are available on Amazon. 

Need solutions to help solve the discipleship equation in your church or small group? I’ll offer some in my next blog, “Rebuilding the Road to Discipleship.”

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