The Fatal Flaw in our Discipleship Strategies
Updated: Feb 2
by Doug Paul
I’ve probably spent the last 15 years of my life trying things in the local churches I’ve led or with leaders I’m coaching or walking alongside to help them innovate discipleship strategies. And more recently at Catapult, we’ve been piloting some new strategies to help churches create a discipleship process that really gets the fruit they are going after. As you can imagine, the learning has been in overdrive.
The more I’ve done this work, the more I see that there are probably 6 different kinds of Discipleship churches. Each has a different strategy, different outcomes, pros, cons and almost all of them have a fatal flaw. But as you’ll discover at the end, there is one fatal flaw they all have in common.
Church #1: Discipleship as Preaching
Headline: Churches with this discipleship strategy love (mostly) expositional preaching and rightly dividing the Word of God. And that’s a good thing!
Greatest Strength: This creates a culture of people who love the Word of God in both their Sunday morning experience and in daily times with the Lord, nourishing them as they go.
Fatal Flaw: These churches overestimate what preaching can do in and of itself. Did Jesus preach? Absolutely. But the Bible shows that’s not what the majority of his discipleship process looked like. Jesus was the best disciple-maker who ever lived. And while preaching was part of his strategy, it was a small piece of it.
Church #2: It’s all organic, baby.
Headline: Disciples are made in the everyday comings and goings of life; after all, the Great Commission says, “and as you go, make disciples.”
Greatest Strength: Some things are simply better caught than taught. The organic process allows people to learn from the places of real life where the Gospel is being lived out, in real time. After all, how much of the twelve disciples formation happened just by being with Jesus and processing in real time?
Fatal Flaw: There is often a lack of intentionality, focus and overall direction for where the person being discipled is being taken. Sometimes it feels like it’s just two people in a coffee shop or bar hanging out and it’s not really going anywhere. Jesus knew exactly where he wanted to take twelve and was exceptionally intentional about getting them there.
Church #3: Just join a small group!
Headline: The seeker sensitive movement and simple church emphasis created a place for everyone in the church to go. Most churches are using some version of a small group strategy. But does it lead to spiritual transformation?
Greatest Strength: People can form deep relationships with a consistent group of people over a long period of time who can love them, grow with them, walk with them and speak into their life.
Fatal Flaw: Ultimately the small group strategy started as a kind of relational flypaper. Churches were trying to close the “back door” of the church. Small groups are great at cultivating relationships because that’s what they were designed for. But they weren’t necessarily designed to help people grow spiritually or propel them into mission. The real fatal flaw? A fair number of small groups are led by spiritually immature people leading other spiritually immature people.
Church #4: We’ve got a program for that.
Headline: This strategy focuses on creating a large choice of classes and programs that pinpoint people’s felt needs and then seek to deliver the goods.
Greatest Strength: People are able to locate a place of weakness, pain point or something they simply want to learn and then applies the Gospel to that specific area.
Fatal Flaw: There are a couple. First, it creates a caste system of the elite vs. consumers of religious goods and services. Second, very rarely does this discipleship strategy create a culture where people are engaging in everyday mission or discipling people of their own. Third, it means the church is always looking for “the next program” to scratch the itch of those consumers.
Church #5: Discipleship as a spark.
Headline: Churches deploy and execute a system for discipleship that leads to reproduction, train people in it and release them as yeast into the dough of the church and wider community.
Greatest Strength: Reproduction gets into the water and as you get into generational disciple-making where disciples are making disciples, it leads to people outside the church who don’t know Jesus yet. Discipleship is now leading to evangelism.
Fatal Flaw: This model is built on low control. That can sometimes be positive, but there’s often a drawback with unintended consequences. The spark that you light might look different than you think it should. Or maybe it burns something down.
Church #6: Discipleship as optional.
Headline: Churches with this strategy see the almost exclusive mission of the church to get people to heaven when they die and very little time or energy is spent on this present life.
Greatest Strength: There tends to be a heavy evangelistic fervor in this culture, albeit for a very small version of the Gospel.
Fatal Flaw: When discipleship is seen as separate from the Gospel, as an optional add-on, it means people are missing the essential ingredients for transformation. They might go to heaven when they die, but they often cause a lot of misery and brokenness while on earth. Very few people who aren’t Christians look at their lives and think, “I want that kind of life.”
But what’s the fatal flaw they all have in common?
One of the things we’ve found at Catapult is virtually all of these plans are IMPORTED or CUT-AND-PASTED from other places. And what might have worked in one place rarely works in a different place…or it works quite differently. For instance, the small group strategy that might be producing a lot of specific outcomes for Andy Stanley at North Point might be imported somewhere else and rarely gets the same results. (Which, by the way, is an incredibly frustrating experience for pastors!)
So what’s the fatal flaw? It’s not having a contextualized discipleship process built on your church’s DNA.
It’s for this very reason that we created the Disciple Making Innovation Lab. We wanted to help churches create something unique to their DNA, theology, vision and context that leads to deep spiritual transformation and reproduction of disciples who make disciples. (And actually works!)
PS: If you haven't had a chance to check out the two minute video on "The Scandal of Sunday School," we imagine it's something you'll really enjoy.
Contact Doug Paul: Contact Craig Morrison:
Catapult Group Embark Leadership
141 Traction St 910-818-1885 Greenville, SC 29611-4725 firstname.lastname@example.org