Heartbursts: What do we mean by "Make disciples?"

July 9th, 2018
This article is featured in the Summer 2018 issue of HeartBursts

Heartbursts: Churches Empathizing with Cultures is a regular column helping leaders plan, implement, and evaluate credible and relevant ministries based on cultural trends.


The church goal to “make” or “multiply” disciples is so universal today, among so many different denominations and traditions, and in so many different demographic contexts, that the phrase has lost any real meaning. Indeed, one suspects that churches want to keep the term deliberately vague. It sounds good, but allows churches to continue doing whatever it was they were doing previously.

On the other hand, literally any change or creative idea can be rationalized to fit whatever definition of “disciple making” is deemed to be in the best interests of the institution in any given context. For example, a recent e-newsletter from a well-known church consulting firm recently stated: "Most mainline denominations are spending more time, energy, and money on issues other than making disciples — racism, sexual relations, being a service organization, to name the big three."

Some lifestyle groups would agree with that; but other lifestyle groups assume that spending resources on such things is precisely what being a disciple means.

"Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm between Churches and Cultures" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Preorder here: http://bit.ly/SidelineChurch

United Methodists have generally jumped on the bandwagon. Judicatories and congregations declare that they are all about “making disciples,” but few are very articulate about what exactly that means for faith, interpersonal relationships, daily behavior, or economic risk (to name the big four). It leaves clergy confused. They will be evaluated on their ability to lead churches in “making disciples,” but the criteria for that evaluation in any given urban core, urban, exurban, suburban, small town, rural, or remote context is unclear. This fog is one major reason that the church (of any stripe or tradition) finds itself increasingly on the sidelines of contemporary cultures.

In my newest book, Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasms between Churches and Cultures, I identify five major lifestyle groups that have emerged from the era of the 1990’s when Tex Sample described the “cultural left,” “cultural right,” and “cultural middle.” It may help clergy to know what the peculiar cultural diversity in their particular demographic context hears and/or fears when your church declares they are in the business of “making disciples.”

The Cultural Left

The “Cultural Left” has morphed into the Culturally Ambivalent and its more extreme offshoot the Liberal Cultural Eclectic. The “journey theology” that typified their approach to faith and behavior has also morphed into “wandering spirituality," or, in its more extreme version, “playlist theology.” The people described by “wandering spirituality” have no particular starting place or destination in mind, but experiment or dabble in whatever attracts their attention at any given time. The more extreme version of “playlist theology” personalizes religion to encourage individuals to select or deselect whatever theological tune speaks to their mood or builds their relationships on any given day.

What does “making a disciple” mean for these lifestyle groups? What they hear is that the church is all about mapping every religion or spiritual movement in relation to the work and words of Jesus — acknowledging, of course, that what can authentically be attributed to the historical Jesus (once historical and cultural biases have been removed) is about the size of a magazine article. A “disciple” is a spiritual wanderer with a denominational flashlight. What they fear is that the church is going to force them to define truth once and for all, effectively blocking imagination and personal growth.

Among the more extreme cultural left that I call the liberal cultural eclectic, what they hear and fear is both more limited and more terrifying. They hear that the church wants to rebrand their radio station to provide a continuing theme or refrain to unpack whatever intellectual or spiritual issue burdens them at any given time. The question “What would Jesus do?” is perpetually asked but (thankfully for personal freedom) never really answered in the ambiguities of modern living.  They fear that the church wants to return to the old days of CD’s and record albums, when the same beloved songs, doctrines, and priorities would be played over and over again, in every church franchise across the country.

The Cultural Right

Then there is the “cultural right” that has morphed into the culturally righteous and its more extreme offshoot, the conservative cultural wedge. The dogmatic theology of the past has morphed into “boundary theology” that has reduced faith into a few essential affirmations. So long as you affirm this shortlist, you are free to think and do what you wish. Its more extreme version, “acid test religiosity,” has tightened the boundaries of acceptance. If “boundary theology” is like a fence to keep culture out, “acid test theology” has electrified the fence in order to keep people in.

What does “making a disciple” mean for these lifestyle groups? What they hear is that the church wants to overcome ethical ambiguities and intellectual conundrums with normative behavioral expectations and absolute truths. A disciple is a capitalist with a compass. What they fear is that the church is going oversee their daily routines, diverse relationships, and changing career path and adjudicate any paradoxes or problems that might come up in their lives whether they like it or not.

Among the more extreme cultural right, the conservative cultural wedge, what they hear and fear is (like their extreme liberal counterparts) more limited and more terrifying. They hear that the church will provide spiritual and temporal clout to enforce norms and truths. They fear that the leaders of those churches are fundamentally unreliable to do so.

The Cultural Middle

What about the cultural middle? These lifestyle segments are probably the most patient with, and committed to, traditional denominations. Today they have morphed into the culturally passive. What they hear is that the church is still committed to “church growth” that will increase members and sustain institutions. A disciple is a happy conformist with a check book. What they fear is that the church might be transformed beyond their comfort zones by an influx of new and different people. New disciples will reshape our church to meet different expectations.

There are extremes for the left and right, but there really isn’t an extreme for the culturally passive. That would be self-contradictory. If you are culturally passive and want to go to extremes, you will have to migrate to the left or right. And the right is much safer.

Making Disciples

What can we learn from this diversity about what it means to “make disciples?"

First, church leaders (whether Bishops or Pastors) should be much clearer about what they mean. As it is, churches are torn between profitable marketing and profound integrity. They lure lifestyle segments into their orbit of influence, and then don’t deliver what people thought they had been promised. 

Second, what people fear is more compelling than what they hear. Great pronouncements about “making disciples” that elicit cheers from church insiders actually scare most people to death… although precisely what is scary varies from lifestyle group to lifestyle group.

The great quest to “make disciples” is ultimately counterproductive. It suggests that church people are already disciples and the great task is to make more people behave and think like them. In fact, although the public is generally passionate about spirituality and spiritual growth, the last thing they want to become is a church person who is neither thoughtful nor sincere. When a church proclaims the goal to “make disciples,” it is like turning on a theater spotlight to illuminate a great performance and discovering the actors half-dressed and testing the microphones.

I suggest that the earliest church of scripture and apostolic history had very different priorities. The primary goal was not to make disciples. The Holy Spirit would do that, and if they could participate in that divine grace they were glad to do so, but that was not the real challenge. The real challenge — then and today — is be a disciple. That’s the hard part. Whether you define it in terms of journeys, boundaries, or traditions, the challenge for church people is to follow through with the journey, honor the boundaries, and live up to the traditions.

The fact that so many churches are so lax about being disciples makes them appear hypocritical in their desire to make disciples. Who really wants to become what those folks so clearly are not? It is this that puts the church — left, right, and middle — on the sideline of culture.

comments powered by Disqus