INTRODUCTION: For the disciple of Jesus Christ, their local church is their most accessible marketplace for growing in spiritual maturity. This article will explore factors in the local church that affect discipleship and that largely determine how quickly and how much the disciple can grow in Christlikeness.
NEW IN CHRIST
Through the miracle of the new birth, a sinner comes to faith in Christ, passes from death to life (John 5:24), becomes a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), and begins his walk with the Lord. Now this sinner has become a saint. He is pointed toward Christ, and he hungers and thirsts for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). And so, his journey in discipleship has begun. Even before he recognizes it, the Lord is purifying him with hyssop (Psalm 51:7) and is beginning to flush out the old man with his evil practices (Colossians 3:9) and is beginning to conform him to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). And the result of a healthy new birth is that the disciple has a zeal to grow in practical holiness. Having been declared righteous through his faith in Jesus, the disciple now seeks to make his practical righteousness look more and more like his declared righteousness. But where is the best place for the disciple to grow?
THE LOCAL CHURCH
The answer to that question is, “In a good local church.” For the disciple of Jesus Christ, the best place to grow in practical righteousness and in Christlikeness is in a good local church. No matter where the person is in their spiritual journey, whether still a spiritual toddler or a spiritual grandfather and role model to others, the local church is God’s appointed vehicle for growing the disciple to greater maturity as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Having established the fact that the local church is the place where disciples grow, it must also be acknowledged that, among local churches, there is a wide range of effectiveness in making mature disciples. Why is that? Why are some churches known for the maturity and fruitfulness of their disciples while most churches seem to have no fruit at all? I believe there are several factors that determine how effective a church is in making disciples.
THE FACTORS FOR EFFECTIVENESS
ARE THERE MATURE DISCIPLES THERE? The first factor I will mention is the actual maturity of the local church. Are there mature disciples in the church from whom younger disciples can learn? In a given church, there may be those who are physically mature, and there may be some who have been professing Christians for a long time, but that is not the question. It is very possible to be a member of a local church for a long time and to have not grown much. Does the church have a robust theology that they live by? Are there members of the church who are steeped in the Bible? Does the church pray a lot? Are there members of the church who have been with Christ in their times of testing? Have they seen God’s faithfulness in suffering or in loss or in waiting? Are there any people in the church who could be role models, about whom you would say, “I want to be like him”?
What is the “maturity density” in the church? This is a question about the average maturity that would determine growth by means of “random discipleship,” what we might call “drive-by discipleship.” In churches that have a high “maturity density,” there are ongoing opportunities for discipleship in ordinary encounters on Sunday mornings or in community groups or in breakfasts or lunches. In these sorts of churches, “Iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) on a regular basis in ordinary conversations, but in churches that lack spiritually mature disciples, ordinary conversations remain ordinary. So, the first factor is the actual spiritual maturity of the local church.
CHURCH’S ATTITUDE TOWARD DISCIPLING: The next factor that influences the progress of the disciple is the overall attitude of the church toward discipling. Is the church motivated by 2 Timothy 2:2ff, that there are to be generations of disciples “teaching others also”? Does the church practice and even prioritize discipleship, as opposed to people who merely profess to be Christians but never really grow or show any meaningful fruit? Would the church be described as a country club or as a gymnasium? Is the church a place where many different spiritual growth opportunities are constantly being presented, or are real spiritual growth opportunities hard to come by? Is discipleship and spiritual growth championed by the lead pastor from the front? Is the lead pastor constantly talking about the expectation that church members will grow spiritually? Does the church expect members to be helping others grow in maturity or to be actively seeking their own spiritual growth, or is there no real expectation that anyone would be actively seeking spiritual growth?
A church that is serious about discipleship will manifest that attitude in many growth opportunities, such as theologically rich sermons, one-on-one discipleship, training classes like Oakhurst’s Equipping classes, Bible studies, small groups like OBC Community Groups which focus on Word and prayer in a fellowship context, and Spirit-filled worship. In a discipling church, there will be opportunities for sacrifice, suffering, theology, missions, evangelism, encouragement, prayer, and so on.
If you want to grow as a disciple of the Lord Jesus, look for a church the gives evidence of these kind of qualities. Look for a church that is serious about discipling its people.
ZEAL OF THE DISCIPLE. The third factor that will determine the rate of spiritual growth and the upper limit of spiritual growth is the zeal of the disciple himself. In the final analysis, your discipleship is 100% your responsibility. Although a mentor or a pastor may be personally invested in your spiritual growth, at the end of the day, growth is the disciple’s project. The disciple is the one who must be motivated to grow and to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Are you hungry to grow in your faith? In the richest discipleship environment on earth, a disciple can languish and backslide and stagnate in their spiritual life is they will not put out the needed effort. Do you actively seek growth opportunities? Do you prioritize your spiritual growth? There are many things, even many good things, that can distract a disciple from the path of spiritual growth and of increasing usefulness to the Master. If you are not willing to act on discipleship opportunities, and if you are reluctant to take risks and to try new things and to exercise your faith, then you should not expect to ever make much progress in practical holiness or Kingdom usefulness.
SDG rmb 12/07/2021 #466