The Lure of Nondiscipleship Christianity and What We Can Do About It

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Seven years ago this March I willingly checked myself into a hospital and allowed a skilled surgical team to put me to sleep, cut open my abdomen, and remove, via a handful of robotic fingers, my prostate gland. Why? Because, had I ignored the truth that my prostate was saturated with cancer cells, you wouldn’t be reading these words today.

There were no obvious signs of cancer then, but if I were honest with you, I was experiencing some of the signs deep within my body that accompany this type of illness. It took a closer look by those trained in this field to confirm I was indeed a member of the cancer fraternity.

My brothers and sisters, please hear me: Within the body of Christ we are experiencing the tell tale signs of a threatening illness among us. We may look fine on the surface, because all the standard measurements for success within the local church are being met. We may be experiencing numerical growth in attendance as well as receiving new members, and our annual budget may be increasing. We may even have more people engaged in a variety of church activities. A growing number within our congregation may be participating in small-group studies throughout the year. However, these are not the biblical benchmarks that define a successful church.

As our courageous colleagues at Willow Creek discovered several years ago in their REVEAL Study, increasing attendance and activity within one’s church does not guarantee true spiritual maturity and the making of disciples who are becoming like Jesus in their attitudes, values, beliefs, and actions.

For years now, gifted and insightful leaders throughout our Body have warned us we were infected with a deadly virus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the disease “cheap grace.” A. W. Tozer discerned, “that a notable heresy has come into being throughout evangelical Christian circles.” Dallas Willard has diagnosed the sickness with multiple terms, “Nondiscipleship Christianity,” and a “Barcode” faith, which tends to produce what he calls a “vampire Christian.”

So what is this disease that has affected not only the North American Church, but has been carried throughout the world? Quite simply, it is the belief and teaching that people can become a “Christian,” experience conversion, receive forgiveness of their sins (past, present, and future), be assured of their eternity with Christ when they die, without following Jesus as an apprentice or disciple by walking in obedience to his commands.

The bottom line is that biblical discipleship has become optional within the Church. For more than 20 years, I served as a pastor in North America. For the past three years, I have served as a trainer of pastors, missionaries, and church leaders in a variety of countries around the globe. I have come to the conclusion that the gospel Jesus proclaimed, and which was passed on through His disciples and apostles, has been diluted into merely a plan of salvation or, as Bill Hull describes it, “The Forgiveness-Only Gospel.”

So, is there a remedy or antidote for this dreadful disease that is polluting the gospel Jesus came to proclaim? Yes! I am one of many who have experienced a personal transformation from doing church as usual (focusing on attendance, buildings, and cash) to focusing on the priority of Jesus’ mandate to make disciples who make disciples. However, just as in the case of detecting the presence of a virus within the body, we must ask some diagnostic questions to determine how far this disease has spread and where to begin the restoration process. To begin this self-diagnosis, let us consider these questions together, and maybe do so with passages such as John 14:15; Matt. 28:19-20; Romans 6; James 2:14-26 open in our Bibles.

Questions for Reflection

1) What does the gospel I have come to believe and proclaim produce in the lives of those who hear it? (In other words, what kind of fruit is your gospel producing?)

2)What is the difference between my definition of a “Christian” and a “Disciple”? (Matthew 28:19-20)

3) How do you think Jesus would answer this question: “Can a person experience conversion without discipleship or is discipleship the proof of one’s genuine conversion?” (John 14:15)

4) How does my church define “discipleship”?

5) What is our intentional process for teaching our people to obey all that Jesus has commanded us?

As you honestly ponder your answers, you just might discover that your gospel has become infected with some viral germs as well. In future posts we’ll take a look at some practical steps to becoming a church intentional about making disciples who make disciples.

One man, who was given the antidote for this insipid gospel, told me, “I became a Christian 20 years ago and thought I had crossed the finish line. However, after spending the last two years in a personal discipling experience, I realize what happened that day was that I had heard the starter’s pistol! It was actually just the beginning of a lifetime process of becoming more like Jesus!”

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Denny Heiberg and his wife, Cindy, are Mission Society missionaries. They are based in Gainesville, Florida, where Denny served as the lead pastor of Grace at Fort Clarke United Methodist Church for 18 years. Denny and Cindy joined The Mission Society in 2012 and serve in the Ministry Resource Group, providing member care and discipleship training globally for missionaries, pastors, and church leaders.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, Danny, these are very true words! My husband & I lead a small group five years now….we are almost finished with a book recommended by Good News Magazine last summer: “Speaking of Jesus” by Carl Medearis…..he says much the same & gives lots of ways to cut through all the “Christianese” & doctrine to become actual Jesus followers! I’m glad to hear another voice saying the same; maybe if we keep telling the Gospel someone will hear & be changed! Thanks again for your wise words!

    • Thanks, Anita, for taking the time to share your reflection. I’m encouraged that you and your husband are listening to Carl Medearis and his wealth of personal experience in sharing the message of Jesus. His book, “Speaking of Jesus” is a simple, yet powerful tool for anyone who desires to make disciples.

      One of the lessons I have been learning these past few years is that most Bible Studies in our American culture focus on the goal of accumulating biblical knowledge instead of focusing upon our obedience to what Scripture says. I love the questions that are used throughout the world in successful disciplemaking movements, “What is the lesson from this passage that is just for me?” And, “How will I respond to what Jesus is saying to me?” Then, to make sure we don’t avoid following through on obeying the Scriptures, we put our response in the form of an “I will…” statement. Jesus once told his disciples that those who listen to his teachings and obey will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock. May the Lord continue to bless you and your group as you seek to follow Him in obedience to His commands!

      • Bingo. What does scripture say? What is it saying to me? What am I going to do about it? IF we approach scripture in community, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, asking those questions and holding each other accountable for our responses, what else to we need to make disciples?

  2. Funny thing: I read this without a thought that it was your post. I thought “I should send this to Denny and Rick!” Then, your picture caught my eye. RIGHT ON, BROTHER!!

    • Great to hear from you, my Brother! Thanks for the encouragement and for modeling for all of us what it means to desire to follow after the heart of Jesus.

  3. Well said! I asked one pastor how he defined “disciple” and he said he’d have to think about it. I suggested that he cancel weekend services until he figured it out. He didn’t. He is not alone. May his tribe decrease.

    • Dave, thanks so much for your comment and for caring enough about this pastor, and this vital issue, that you took the time to ask him the question. One of the questions I ask pastors, missionaries and church leaders during our training is, “How is it possible for someone to become a “Christian” and never be expected or challenged to become a “Disciple” of Jesus? In other words, how does this happen? Where does this kind of “gospel” message originate? Who are those responsible for ignoring Jesus’ clear command to make disciples who make other disciples? I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

      • I believe it stems from treating evangelism and discipleship as two separate realms. It is directly related to seeing “conversion” as a one time event, rather than a marker that signifies a change in process. I have found Dallas Willard, Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright helpful in understanding “Gospel” as more than “how to get to heaven when you die,” which has been the biggest contributor to our failure.

      • Denny, thanks for your love for the Lord, love for the church, and your efforts to correct the ship. Where did it originate? Was it not always among those that didn’t call themselves Wesleyan-Arminian. Was there not a time in American churches (late 1700’s to mid-1800’s) when the Wesleyan-Arminian churches lead the way, and had such a great influence on the other church groups? Have these two groups not changed places with one another in the last 175 years. If so, has that brought about this condition you are addressing…the condition in the average individual Christian, church life, doctrines taught, and our culture as a whole? Do we need a stronger Biblical answer, as well as a strong personal witness, when accused of legalism, when by teaching as men like Tozer did just a few years ago, that regeneration is accompanied by obedience? Please help!

  4. Oh my… Denny! Such an awesome post, and SO much of our heart! Sure wish Bob and I could meet you and Cindy. I went to UF in Gainesville, our 4th child had leukemia when she was 9 mos. old (and also has Down Syndrome, born premature with a blocked intestine and heart defect), and have been in a discipleship ministry that also trains the same groups and college students for 40+ years! My husband just wrote, Maturity Matters, and explains how we train disciples by teaching everything Jesus taught in the same order He taught it to the disciples, and are heavy on application. It’s so good to know you are out there! Praising the Lord for you, and the Lord’s healing power in your life. Many blessings! Linda

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