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!”