Podcast: Is the Church Facing a Discipleship Crisis? (Ajith Fernando)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
The Risk and Reward of Discipleship
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Ajith Fernando, author of Discipling in a Multicultural World, discusses the critical importance of personal discipling relationships for every Christian. He shares why he thinks there's a discipleship crisis in the church today, even among pastors and church leaders; how to think about the value of structured discipleship programs; and common mistakes to avoid when entering into a discipleship relationship.
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Topics Addressed in This Interview
- The Importance of One-on-One Discipleship
- The Church's Discipleship Crisis
- Sharing Honestly in Discipleship
- Should Busy Pastors Do One-on-One Discipleship?
- Balancing Preaching and Discipleship
- Become a Spiritual Parent to Someone
- Discouragement in Discipling Relationships
- How Long to Continue Pursuing Uninterested Disciples
- Lessons from Failure
- Advice for Pastors: Fostering a Culture of Discipleship
- Awkward Discipling Moments
- The Danger of Insecure Disciplers
- An Encouraging Note about Discipleship in the Church
Discipling in a Multicultural World
This book will equip Christians to effectively carry out the biblical principles of discipleship in a world where many who come to Christ have little or no prior knowledge about Christianity.
The Importance of One-on-One Discipleship
You’re a prolific author; I think you’ve written seventeen books now? Or maybe eighteen books?
I’m not sure of the exact number, but I think it’s either seventeen or eighteen.
And they’ve been translated into at least twenty languages, but it could be more than that. You speak at conferences around the world on a fairly regular basis, you do a lot of traveling, and yet you’ve spent years—decades—emphasizing the importance of one-on-one discipleship. Why is that?
I began to realize after some time of ministry that unless you really invest in individuals—get into their lives—very often change towards Christlikeness doesn’t really take place. We have to allow the Scriptures to impact people and one of the ways in which that is done is through personal interaction. Of course, that was the ministry of Jesus. I have been working with Youth for Christ, which works primarily with unchurched youth, and we found that before they get settled in a church it’s very important for us to get them a little more mature in Christ and ready to go out. So our experience in Youth for Christ also led me to this.
The Church's Discipleship Crisis
You note that discipleship is not something that people take to naturally and that few people are really doing it, and you say you’ve seen this all around the world, not just in the US or even in the West. You even go so far as to call the lack of discipleship a “crisis” facing the church. Is the situation really that bad? Is there really that little discipleship—as you would define it—happening?
Yes. I think there is discipling happening and that’s something that we can thank God for. But I think we have to also remember that discipling today is culturally quite incompatible with the way our world is moving. We are in a very busy world with shallow relationships and the type of commitment that a discipling relationship requires is culturally not all that compatible. So people find it inconvenient. Discipling involves getting involved in people’s lives, in their problems, in struggling with them. So that’s one aspect—our culture is not so friendly with the type of commitment that discipling requires. And also, the type of spiritual accountability that discipling requires—where people are willing to open up and talk about their own lives—that too, is incompatible with our current culture. We decide what we are going to share with people. Of course, we do share a lot on social media, but things that are very personal to us we don’t share that much with others. And so culturally, again, that’s a block that we have. And this is very serious today because people have a very private life, especially on the Internet. It’s so important that they have help with regard to their private life, otherwise they could get into habits that could be very destructive for them. But there is this threat that somebody is going to invade their personal life.
Sharing Honestly in Discipleship
You mentioned the internet specifically, that there’s this private life there—what are you getting at on that front?
The most obvious thing is pornography, but then there is spending time in chat rooms, things like social media, just the whole idea. I mean even us, who are mature Christians and who have been Christians for a long time, I find it helpful to share with my accountability partners how I am faring. For example, this morning I sent a letter to my two accountability partners saying that I find myself wasting time doing email before I start my devotions and that I will not open my email until I have finished my devotions in the morning. This is something that I suddenly found I am getting into. So for all of us, this type of world that we live in can hit us so suddenly and with so much force, I think we need to be able to maneuver in this world with a little help rather than all alone.
Should Busy Pastors Do One-on-One Discipleship?
You mentioned in your book, and you’ve mentioned it elsewhere as well, that this discipleship crisis extends to even church leaders and pastors. It’s not just the the laity that are struggling with this, but church leaders, perhaps even more importantly, aren’t doing this in the full way that you see Scripture laying out. What would you say to the pastor who is maybe leading a smaller sized church, doesn’t have a lot of other support, not a lot of people on staff, and his weeks are just busy. He’s preparing to preach every Sunday and he really views preaching as the most important task he’s been called to and really wants to give it the time that it’s due. And then he has all of the daily, weekly rhythms and duties that he has to deal with—counseling situations, what have you. How would you advise him when it comes to what you’re calling for in your book: one-on-one, intentional, time-intensive discipleship?
Actually, I must say that I’ve had the same struggle. I was the head of an organization, I’m very involved in my church, and this is something that is a major struggle for me also. I think we make time for what we consider to be important. So what we need is to put this in our priority list of things that are important that we need to be doing. You can’t disciple too many people, and I think discipling also does not necessarily have to be one-on-one all the time. It could be a small group of people that you take up and help. In fact, Jesus’s group was a small group. His method of discipling was more a group discipling rather than entirely a one-on-one type of thing. So I think if he can make it a priority, then he can institute a culture. I think this is a problem: we don’t have a culture of discipling in our churches. The leader has to be the one who sets that culture in place. People must know that he’s doing it, that he does give time for individual work like that, and I think it is possible even though there are a lot of pitfalls along the way.
Balancing Preaching and Discipleship
How would you see an intentional discipleship relationship and that kind of activity in the life of a pastor relative to the task of preaching? How would you rate those in terms of priorities?
I think our primary calling is to be preachers and we have to spend time preparing. I’m very, very committed to that. I really feel that one of the reasons why expository preaching is not very popular today is that it takes a long time to study the Scriptures and then to apply it to the audience. So I think that is very important. But both are important. I don’t like to speak so much about priorities, but rather about obedience. God wants me to invest in people. God wants me to study the Scriptures and to teach out of that study. So we just learn to give time for both. My personal experience has been that this is very refreshing. If I wasn’t preaching I wouldn’t be as excited as I am about the ministry—after forty-three years in ministry—as I am today. Because when you study the Scriptures and prepare messages the word of God burns in you. And that fire is one of the things that energizes us and helps us to keep going in ministry.
Become a Spiritual Parent to Someone
You discuss Christian discipleship as “spiritual parenthood.” Why is it that you have chosen that primary metaphor for when discussing this topic?
It’s a metaphor that the Bible uses. Jesus used it for his disciples, Paul used it for people like Timothy, and Titus and Onesimus. Peter used it for Mark. And so it seems to be a model. And then Paul refers to churches—the Thessalonian church and the Corinthian church—as his children. He speaks of himself as a mother to the Galatians and to the Thessalonians. He speaks of himself as a father to the Corinthians. This is a metaphor that is used regularly in the Bible, so I think it’s a good way to describe Christian leadership.
What are some of the other specific facets that you think are mirrored in Christian discipleship that you might find in parenting? What are some of the commonalities that make it a good metaphor?
I think one of the things is the willingness to spend time. With parenting it’s not just quality time that is important, quantity time is also important. Finding time for people we disciple is a real challenge. But that is the way trust and affection grows. Time that results in trust, that also results in affection are key features. But there are other important features. Once trust has been earned, then we are able to confront people and challenge them about their personal life. And then of course parents teach. In all the time that Jesus was teaching his disciples—in formal settings but a lot of it in informal settings, just chatting about the things of God—and it’s very exciting to see the method of Jesus as he trained his disciples. He was hiding in Gentile areas just being with them, teaching them. And so I think a disciple also looks for that kind of opportunity that parents would want to chat with their children.
Discouragement in Discipling Relationships
Do you remember a time when you felt discouraged in your discipleship, in trying to lead someone else into a deeper walk with Christ? What happened? What was the situation and how did you work through that period of time?
Actually I’ve had that all the time, in fact. Not everyone whom you try to disciple comes out the way you wish. We are working with flawed people. I have particularly had to work primarily with people from dysfunctional families, from non-Christian backgrounds who have no background of Christian behavior, and sometimes they bring us a fair amount of shame by their behavior, but we don’t give them up. Sometimes the disciplees have fallen into sin—fairly serious sin—which has been very painful. But as parents, we don’t discard them. We discipline them, but we don’t discard them.
But the other times that I have experienced failure was when people don’t really open up and make it possible for you to be the type of parent you’d like to be to them. I’ve had situations where I’ve had to work with the people for two years before they opened up. I was asked to lead drug-rehab work and the leaders for some reason were not happy that I was assigned as their leader and they took a long time to respond to me. But after a long time we ended up with a very, very warm and close relationship which proceeds even until now because even in my semiretirement, drug rehab is one of the key things that I am still involved in and several people I’m mentoring are former drug addicts. So that’s the positive side.
The negative has been when sometimes I’ve worked with people for a fairly long time—part of the small group in my church, for example, where we are a discipleship group—but some of them just refuse to open up. After trying and trying and trying, you finally have to say, Well, it doesn’t look like this is going to work. And so those are very disappointing times. But I’ve also found that out of those disappointments come a lot of learning. I found my failures helped me learn more than my successes because you ask, What went wrong? What could I have done differently? So the disappointments are helpful.
How Long to Continue Pursuing Uninterested Disciples
When you’re in the middle of meetings with somebody, maybe even meeting for a while, how do you know when to keep pursuing them, when to keep working with them and giving them time to be more honest and open up? And how do you know when to say, This person isn’t ready, they aren’t interested in this right now, they’re not serious about this, and maybe I’ll try again some other day?
I think you really don’t know and each situation is different. You just give as many chances as you can. And then after some time if you feel this person is not responding, then you quietly wind down the relationship. I’m right now having a situation with a person that I felt was not really serious with me, but then when I began to wind down the relationship he was very upset and he’s yearning to meet with me. In fact, I’m meeting with him tomorrow and we are going to try again. So I think we have to just be sensitive. When we disciple people we pray for them—in my case—just like I pray for my family everyday. I try to pray for those I disciple everyday. They are a major focus of our prayers. So we pray, and pray, and pray, and just hope that the Lord will lead us to the right decision. It’s a very serious decision to make to drop someone, but sometimes that has had to happen. Very often it happens more naturally than you realize. Both parties may realize this is not working and we just begin to wind down our relationship.
Lessons from Failure
You mentioned that failure can sometimes be the best teacher and that you’ve learned the most through some of those failures. As you think back on your own life of discipling other people and the things that God has taught you through those difficult moments, what are some of the most common mistakes that you think people can fall into when discipling someone else, and what would you say Christians can do to try to avoid those mistakes?
I think one of the things that is very important to me that I have learned over the years is that we all have weaknesses. We are not complete parents and we all have our weaknesses. It’s helpful that they get input from other people also. Sometimes discipling can become a very individualistic type of relationship, which is a very dangerous thing. In fact, in my book I have a whole chapter on why discipling is a community activity. There has to be a vital relationship between the discipleship group and the wider body of Christ. The discipler must always be in an accountability relationship with the wider body—in most cases, with the church—so that the discipleship group doesn’t become like a cult, or an elite group, or a clique within the wider group. One of the ways in which we can ensure that is to realize that we are limited people and our disciplees can get help in areas of their need from others and we could be the ones who sort of engineer that process of that person getting help from others. So this whole idea of I’m the one who’s going to help this person, that can be a very, very dangerous idea.
On that front, how important is it for disciplers to be equally transparent and open with their own struggles as the person they’re trying to disciple? Is that always something that you are doing with people you’re discipling, or are there certain types of relationships where you aren’t really sharing as much because it’s more of a parent-child type of relationship?
Again, you can’t make a rule about it. I have an accountability group of friends that I’ve been friends with for a long time and there are things I share with them about my own struggles that I may not share with my discipleship group. But I do share some of that. And and in fact I think they find it helpful to know that I’m also struggling, and so I do share some of it. But I think you have to be careful as to how much we share, especially with brand new Christians. Some of our struggles may discourage them a lot. But on the other hand, it could be encouraging to them to realize that we are also people who are struggling and need each other.
Advice for Pastors: Fostering a Culture of Discipleship
What practical advice would you offer to pastors when it comes to fostering that culture of discipleship in their churches? What might that actually look like in those first steps?
I think, again, the pulpit is what gives direction to the church. And if there is preaching from the Word on the need for relationships of helping each other, I think if there is that direction given from the pulpit, that would be a start. And secondly, I think the pastor needs to be prayerfully looking for people who are open to being discipled. As a pastor you can’t concentrate only on those people. Doing general parenting of the whole congregation is an aspect of pastoral leadership, but they need to be looking to see whether there are people who can get a closer mentoring so that they can do that and then, little by little, the idea grows that these people also can mentor others. I think on the one hand there should be formal teaching and then there should be exemplifying it through your life. Now I think discipleship programs can be helpful—what I mean is things that are highly structured, using workbooks and things like that—those can be helpful, but I don’t think that is the base. I think the base is more a Scriptural conviction that this is what God would want me to do. And those tools and methods can be helpful. In fact, in my book I don’t advocate one single method of discipling. It’s rather a biblical understanding of what it means to invest in others and you can fit different methods into that biblical understanding.
Awkward Discipling Moments
You discuss discipling as spiritual parenthood. As all parents would probably know and have experienced, sometimes parenting can be pretty hilarious, often because of how awkward it can be. As you look back over your own life as a spiritual parent to others, are there any funny, awkward moments that stand out? Is there something that God taught you through an awkward conversation or an awkward comment like that?
I can’t think of awkward situations; but embarrassing situations, yes. There was a time when there was a group that—I mentioned this about the drug rehab work that I was asked to supervise—I was trying to be a spiritual parent to the staff, but actually in my first few months I was more a beggar than a parent. I was virtually pleading with them, Please accept me! Please accept me! Please accept me! Not in my words, but in my actions. I would visit their homes, I would visit the parents of those who are unmarried. So it was awkward because I was the national director of Youth for Christ. I was their leader. And yet, here I am begging from them, Please accept me!
But even Paul had that situation where he telling the Corinthians, You know, I have opened up my heart to you. Will you please open your heart to me? There was a young person once whom I was a discipling who was always fighting with his mother. When you’re working with youth one of the things that comes up in discipling all the time is your relationship with your parents. When this guy would get angry with his mother he would scold her in bad language. So I would ask him every time I met with him, How are things with your mom? And one day he said, Oh, I really scolded her and used bad language on her. So I told him, Before I meet with you the next time you must apologize to your mom and I’m going to ask you. I used to meet with him every week and the whole week went by and he didn’t apologize. When he was leaving to come and see me, just before leaving home, he ran up to his mother and said, "Ajith asked me to apologize to you and I’m apologizing!" And he ran out of the house. But I think that helped him. He became a very good son who really looked after his mother when she was old. But there was this situation where the requirement to apologize was fulfilled at the last moment.
The Danger of Insecure Disciplers
Your comments about just being willing to be embarrassed as a discipler and humble yourself and go pursue people in a way that opens up your own heart, that just strikes me that there is an element where humility is an important part of a discipler’s character in pursuing other people. How would you describe the role that humility needs to play?
Actually, in my book I have many sections on the dangers of discipling. More than humility, I would say insecurity is a major problem. If the discipler is an insecure person and finds too much personal gratification from the disciplee, then it can become very dangerous. It can become like a cult where you begin to control people and don’t give them the freedom to make choices of their own, which sometimes are different from our own choices. The humility part comes in when we realize we are limited people, we are just fostering them to grow close to Jesus, not to us. We have to be very careful about finding too much ego gratification from our disciplees. That has to come from God. And we have to somehow get them depending less and less on us and more and more on the word and their relationship with God.
Do you find that’s an easy temptation as a discipler to, maybe not even intentionally but unintentionally, cultivate a dependence on you as the discipler?
I think it’s a very common thing. It has happened in a lot of movements. It happens in our movement and this is something we have to just keep reminding people. Our job is to bring people who are outside the church and send them into churches. So once they go into the churches a lot of them have no more contact with us and we have to just keep telling them they have to leave us, they have to leave us. They have to go and get involved in the church. So things like that are things that we have to be very careful about. If a parent gets too possessive of their children they will rebel and leave very hurt, or they will subsume their individuality under the identity of this discipler. And that ends up in a very cultic, unhealthy situation.
An Encouraging Note about Discipleship in the Church
So as you look out at evangelical Christianity around the world—Bible-believing, conservative, gospel-loving Christians in churches where the Bible is preached faithfully—you mentioned that you do see this crisis in discipling at play across the board; but is there anything encouraging to you related to discipleship that you’re seeing?
I think one one thing that encourages me is that people are talking about the need for it. When I was writing my book I saw so many new books on discipling and that’s a sign that the church is serious about it. So that’s been very encouraging, but I think because it is culturally so distant—this lifestyle is culturally so distant from the more individualistic way we are living that it has become a challenge to have people change their behavior. But the interest and the talk about discipling is a very encouraging thing.
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