The Discipleship Illusion

We like to watch America’s Got Talent and some of my favorite acts are the illusionists. The way they are able to trick us into thinking things are there that really aren’t there and visa versa.

Reflecting on the last 2 decades of ministry and the countless conversations I’ve had about discipleship, there is no doubt that we have an illusion of what discipleship really is.

According to, the word illusion means: “something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality.”

Unintentionally, I believe that this has been the case for churches across our country when it comes to discipleship.

In other words, we can have a false or misleading impression of reality when it comes to true discipleship.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love to learn and grow. I believe that our success in life is determined by our willingness to continue to learn.

A few years ago I remember walking back to my desk in somewhat of a dazed but excited state of mind. I had just come out of a time of prayer and knew that God was showing me something unique.

I sat down and typed theses words:

“What would it look like to help each person take their next step to become more like Jesus and do it in a way that is personal.”

This revelation came on the heels of an encounter with a brave couple who talked to me following a class all about the church. At first I was a little put off by their abrasive words but over the next few days, I began to see that they were on to something.

I’m sure it was hard for them to ask this and I know it wasn’t easy but I’m so glad they did. They said to me:

“We like the church and all it’s doing but when do we talk about how we fit here? When do we talk about what we bring to the table.”

At first I was thinking, whoa…slow your roll Sally! Didn’t you just hear how awesome we are as a church? Thankfully I didn’t say that but instead I stumbled around trying to come up with something spiritual to say.

I left that day feeling like we had let them down. Could they have been more tactful? Sure, but the more I thought about it and prayed about it and then read scripture about how Jesus helped people grow I soon realized this encounter was an opportunity.

So there I was sitting at my desk and thinking about all that had happened to me in the last week and I had these thoughts pop into my head. As I share them, my prayer is that this resonates with you as you lead your church. If you’re reading this as someone who goes to a church, I would encourage you to have grace on us as leaders as we continue to strive towards shepherding you towards becoming more like Jesus. We are trying, we really are.

“Are we more concerned with filling volunteer positions or with getting to know a person well enough to know what their next step is?”

“What if someone isn’t ready to serve but they need to be in relationship with others for a season?”

“What if someone is hurting in their marriage and doesn’t know what to do next and we never ask?”

“What if someone is still battling addiction and we quickly throw them into serving when they really need a group to help them be set free?”

“What if someone has been hurt by a church or burnt out and simply needs to sit and find healing for a season?”

These type of questions began to convict me as a steward of what I believe is the greatest resource we have as a Pastor, and that’s people.

What unfolded next was a beautiful balance of what I believe is a very effective way to take the purpose of the church and the purpose of the individual and make a difference in the Kingdom!

Taking the core values of the church, which should be the fundamentals of why we exist, and creating an assessment based on those core values, along with evaluating your people is the only way I know how to do this efficiently, effectively and personally.

How can we direct people on a path towards growth without knowing what path they are currently on?

This reminds me of the role of a shepherd and this verse:

Notice with me two sets of three interesting words… “I know them” and “they follow me”.

Here’s what I want you to see…the order!

Knowing precedes following.

Too often we focus on following and neglect knowing. This is very important for us as pastors and leaders of people.

This is in essence what those people were asking me that day, do you even want to know us at all?

My heart still aches for them and I pray they have landed somewhere and are growing.

After creating an assessment and changing how we did our group, something beautiful began to emerge. People started to stick. They began to get in their lane towards growth instead of a massive lane with everyone else with no foreseeable exits.

It has been beautiful to see people finding freedom from addictions, anxiety, worry, and fear. People joining small groups and finally having good, godly friendships. People stepping out and leading a small group and discovering it was exactly what they needed to grow in that season of life.

The truth is, I’ve met people who simply needed a bible and a reading plan for the next season of their lives. I’ve worked with others and encouraged them to go on a missions trip and it was exactly what they needed for their next step.

Because we implemented a system that took the time to get to know the condition of each persons heart, we began to hear stories of people actually GROWING and becoming more like Jesus.

Do we know our sheep?

This past week I found something interesting as a part of a webinar I was on. Barna Research did a study on The State of Discipleship.

It has been a fascinating read. I highly recommend every Pastor read this in order to know your sheep better.

One interesting find was this:

Think about this number. If you have 500 people in your church, 167 of them is looking for one-on-one discipleship. This is a lot of people!

I think this number is actually higher because people who aren’t familiar with “church” generally don’t know what they need to grow, they just know they need something more.

So, my conclusion to all of this rambling can be summarized by an old adage:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Caring for and about people as a church is being willing to put their interests above our own.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” ‭‭Philippians‬ ‭2:3–4‬ ‭NIV‬‬

The reality is that people may not be ready for what we think they need. We just have to slow down enough to ask the right questions to know what they need rather than assuming every person needs the same things. It’s simply not true. We are all at different places spiritually, at the same time.

My encouragement to you as Pastors & leaders is to rethink your growth process.

Let’s include knowing our people just as much as we are asking them to follow what we do.

Let’s be found faithful with those whom God has entrusted us.