The Discipleship Crisis is an Identity Crisis

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a short post entitled “The Crisis of Discipleship in the Church Today.” The article notes that, in the US, 3,500 churches will close this year, 1500 pastors will leave the ministry this month, and approximately 7,575 people will move on from church today. Of those who move on, some never affiliate with a religion again saying they just “gradually drifted away from the religion.”

In the article, I suggest that a primary solution to the crisis is discipleship. Just think how these churches could have endured or been reborn if they acted more like a community of disciples and less like a collection of spiritual consumers? What could happen if we all took more interest in serving others instead of insisting on being served. What would happen if we took the call to make disciples seriously? We could change the course of the American church. Then why aren't we?

The Confusion over Discipleship One reason we are facing a discipleship crisis is due to confusion over who a disciple is. If your church took a show of hands this Sunday, asking everyone to raise their hand if they considered themselves a Christian, a majority of hands would probably rise. But, if that question was followed by asking people to raise their hands if they considered themselves a disciple, the show of hands would most likely be considerably smaller.

There is considerable confusion over what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. One popular notion floating around, and has been for years, is that a disciple is an extraordinary Christian, one who has made a bigger commitment to Christ. They have committed their whole lives. Is this a biblical distinction? Is a disciple an extraordinary Christian who has made a bigger commitment to Christ? Similarly, is an ordinary Christian someone who has made a smaller commitment to Christ?

Do I Have to Make a Bigger Commitment to Christ? In the Bible, the word “disciple” is actually used more frequently than “Christian” to refer to followers of Christ.The word “disciple” occurs 269 times; whereas “Christian” appears only three times. In fact, Luke the Early church historian uses the terms “Christian” and “disciple” interchangeably. He writes: “in Antioch the first disciples were called Christians” (Acts 11:26). They were disciples before they were called Christians. This tells us that to be Christian is to be a disciple. Disciple is the fundamental category for a Christian.

Therefore, there is no such thing as an extraordinary Christian who makes a bigger commitment to Christ and an ordinary Christian who makes a smaller commitment to Christ. There are only ordinary Christians, who all make the biggest commitment possible, a commitment to Christ. There is no bigger commitment that any person can make! To commit ourselves to Jesus Christ as Lord is to make the biggest commitment possible! Jesus demands our whole lives when he says:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)

Recovering our Identity This clarifies some of the fuzziness around the meaning of “disciple.” The discipleship crisis is nothing less than a total misreading of Christian identity. The identity of a consumer Christian is rooted in personal lordship and freedom, leading to the view that we can make a smaller commitment to Christ. The identity of an ordinary Christian, or disciple, is rooted in the lordship and freedom of Christ, leading to the view that there is no bigger (or better) commitment to be made than to Jesus. An issue lurking beneath the surface of the discipleship crisis, then, is not an issue of commitment but an issue of identity. When we identify with personal freedom and decision making first, and Jesus lordship second, we curve in on ourselves. We bend our identity away from Jesus. We serve lord Self instead of Lord Jesus. We make a false, unbiblical distinction between ordinary Christians and disciples.

The good news of the gospel tells us that the only reason we can make a commitment to Christ is because he first committed himself to us. His commitment ran as low as a manger, as deep as the grave, and as gloriously high as the resurrection. God’s radical commitment to us in Christ frees us from bondage to ourselves in order to bind us to his side. His commitment to us not only frees us from petty consumerism, but also delivers us into a kingdom of grace. This grace, when truly tasted, breaks the bonds of self-centered discipleship and releases us into the freedom of Christ-centered discipleship. The gospel liberates us from self-lordship so that we can enjoy Jesus' lordship.

Who, then, is a disciple? All Christians are disciples. There is no bigger vs. smaller commitment because we have all made the biggest commitment possible--to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. There is no division between Christian and disciple. We are all ordinary Christians with an extraordinary Savior. When we turn to Jesus Christ as Lord, class, commitment, experience, culture, and politics cease to define us. Instead, what defines us above all things is Jesus. He redeems and reshapes us, bending us back to the Father with his grace. God came to earth in Jesus to redefine us, to re-ground our identity in Christ under his lordship. If we are to address the discipleship crisis, we have to recover disciple as our identity and reject the consumer identity. Once we recover the staggering impact of Jesus' commitment to us, we will move forward into making an impact for Jesus.