Speaker and author Ajith Fernando weighed in on the “discipleship crisis” currently enveloping the Church and shared how pastors and ministry leaders can better set a culture of discipling within the Body of Christ.
In a recent episode of The Crossway Podcast, Fernando, a seasoned ministry leader and author of Discipling in a Multicultural World, said he began to realize that “unless you really invest in individuals — get into their lives — very often change towards Christlikeness doesn’t really take place.”
“I think there is discipling happening, and that’s something that we can thank God for,” Fernando told host Matt Tully. “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.”
Many people find discipling “inconvenient,” Fernando argued, as "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," he explained.
The type of spiritual accountability that discipling requires — where people are willing to open up and talk about their own lives — is also “incompatible with our current culture,” he said.
“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,” he continued. “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.”
Fernando, who served as the national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka for 35 years, stressed the importance of accountability between Christians, especially in the age of the internet.
“The most obvious thing is pornography, but then there is spending time in chat rooms, things like social media, just the whole idea,” he contended. “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.”
Pastors have an obligation to “set a culture of discipling in churches,” Fernando posited, adding that both preaching and fostering intentional discipleship relationships among congregants are important. The pulpit, he said, is what gives direction to the church.
“I don’t like to speak so much about priorities, but rather about obedience,” he said. “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.”
He advised pastors to preach on the importance of discipleship from the pulpit and also “prayerfully look for people who are open to being discipled.” He compared Christian discipleship to “spiritual parenthood.”
“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,” he emphasized.
The 71-year-old ministry leader cautioned others in church leadership positions to remember that “not everyone whom you try to disciple comes out the way you wish.”
“We are working with flawed people,” he pointed out. “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,” he added.
The pastor also stressed that humility and security are important parts of a discipler’s character in pursuing other people. Insecurity, he said, can be 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,” he warned. “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.”
Instead, disciplers must “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.”
The idea of biblical discipleship is gleaned from Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19-20: “Make disciples of all nations, and teach them the commandments of God.”
A 2019 report from LifeWay Research found that nearly two-thirds (65%) of Protestant pastors say they are satisfied with the state of discipleship and spiritual formation in their local church, while 78% indicate there’s room for improvement.
“Following Christ involves movement,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “And that movement can either be walking with Christ or straying from that path. Churches must be vigilant and proactive in encouraging the progress of believers.”
“As pastors increasingly value measurement of discipleship, it is important to note that growth in Christlikeness is more than having new people to fill places of service at church,” said McConnell. “Our journey with Christ involves our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, so we need evaluation in all of these areas.”
Last year, Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, criticized the amusement-driven church and encouraged Christians to participate in the Body of Christ for the purposes of discipleship and community.
“You and I are so overstimulated, you and I are so overwhelmed with fast-paced, energized entertainment that we have developed a real idealized sense of life with a real low pain tolerance. The Church herself no longer is about discipleship, no longer is about being shaped, no longer is it about being formed. It’s about being entertained in the gathering.”
The job of a pastor, Chandler argued, is to help congregants “see, spot, be trained in” their giftedness, and then “unleash that giftedness on the world around us.”
Chandler pointed out that in Acts, Paul warns the Ephesians, “After I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.”
“How do you fight that? You walk with one another in community, you encourage one another in your giftedness, and you embrace that you’ve been called a minister of reconciliation and an ambassador of Christ for the building up of the body,” he said.