IDMC 2019 Edmund Chan Rethinking-Discipleship

"Our discipleship movement cannot be just emphasising the mission and the multiplication without the mandate and the maturity that results in abiding in Jesus," said Rev Edmund Chan. Photo by Eng Keng for IDMC 2019.

At a prayer meeting with pastors on February 18, Rev Edmund Chan sought to de-mystify discipleship with five questions. This extract is his answer to: “Why is discipleship so neglected?”

Every church will have discipleship in its focus or mission statement somewhere because it’s part of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Every Christian leader will say discipleship is important.

If discipleship is so important, why then is it so neglected?

Let us realise that there are three ways we neglect something: 

  1. We neglect something by not doing it.
  2. We neglect something when we stop doing it.
  3. We neglect something when we do it wrongly.

I suggest that, while we understand that discipleship is important and we say we want to disciple, we are doing it wrongly.

Let me give you the evidence from over two decades of observations covering three continents at least. There are five critical flaws in the discipleship movement.

Flaw #1: Emphasising outside over inside

When discipleship emphasises the outside-in rather than the inside-out, we emphasise behavioural modification rather than the fundamental change of core values.

Listen, if our core values are not changed, nothing is changed.

If our core values are not changed, nothing is changed.

Behavioural modification is not discipleship. Aligning people to a certain regimentation is not discipleship. We have misunderstood discipleship as a regimental journey rather than a redemptive journey under the cross of Jesus.

We have understood discipleship as: Have you done your quiet time? If you have done your quiet time, have you done it at 6am? Are you sharing the Gospel? Are you going on mission trips? Check check check check. Jump through all the hoops, I’m a disciple of Jesus.

We treat behavioural modification almost to the point of a religious Pharisaic structure of life, rather than the inner redemptive change of the power of the Gospel of Jesus. The outside in, rather than the transformation of the inside out. 

Flaw #2: Merely transferring knowledge

The second flaw is that we look at the discipleship movement as a programme. 

And because of this, we look at discipleship as mere knowledge transfer: I have some knowledge, I transfer my knowledge to you, we are making disciples. 

Discipleship is beyond just mere knowledge transfer, because knowledge, truth, doesn’t change lives. It is application that changes lives.

If we look at discipleship as a programme, we neglect the essence of discipleship, of following Jesus altogether.

Flaw #3: Missing the mandate

In pursuing the mission of disciple-making, we have missed the mandate of discipleship.

The mission of disciple-making is important – it is intentional disciple-making in accordance to the Great Commission: Go make disciples.

But the call to make disciples is a call to come under an Authority. To come abide in Him in whom all authority resides.

That is why abiding in Christ, the mandate of being in Him, is the cradle and the foundation for the mission of reproducing disciples. The mission must be created by the mandate.

“Abiding in Christ, remaining in Him, is crucial for the whole Great Commission of discipling the nations.”

The first call of the Kingdom is not the call to advance the Kingdom. It is to abide in the King, so that the Kingdom might advance.

Abiding in Christ, remaining in Him, is crucial for the whole Great Commission of discipling the nations.

If we get all excited – and we should be – about discipling the nations alone and neglect the mandate of abiding in Jesus … if we emphasise spiritual multiplication and neglect, or mis-diagnose, or mis-categorise spiritual maturity, the entire taxonomy of spiritual maturity compromises our entire spiritual pilgrimage and our entire spiritual life.

Spiritual maturity is beyond just mere church attendance. Church attendance is not spiritual maturity. Knowledge and  religious zeal alone is not spiritual maturity. A spiritual office – I’m a pastor, a senior pastor, a missionary – is not spiritual maturity. And spiritual giftedness is not spiritual maturity. 

We have mis-categorised these things and therefore our discipleship is compromised. We can have the exceptional gifting of a spiritual leader and yet be carnal before the Lord.

And so, our discipleship movement cannot be just emphasising the mission and the multiplication without the mandate and the maturity that results in abiding in Jesus. 

Flaw #4: Delinking evangelism from discipleship

This is very important: We have de-linked evangelism from discipleship and vice versa. 

“Until we have that sense of the love for the lost, we don’t understand the heart of Jesus.”

Jesus didn’t do that. His heart is for the world. So, when He called His disciples to discipleship, He sent them out to preach and to win the lost.

Nowadays, what do we do? We say, “Let’s win the lost!” But we don’t have time to disciple. Or, “Let’s disciple!” We get into our discipleship bible study or our discipleship groups, but we don’t have the intentional focus of winning the lost.

Evangelism is the beginning point of following Jesus because it touches the heart of Jesus. Until and unless we come back with that sense of the love for the lost and to understand the theological lost-ness of the lost, we don’t understand the heart of Jesus. We don’t understand true discipleship.

Flaw #5: Marginalising the Holy Spirit

We have marginalised the Holy Spirit in discipleship. I honestly don’t know how to do discipleship and engage in disciple-making without the leading of the Holy Ghost. It’s fundamental theology.

It comes back to the Triune God reaching out to the lost, redeeming people to the power of the Gospel and the holy Scriptures by the Holy Spirit transforming us.

“I honestly don’t know how to engage in disciple-making without the leading of the Holy Ghost.”

How can we possibly be transformed to follow Jesus apart from the One about whom God said: “I’m not leaving you alone, I’m sending you the Comforter, the Holy Ghost” (John 14:16)?

We need a fresh anointing of the Spirit of the living God in discipleship.

Would you bow with me in prayer and ask the Lord to help us in this.

“Father, You have promised us: ‘Call unto me and I will answer you and will show you great and mighty things you know not’ (Jeremiah 33:3). ‘Hitherto you ask Me nothing in My Name: Ask, you shall receive, that your joy may be full’ (John 16:24).

“So, this day we ask of You wisdom that comes when our life is lived under the shadow of the Almighty, under the Cross of Jesus Christ. Help us to live that life of discipleship together. We thank You, in Jesus’ wonderful Name. Amen.”

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Click here to listen to the full sermon by Ps Edmund Chan at the gathering.

About the author

Rev Edmund Chan

Edmund Chan is a seasoned disciplemaking pastor. The Leadership Mentor in Covenant Evangelical Free Church, Edmund is widely regarded as an insightful Bible expositor and a wise mentor of Christian leaders. In 1995, he launched the annual Intentional Disciplemaking Church (IDMC) Conferences. He also serves on the advisory councils of several Christian organisations.