By Taylor Combs
We all know churches are called to make disciples, but if you ask many churchgoers—and even some leaders—they may struggle to tell you exactly what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
To be a disciple is to be a follower, a learner, a student. And according to Jesus Himself, there are at least two indispensable facets of Christian discipleship: growth in truth and growth in fellowship. Jesus made it clear that both were non-negotiable.
In John 17, Jesus prayed to His Father, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). He wanted His disciples to grow in the truth, which is God’s Word.
Growth in truth is growth in knowledge; the two are inseparable. Theology (learning about God) and doctrine (beliefs about the Christian faith) are, therefore, essential to life of the disciple.
The same is true for growth in fellowship. Jesus made it clear that discipleship was not an individual project, telling His followers that the world would recognize them as His disciples by their love for one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” He said, “if you love one another” (John 13:34).
The Bible tells us that to become a Christian is to be drawn out of the world and into a whole new community, a new family—the church. And we are admonished to never stop gathering with that family (Hebrews 10:25). Fellowship, then, is an equally vital component of discipleship.
How effective are our churches at making whole disciples—disciples who are growing in both truth and fellowship?
While there may be some churches that are weak in both truth and fellowship—and that are dead or dying as a result—I think these churches are few and far between. Most of us are really good at one or the other, but not both. Most of our churches drift toward an over-emphasis on one of these aspects of discipleship to the detriment of the other.
Does your church fall into either of these categories?
Some churches excel at discipling the mind by placing a high value on the Word of God. Their members walk into the Sunday gathering with hulking study Bibles, Moleskine journals, and pens, ready to garner all they can from an expository sermon. These churches likely have some form of Sunday school program, and may have several members with seminary degrees who aptly teach their fellow members.
Members and attendees of these churches know their Bibles. This is undeniably a good thing, for, as Jen Wilkin writes in Women of the Word, “the heart cannot love what the mind does not know.”
But there is a tendency in churches like this to treat people as, in the words of professor and author James K. A. Smith, “brains-on-a-stick”; that is, this method of discipleship may download heaps of helpful information into the minds of Christians, all the while neglecting the fact that these Christians are embodied people—people with needs beyond the merely intellectual.
This type of knowledge—if divorced from love—puffs people up, making them arrogant and isolating them from other Christians. If the only purpose of church is to learn, relationships take a backseat. And if relationships take a backseat—especially in a context where biblical knowledge and theological depth are prized—it becomes nearly impossible to foster a culture of honesty, vulnerability, and confession.
In those contexts, the results can be catastrophic—burnout, depression, shame, or a total departure from the faith, often seemingly out of the blue. Without the gracious safety net of stable, constant relationships, many people won’t survive life’s difficulties; they’ll try to cover up their weaknesses and white-knuckle it until they simply can’t make it any longer.
Incidentally, these churches are probably not very expressive in their worship style, and may naturally attract introverts. Thus, many of the members miss out on what their more charismatic, expressive, and extroverted brothers and sisters in Christ have to offer.
The question heady churches must ask is, How can we deepen the fellowship in this family of faith without derailing our effective means of discipling the mind?
On the other hand, some churches excel at discipling their members through rich relationships. These churches place a high value on community. Their members are always glad to see one another—be it on Sunday morning, at weeknight small groups, birthday parties, or impromptu hangouts—and are always welcoming of first-time guests.
The fellowship halls are crammed, the coffee bar is crowded, and the worship leader or pastor may have to herd the crowd in for the start of the worship service, lest fellowship time cut into songs and preaching. And this is a beautiful thing. It’s good and pleasing to God when church members treat one another like family—after all, we are.
But there is a tendency in churches like this to neglect the life of the mind. Theology sounds stuffy; doctrine sounds divisive. Why worry about things that divide us when we can just be family and have fun together? Personal devotions and spiritual disciplines are hard—can’t we just hang out and talk about Jesus? And 30-plus-minute expository sermons? Boring. Dry. Too long. Can we please talk about something more relevant?
Sadly, churches like this often produce the kinds of disciples described in Jesus’s “Parable of the Sower,” who either grow up quickly but lack root and fall away during hard times, or who grow up among the thorns and are choked out by the things of the world.
This kind of feel-good discipleship may be fun for a while, but it often fails to provide the kind of sure footing that will sustain a believer through hardship, suffering, or, God forbid, persecution.
If it’s fun that you win people with, it’s fun that you’re winning them to; and let’s be honest, there’s always going to be some other institution that will offer more in that realm than the local church.
Incidentally, these churches are probably very expressive in their worship style, and may naturally attract a lot of extroverts. Thus, many of the members miss out on what their more reserved, contemplative, and introverted brothers and sisters in Christ have to offer.
The question these churches must ask is, How can we deepen our knowledge of God through his Word without compromising the rich relationships our church is cultivating?
The Road to Becoming a Thriving Church
It’s tempting to resign ourselves to the reality that some churches are going to naturally excel in truth, while some naturally excel in fellowship. But this shouldn’t be so. If Jesus commands us to grow in truth and fellowship, then every single church of Jesus ought to be focused on making disciples who are deeply grounded and growing in both.
Moreover, if people whose natural bent is toward the intellectual only ever associate with churches that have the same bent, how much will they lack in their discipleship? And if people whose natural bent is toward the communal only ever associate with churches that have the same bent, how much will they lack in their discipleship?
It’s imperative, then, that we ask the right questions and seek to course-correct where we must.
Churches can move toward whole discipleship—they can shift from being shallow or heady into a new season of thriving—but it will involve care, courage, and consistency.
My next post will consider a few small shifts we can make to point our churches in the right direction.
TAYLOR COMBS (@combstaylor_) is an associate publisher for B&H Publishing and is active in the teaching ministry at Grace Community Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. He holds a master of divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.