July 7, 2022

The Discipleship Gap and Replanting our Churches


Rev. Dr. Jason Carter, Head Pastor, Trinity Wellsprings Church, Satellite Beach, FL

Every church in America is now a church re-plant.

Healthy churches will own this hard truth. The churches which ignore this reality will be walking down the path towards a painful decline.

American Christianity has learned numerous lessons during the past 22 months: live stream, zoom meetings, and endless pivots to make worship happen. America has witnessed the further political polarization of our nation, increased tensions about racism, and heightened distrust of institutions which all have meant endless challenges for local churches and her leaders.

Yet the biggest takeaway for most churches regardless of size, denomination, or geographical location has been this: the coronavirus exposed a massive discipleship gap in nearly every church in America.(1) The discipleship gap, in my opinion, is the most pressing problem for leaders to reckon with in today’s world. Over the last 20 years, American churches have mostly majored in “conducting
worship services”. We have hoped (sometimes wistfully) that “discipleship would spontaneously happen” or that “attending a worship service” or “serving on a ministry team” would lead to discipleship. Much of this line of thinking has been exposed to be a pipe dream during the coronavirus.

I believe over the next 10 years, the people who (still) come to church will be disciples. The people in our churches who will come through the pandemic giving sacrificially, serving selflessly, and worshipping robustly despite all the obstacles to church will be the true disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, if we want to re-plant our churches during and after this global pandemic, we need to get back to the life-on-life ministry of making actual disciples of Jesus Christ. How is your church doing this? What flourishing next step are you taking to make actual disciples of Jesus Christ? Gustavo Gutierrez once remarked: “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” Pastors and elders should all be taking a long hard look in the mirror and asking a similar question: “You say you care about discipleship? Then tell me, what are the names (of your disciples)?

If a leader cannot “name names” of specific people she is discipling, then it probably means that discipleship in the way of Jesus is not happening. I realized this was true for my own ministry in the summer of 2021. I preached. I led worship. I led session and staff meetings. I counseled people. I visited the hospital. I put out church fires. I even patted myself on the back after a long and grueling capital campaign. Yet, I was still restless. A few years ago, I had returned from being a missionary-professor at a grassroots seminary in Central Africa and jumped into pastoral ministry in the United States. Yet, I still could not truthfully say: “Here are the people I am pouring my life into” by intentionally trying to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

So, I repented.

In the Fall of 2021, I asked 8 guys (ages 31-44) to be in a D-Group where we are intentionally trying to incubate life-on-life discipleship. Session also agreed that every elder in our church – at least once during a three-year term – will participate in “The Way: Apprenticeship with Jesus”. (2) Presently, we have 15 leaders of the church – from elders to life group leaders to upcoming leaders meeting together. We eat together. We fellowship together. We memorize scripture together. We study together aspects of the Christian Story (Bible), Christian Beliefs (Doctrine), and Christian Formation
(Practices). Every 4 weeks, we discuss a new (which is, in truth, a classically old) spiritual discipline and hold each other accountable for living it out.

The D-Group and The Way are far from perfect. I still wish I had more time to pour deeper into these lives. Yet, my ministry and my life are now more aligned to making actual disciples of Jesus Christ than it was only 7 months ago. (3) Discipleship is a paradox in the local church. Discipleship is central to our calling but one of the hardest things to orchestrate in the life of the church.

The discipleship gap in our churches has been exposed. What are we going to do about it? The more robustly we can connect our church re-planting efforts to making actual disciples of Jesus Christ, the deeper and wider and healthier our churches will be as we launch into the future.

For more information on the discipleship strategy that we’ve implemented at Trinity Wellsprings Church, click on the links about D-Groups or The Way: Apprenticeship with Jesus. 4 D-Groups tackle the “Big 6 Areas” of Discipleship:

  1. Dynamic Doctrines – Transformational Knowledge of Biblical Christianity
  2. Spiritual Practices – Practicing the Faith with Spiritual Disciplines
  3. Biblical Worldview – Interpreting and Applying the Word of God
  4. God-Honoring Family – Marriage/Parenting in the Christian Home
  5. Fruitful Ministry – Service and Discipleship in the Church and World
  6. Cultural Resistance – Thinking Biblically about Cultural Issues

D-Groups and The Way: Apprenticeship with Jesus are based on a central
discipleship truth:

  • Discipleship occurs when lives are shared with Gospel Growth at the center of the relationship. 1 Thess. 2:8 is especially impactful: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”.

The examples of Jesus and Paul are instructive. Jesus had his “beloved disciple” (John), invested heavily in the “inner three” (Peter, James, John) and discipled the twelve personally. All were taught by Jesus (learning), known by Jesus (connected relationally), participated in ministry with Jesus (hands on ministry). The disciples were (1) taught doctrine and spiritual practices by Jesus, (2) experienced life-on-life relationship with Jesus, and (3) had an expectation of present and future ministry as the end goal of their discipleship. Ministry was the final destination of the discipling process, not just “the discipling relationship” and not just “the information” itself.

Paul also had a life-on-life missional discipling relationship with Barnabas and Timothy. In Paul’s central vision for discipleship, Col. 1:28 is key: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ”.

1 According to George Barna in 2011, “Only one out of every five self-identified Christians (21%) believes that spiritual maturity requires a vital connect to a community of faith.” This represents an enormous discipleship gap and a complete departure from the New Testament view of discipleship. How much has this shifted in the last decade?

2 The Way: Apprenticeship with Jesus meets the 1 st , 2 nd , & 3 rd Thursdays of the month for nine months. For elders, this commitment is on top of their responsibilities on session.

3 My life motto: “I exist to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ through preaching, teaching, and living the Word of God. No one can make disciples without first being a disciple.”

Or read more on my “Gospel-Centered Shepherding Blog”: https://www.revdrjasoncarter.com/blog/the-way-and-d-

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