That Time The Discipleship Movement Failed…

-Book Four
-Chapter Five

-After my parents moved our family from Chicago to Michigan in the 1980’s, my parents became involved in a church that was connected to what was nationally known as “The Discipleship Movement” (also called “The Shepherding Movement”).

The Discipleship Movement was an ecumenical group of Christians comprised of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Charismatics, and other Christian denominations, that encouraged older men to take active rolls in the lives of younger men in one-on-one, discipleship-type relationships, and older women with younger women.

It was thought that what was missing in American Christianity was deeper interpersonal relationships among Christians that resulted in a maturation of the church laity.

In many ways the Discipleship Movement contributed positively to a lot of people’s lives; an emphasis was made on living closer together geographically so church families could foster deeper friendships, and so the pastors could better attend to the needs of the people, whether those needs were spiritual, material, etc.

Sadly, by the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Discipleship Movement had begun to unravel as a number of pastors in the movement exerted too much influence in the lives of the people under their care. S. David Moore wrote a great history of the rise and fall of the movement in his book The Shepherding Movement.

I was in elementary school at the time, but I remember the really cool features of the movement as a youth; we lived two doors away from my family’s pastor, and one of the other pastors lived at the end of our street. I can still remember the strong sense of community, friendship, and overall spirit of connection; there was a very real sense of camaraderie and unity that overflowed from many of the congregants.

Sadly, because of the bad apples in the movement, both at our local church, and at the national level, many of the good things that came out of it were overshadowed by the egos and failures of the men who led to its ruin.

Having talked with nearly a hundred people who were involved in the movement over the years, I’ve seen firsthand the hurt and bitterness that live with many of them still to this day. I’ve also talked with many that were deeply touched for the better, and whose lives are still positively effected by the good that came from the type of discipleship they experienced in their younger years.

Although there was a level of naivety on the part of the leaders of the movement when it came to the type of ecumenical relationships they were seeking to form, I still appreciate how they believed it was absolutely vital for Christian relationships to extend beyond denominations.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. Sadly, the modern denominational church has more or less failed at seeking unity with all the Christians in a community. Sunday morning in any local city tends to look like a bunch of warring factions, each who believe their brand of Christianity is the “best” or “right” brand.
Jesus cared quite a bit about the unity of His disciples. A key element in discipleship is building and preserving unity, not creating dissension or disunity. When true discipleship manifests itself to a community, the Holy Spirit will direct a spirit of ecumenical unity; the entire church (comprised of all the Christians) will get together regularly, whether monthly or in regular intervals, to give thanksgiving to God for the blessings He has bestowed upon His church.

In one-on-one relationships, discipleship involves a spirit of unity and commonality; working together towards spiritual maturation, bearing each other’s burdens, and as the writer of Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens irons, so one man sharpens another”.

Real discipleship involves a sense of raw, unpretentious friendship. It involves hanging out together at the expense of our selfish desires; in order to make disciples of all men, as Jesus commanded in the Great Commission, our own self-interest must be put on the back burner. Our lives have become forfeit for the sake of the cross; instead of living for ourselves, and what our self wants, we now live according to the Holy Spirit and for the greater glory of God.

It is common in our day to hear people say, “I just want to be happy”. Such a belief and thought process is at conflict with what occurs in our soul at the foot of the cross. No longer do we live our life for our own selfish-happiness, but we now live in Christ, redeemed to love others before we ever seek to satiate our self.

Sadly, this selfish-happiness that so many people in Western Culture are obsessed, leads to many divorces, broken relationships, bad fathers and mothers, and other terrible consequences. Jesus did not say, “If you feel like you love your spouse, go ahead and love them”, nor did he say, “If you feel like you love your children, go ahead and love them”, quite the contrary! Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full”.

We do not have a choice when it comes to loving our spouses, our children, our families, or fellow Christians, or even our enemies! The burden of being Christian is literally like bearing a cross daily as we are told to, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”.

True discipleship involves a state of sacrificial living that the psychological community will never understand, as if you go to a psychologist they will focus your thoughts on yourself; the exact opposite of what we as Christians have been taught! Instead of focusing on our selfish-happiness or our self interests, we are told to lift up our eyes unto the heavens, to direct our thoughts on things of a higher nature.

True discipleship is a lifestyle that does not fit very well with suburban Christianity and its soccer-mom mentality that places athletics, and family-focused activities as the end-goal of family life. Real discipleship involves Christian families serving their neighbors. Real discipleship involves sacrificing how our self wants to live. Real discipleship means an entire paradigm shift in which our lives become forfeit for Christ.

*Stock image Helena Lopes

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