Discipleship in a Changing Culture

The culture keeps changing. If we don’t change how we say things, they won’t hear us.

This is an exciting era of ministry, especially in discipleship. Discipleship is critical, from establishing new believers in the faith to building future leadership. At least three aspects of the culture are cause for a shift in how we develop discipleship.

A culture of consumers

Consumerism continues to be a dominant issue in our culture, in both the secular and Christian world. Whether it is expressed in materialism, accumulation, entertainment or the pursuit of significance, consumerism is ultimately all about me.

Capitalizing on the common dissatisfaction among the people, Jesus has often been presented as the only One who can satisfy. He is the only One, but when He is presented as the fulfillment of our desires in a consumer-minded culture, we further perpetuate the mindset that life is still all about us and our happiness.

The same issue was prevalent in Jesus’ day. Jesus knew the masses followed Him in hope that He would meet their physical needs. When He asked the disciples why they followed Him (John 6), Peter rightly responded, “Because you have the words of eternal life.”

Jesus came to meet our greatest need (eternal life), not to satisfy every desire.

The shift—

We need to shift our teaching to clearly reflect both sides of salvation – the blessings of salvation (Ephesians1) AND His claim on our lives for His purposes. Passages like Matthew 6:24-26, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 and 2 Timothy 1:8-9 must be central to our discipleship.

Jesus satisfies, but it is a result of dying to self and living for Him. Jesus must be viewed as more than a personal accessory in our lives. As young believers process all that God has done for them in the context of His purpose for their lives, it affects the way they follow Christ. It causes a greater responsiveness when He asks for sacrifice, obedience or trust.

A culture of experts

Several years ago I noticed what appeared to be small lightning strikes in my eye. My doctor immediately sent me to an ophthalmologist. Within the hour he sent me down the road to see a retinal specialist and surgery for a severely torn retina. The transfers have continued, to a cataract surgeon and most recently to a glaucoma specialist.

There are good things to be said about specialists, but being an expert on the Christian life is not a requirement for discipleship.

I once asked a 60-year old woman if she would meet with a young woman who had just become a Christian. This dear saint who had sat through 40 years of sermons and women’s Bible studies looked at me with bewilderment and blurted, “What would I tell her?!”

Seasoned believers are far more equipped to disciple others than they realize. Most people are concerned about the study content, having the right answers or just the awkwardness of engaging another person in spiritual things. They are valid concerns, but concerns that can be resolved.

The shift—

We need to shift people’s perception of the role of a discipler. People need to know that they don’t have to be a seminary graduate, pastor or gifted Bible teacher to disciple others. Disciplers need to be growing in their relationship with Jesus and be willing to build a friendship with another person. The discipler usually learns more than the disciple learns.

When I took my kids to check out a potential college, a third or fourth year student at the school met us to provide the school orientation. The dean of students knew far more about the college, but my kids wanted to talk with the student who was living there. The student didn’t know all the answers, but he knew where to find them.

Discipleship in its basic form is really an orientation to kingdom living. We are helping a young believer process what it means to have a relationship with Jesus—His love and forgiveness, grace, confession, Bible study and prayer. We are teaching them to love Jesus.

Steve is a mail carrier in my community. He stopped to talk one day as he noticed I was replacing a garage window. A few weeks later I recognized him at church, which led to frequent Sunday conversations. One day Steve sent me an email: “I want to grow in my faith…would you consider discipling me?”

It quickly became obvious that Steve didn’t need to be discipled; he was capable of discipling others. Steve knew the Scriptures well, walked with God and was hungry to learn. He didn’t recognize what he already knew for ministry. We spent time reorganizing what he knew about growing in Christ, identifying what young believers needed most to become established in their faith. Within weeks Steve was initiating ministry with others at work and in his neighborhood.

Coaching and direction are always helpful to new disciplers. The “how to” discipleship books have excellent insights, but the practical learning accelerates when they are in the actual process of discipling someone else.


A culture of secondhand learners

Never in history have we enjoyed so much access to exceptional Christian teachers, blogs, devotionals, books and videos. The internet provides access to Bible teachers anywhere in the country.

As one discipleship-oriented pastor reflected, we end up marveling at the teacher’s communication skills and conclude that his Biblical insights are better than anything we could discover on our own. They unpack so much depth in the passages that it is much easier to just rely on their studies.

We need variety in our devotional lives, but how much do all these other options replace our personal time with God in the Word? When do we settle for being secondhand learners, relying only on what others process for us?

I have brought home hundreds of photos from Rocky Mountain trips over the years—snow capped peaks, roaring waterfalls, elk herds and scampering chipmunks. The pictures just can’t capture the depth and the magnitude of the panoramic scenes, the wind rushing through the trees or the smell of a late afternoon thunderstorm. You have to go to the mountains for yourself.

The same is true of our personal fellowship with God. Teachers and preachers can take us through the verses, fill in the details and guide us through theological difficulties. They cannot match the richness of meeting personally with God in the pages of His Word where He can address our needs.

The shift—

The shift is to a greater focus on equipping believers to spend personal time with the Lord. Revive the sense of awe of standing before the throne of the God of the universe, with praise and requests. Help people discover the depths of the Word through practical principles for Bible study.

Increasing the ways we equip people to handle the Scriptures will shift them to being firsthand learners. Teach them—

  • Overview. What we read always makes more sense if we know how it all fits together.
  •  Variety. It prevents familiarity and boredom. We need a booklet with 101 ideas from character studies to topical studies.
  •  Basic Bible study principles. Context, observation skills, and application clarify the passages.
  •  Resources. Expose young disciples to a Bible dictionary, a concordance and Bible websites.


Current cultural issues influence the effectiveness of discipleship. Making some shifts in the way we develop discipleship will increase our effectiveness in making disciples.