I was wrong.
Four years ago, I wrote that the biggest barrier to discipleship was busyness, but it’s not true now, and honestly, it doesn’t look like it was true then either.
At the time, I quoted from Barna’s recently published “The State of Discipleship” study in which pastors, laity, and “exemplars” (seminary professors, discipleship leaders, academics, etc.) all agreed that “general busyness of life” was the biggest barrier to discipleship—and It wasn’t even close! The study confirmed what we all “knew” about discipleship—in sum, “ain’t nobody got time for that!” We believed that if only we weren’t so busy, then we would be more devoted to being and making disciples.
It turns out that was a lie. Don’t get me wrong, in the pre-COVID world, we were busy. We tried to juggle work, family, and social commitments. We packed each day to the brim as we ran from one activity to another; work, practices, studies, and small groups. Margin was foreign and slowness was best kept to small doses.
Truth, like music, is drowned out by noise. COVID showed us that busyness was the noise drowning out the signal. When the pandemic hit, life slowed down to a crawl. For months our favorite distractions were deactivated. We stopped going out. Parents didn’t run their kids to and from practice, fans couldn’t watch or follow live sports, and clubs of all kinds stopped gathering. We were given a time refund and instead of investing it towards the kingdom, we witnessed people everywhere—and in the mirror—spending it on distraction.
We learned that our schedules were the symptom, not the problem. So if busyness wasn’t (and isn’t) the problem, what was? What is the biggest obstacle to discipleship?
The biggest obstacle to making disciples is the disease of indifference. It turns out that collectively, we just don’t care much about knowing Christ or making Him known. We are far more interested in Netflix, sports, Candy Crush, and TikTok than in God and our Kingdom calling.
Our disease of indifference is far scarier than the distraction of busyness. Distraction contaminates us from the outside in, but diseases are in us. They are part of us and the cure is more complicated than tuning out or turning away. Diseases require invasive cures that come with side effects and significant costs.
The disease of indifference demands our attention because it threatens the very existence of the church. The church will continue to decline until we develop cultures of disciples who are dedicated, not distracted and not diseased.
The first step in treating the disease of indifference is to admit it.
Four years ago we were too busy to engage disciple making. Today, most pastors and church leaders say they are too tired. It’s true. We’re collectively tired. We are dealing with a pandemic. We are fighting to understand and appropriately fight against systematic racism inside and outside the church. But to believe that these are keeping us from making disciples is simply replacing one excuse with another. We weren’t too tired before COVID and we aren’t too busy now, yet our misaligned priorities remain.
Second, we need collective repentance.
As we admit the reality of what’s true within us, we must repent. This requires a movement away from the idols and towards Jesus and the full life He offers. We can’t embrace just the life-giving relationship He offers, but we must also embrace the mission to which He’s called us.
Third, we need to learn how to rest.
If you lie to yourself long enough, then that lie becomes your “truth.” We are tired. Everyone gets tired and taking time to rest is part of a disciple’s life, but if you’re always too tired to engage the mission, then something else is happening. Lately, pastors are struggling to find disciples who aren’t too tired to engage the mission.
American culture is designed to distract, to keep our attention shifting from one thing to another. Not only is it unhealthy for our brains, but it hinders our ability to relax and recharge. Vibrant disciples have learned to disconnect from technology and distraction in order to plug into disciplines such as silence, prayer, and face to face relationships can restore reserves that distraction depletes.
Lastly, we need to walk by faith, not by sight (or feeling).
Reproducing disciples refuel and then move out in faith that God will provide (Is. 41:10). There’s an expectant quality to their faith. They live into what they know God has already called them to, rather than pulling back from a commitment because they feel tired, unprepared, or unable. In this way, they can minister out of weakness and weariness. On the other hand, “almost disciple makers” commit to training or discipling but pull out when they feel stretched. Little do they know that the stretch is where the strength of Christ is. The stretch is where the growth happens!
The lenses of a pandemic help us see what’s really true. What’s truly life-giving? Where do we turn in times of stress and uncertainty? Most of us don’t have time for discipleship because we don’t want to have time for it. Most are distracted by choice. Frenetic movement prevents a sober judgment.
To put it bluntly, we must move from diseased, distracted disciples to dedicated disciples. If we don’t then we can expect more of the same.
Our churches will continue to decline.
Our children will continue to see no difference in the lives of Christians and the lives of skeptics.
Our lives will continue to be marked by a lack of depth and purpose.
And worst of all, we will lose the witness and the wholeness of all that Jesus offers at the cross.
By Justin Gravitt. Used with permission.