Why Discipleship Fails

Michael Zigarelli

Copyright 2009, Christianity9to5.org. All rights reserved.

A guy I read about recently–a pastor–fell into a timeless trap. He’s been pretty happily married for a number of years, he has great kids ranging in age from 5 to 14, and he’s got an attractive, supportive wife. Besides all that, his ministry is going gangbusters–lots of impact, evidence of changing lives, the whole nine.

So it came as a shock to folks when he ‘fessed up to having an affair. It wasn’t so much the “fifteen-years-younger-and-twenty-pounds-lighter-than-my-wife” sort of affair. It was actually more emotional than physical. But what’s the difference? Sin is sin.

Here’s the rub, though. This isn’t just some schlep whose been brainwashed by watching too many episodes of Desperate Housewives. This is a pastor we’re talking about. A teacher. A counselor. A discipler of other Christians. He clearly knows the right thing to do and he makes a living sharing that information with others. When it came right down to it, though, for reasons that are understandable but not justifiable, he made a really bad choice. His knowledge of the right way didn’t protect him from the wrong way. Now his life’s a mess, and so are his family and his ministry.

That’s a sordid story retold everyday everywhere. Seemingly solid Christians–people who know how they’re supposed to live out their faith–fail miserably at living out their faith. They’re ogres at home, they’re dictators at work, they lie when it’s pragmatic, they lust for people and things, they get into all sorts of debt, they indulge gossip, they drive aggressively, they live a prayerless life. Some of them cheat on their spouses, too. And we fellow believers cringe as the world rolls its eyes.

Why does this happen so frequently? Why is it that even when we know what’s right, we often do what’s wrong? A lot of reasons, for sure, but the most basic is this: We never really intended to do what’s right, at least not consistently. Indeed, that’s a personal failure, but it’s also a failure of how we disciple people.

What I mean is this: Consider how we typically train up (i.e., disciple) Christians in the twenty-first century. We give them lots of information about Christian living and then implore them to live up to those standards. We put out countless books, articles, sermons, podcasts, classes, conferences, radio shows and so on, all pointing people toward proper practice as a believer–toward proper behaviors. But then, later, we discover that this was a woefully insufficient approach.

That’s because the practice of Christianity–behaviors like going the extra mile, forgiving people repeatedly, praying for enemies, putting family before work, leading by serving, treating people the way you want to be treated, etc., etc.–should not be our primary focus in discipleship. Teaching people “the right thing to do” should not be our primary focus. Encouraging people to ask “what would Jesus do?” should not be our primary focus. Rather, to disciple someone well is to focus incessantly on transforming their intentions, not their behaviors. The authentic, consistent Christian life begins here, at the beginning of who we are.

This is hardly a new or original idea. William Law said it far more poignantly almost 300 years ago in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: “if you stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the (early) Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.”

That’s hauntingly accurate. Our major problem as Christians is not lack of knowledge about what to do, it’s the intention to do it. We have plenty of knowledge. We know the right behaviors. We know we’re supposed to be loving, compassionate, humble, merciful, gentle, self-controlled, faithful to God”¦and spouse. But knowledge minus intention equals hypocrisy. Just ask the pastor. He had all the knowledge in the world and that couldn’t save him. He failed because he stopped intending to succeed.

There’s an imperative lesson here for churches, for Christian schools and universities, for parents, for small group leaders, and for anyone else entrusted by God to disciple others: The foundation of our failure is foolish intent. Whether we’re discipling our kids or our friends or our students or our congregation or whomever, we should avoid the common error of making right behaviors our focal point. That’s as powerless as treating cancer with a “get well soon” card. Instead, we first have to administer chemo for their character–we have to help them kill off malignant intentions so that in their place can grow the healthy intention to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.

How to do that is the subject of innumerable resources. I’d recommend starting with almost anything from Dallas Willard, but in particular The Spirit of the Disciplines, Renovation of the Heart, and chapter 9 from The Divine Conspiracy, a meaty and profound chapter called “A Curriculum for Christlikeness.” You might also consider Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline to better understand how we build and sustain the intention to be a disciple, as well as the time-honored works of the shoulders he stands on–people like Thomas à Kempis, George Fox, William Law, Ignatius of Loyola, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A.W. Tozer, and John Wesley.

There’s far too much at stake to be cavalier about this. Too many of us are providing destinations without directions, forming ideals without forming intentions, discipling the head without discipling the heart. Remember, it was Jesus himself who indicated the proper order for discipling people: He said “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). And Solomon said it centuries earlier, as well: “Above all else guard your heart”–the innermost core of who you are–“for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

Our discipleship efforts fail when we get this backward, when we emphasize surface-level, behavior-modification issues. Instead, our target is the person’s heart, their character, their relation to God: Our target is their intention to live faithfully. Right behaviors will then follow more naturally.

If we can get that straight in our churches and Christian schools and families, we’ll hear a lot fewer stories about Christians who know right but do wrong.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of Christianity9to5.org.