Shallow discipleship has worsened and deepened over the years. When I first came to faith forty-five years ago, a popular phrase used to describe the church was that we were one mile wide and one inch deep. Now, I would adjust it to say we are one mile wide and less than half an inch deep.
The question is: What are the beneath-the-surface failures that undermine deep discipleship and keep people from becoming spiritually mature?
Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve had a chance to reflect long and hard on this question and on the discipleship systems that have kept people immature for so long.
In the process, I’ve become convinced that implementing a robust and in-depth discipleship for our people requires that we address at least four fundamental failures:
- We tolerate emotional immaturity.
- We emphasize doing for God over being with God.
- We ignore the treasures of church history.
- We define success wrongly.
Failure 1: We Tolerate Emotional Immaturity
Over time, our expectations of what it means to be “spiritual” have blurred to the point that we have grown blind to many glaring inconsistencies. For example, we have learned to accept that:
- You can function as a leader and yet be unteachable, insecure, and defensive.
- You can quote the Bible with ease and still be unaware of your reactivity.
- You can lead people “for God,” when, in reality, your primary motive is an unhealthy need to be admired by others.
All of these are examples of emotional immaturity in action, and yet we don’t see them as the glaring contradictions they are. Where did we get the idea that it’s possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature? Didn’t Jesus clearly model and teach that our love for God was measured by the degree to which we love others.
Unfortunately, that kind of discipleship system was missing in my early discipleship and leadership development. The failure to measure my love of God by my love of others severely limited my spiritual and emotional growth for the first seventeen years of my Christian life.
The churches that shaped me were so emphatic on the sinfulness of my heart and emotions, I felt guilty about allowing myself to feel. I even wondered if I might be betraying the faith. But what I later discovered was that what I was actually betraying were the unbiblical beliefs the church had developed about emotions.
I regarded difficult feelings such as anger, fear, or depression as anti-God and avoided them.
In fact, the Jesus I worshiped was very much God and very little a human being. I somehow missed the stories that revealed how Jesus freely expressed his emotions without shame. He shed tears (Luke 19:41). He grieved (Mark 14:34). He was angry (Mark 3:5). He felt compassion (Luke 7:13). He showed astonishment and wonder (Luke 7:9).
It didn’t matter how many books I read or seminars I attended. It didn’t matter how many years passed, whether seventeen or another fifty. I would remain an emotional infant until I acknowledged the emotional part of God’s image in me. The spiritual foundation on which I had built my life, and had taught others, was cracked.
Failure 2: We Emphasize Doing for God over Being with God
Some of us are actually addicted—not to drugs or alcohol, but to the adrenaline rush of doing.
We might read about the need to rest and recharge, but we fear how many things might fall apart if we did. So we just keep going. And in this hurried and exhausted state, we have little time or energy left to invest in our relationship with God, ourselves, or others. As a result, the only thing we have to give away to those we lead is our shallow discipleship.
This was how things were in my early years as a leader. I was overloaded with too much to do in too little time. Aside from message preparation, I took little time for reflection on Scripture, or for spending time in silence and stillness with God. Being with Jesus to simply enjoy him, apart from the purpose of serving other people, was a luxury I felt I could not afford.
Not only was my ability to be with Jesus compromised, so was my ability to be with myself and others. Think about it: How could I be in communion with other people when I wasn’t in communion with myself? How could I be in a healthy relationship with others when I wasn’t in a healthy relationship with myself?
When we disciple or lead others, we essentially give away who we are—specifically, who we are in God. We give who we are on the inside, we give our presence, we give our journey with Jesus. This means we can give away only what we possess, which is the life we actually live each day. How could it be any other way?
So what is it that we have to give away?
The answer for many of us is, not much. Work for God that is not nourished by a deep interior life with God will eventually deteriorate—and us with it. Over time our sense of worth and validation gradually shifts from a grounding in God’s love to the success or failure of our ministry work and performance. And that’s when the peace, the clarity, and the spaciousness of our life with Christ slowly disappears.
Failure 3: We Ignore the Treasures of Church History
Ignorance in any form—whether it be about finances, health, or any other number of things—has the potential to exact a heavy toll in our lives. This is nowhere more true than in our understanding of church history.
If we are willing to allow our misconceptions to be corrected, it will “shift the world” as we know it, and move our churches forward in groundbreaking ways.
The following are three truths we must embrace:
- We Are One Stream within the Larger River of God
We need to get back to our roots—not just our roots as evangelicals but our roots as part of the global and historical body of Christ. This requires an openness to learning from Christians throughout the history of the church as well as from around the world who may be very different from ourselves. And we can do so without losing the distinctives and gifts that our own tradition.
- We Are One Global Church with Three Branches
There are three main branches of the Christian church in the world today—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. However, for the first 1,054 years of Christendom, there was only one church. And those years of our history belong to all of us.
I meet many Christians who ignore this history, acting as if the church somehow leapt straight from the book of Acts to the Protestant Reformation.
We forget that the Protestant tradition is not the whole church. True believers are those who have a living relationship with Jesus Christ, trusting that he died for our sins and rose again to give us new life. They do not have to attend our church to have an authentic faith.
- We Are One Movement with Our Own Dirty Laundry and Blind Spots
When I was in seminary, my classmates and I were taught church history that emphasized the problems and failures of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. In the process, we failed to reckon with our own dirty laundry.
Here are just a few examples.
- Martin Luther intensely disliked Jews and wrote essays against them that were later used by the Nazis to justify antisemitism.
- Ulrich Zwingli, a Reformation pastor and theologian, condoned drowning of Anabaptists because they believed in baptism by immersion.
- Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were both slaveholders.
- The great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Azusa Street Revival (1906) in Los Angeles split terribly over race.
The bad fruit of continuous scandals in our day indicates that something is profoundly wrong with the roots of our discipleship. One key contributor is the isolation of our local churches, denominations, and movements. We are willfully and needlessly cut off from our rich history and the wisdom of the wider church.
When God looks at his church in the world, he doesn’t see denominations, much less thousands of local churches fractured by a host of theological divisions. He sees one church that spans continents, transcends cultures, and has a long and rich history.
If we are going to make disciples of Jesus who are healthy and whole, we must actively seek to learn from both this history and from Christians very different than us.
Failure 4: We Define Success Wrongly
For most of us, it is an absolute value—bigger is always better. We measure our success by the numbers, and bigger is always the goal. If our numbers are increasing with more people participating in our ministry, we feel great and deem our efforts a success. If the numbers are decreasing, we feel despondent and consider our efforts a failure.
You may be asking: “If success by the numbers isn’t necessarily success, what is?”
Success, according to Scripture, is becoming the person God calls you to become, and doing what God calls you to do–in his way, and according to his timetable. What this means is that it is possible for a ministry or organization to be growing numerically and yet actually failing. And that your ministry and numbers may be declining and yet actually be succeeding!
All numerical markers—increased attendance, bigger and better programs, a larger budget—must take a backseat to listening to Jesus. Jesus calls us to abide and abound in him (John 15:1–8). What this abiding and abounding looks like will differ depending on our unique leadership callings.
Let’s circle back to my opening question: What are the beneath-the-surface failures that undermine deep discipleship and keep people from becoming spiritually mature? I’ve noted four failures:
- We tolerate emotional immaturity
- We choose to do for God rather than be with God
- We ignore the treasures of church history; and
- We define success wrongly.
Let’s begin by addressing these failures in our own lives first, then in our equipping of others, and finally, in creating healthy, biblical communities that can provide a context for serious discipleship.
This article is adapted from Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation (Zondervan, 2021). www.emotionallyhealthy.org
If you want to dive deeper into emotionally healthy discipleship, join Pete Scazzero and Drew Hyun in a FREE webinar on Thursday, April 1 at 11:00 a.m. ET.
About the Author
Peter Scazzero, along with his wife, Geri, are the founders of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, a groundbreaking ministry that moves the church forward by slowing the church down in order to multiply deeply changed leaders and disciples. This journey began when Pete founded New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, a large, multiracial church with more than seventy-three countries represented –where he served as the Senior Pastor for twenty-six years.
Pete hosts the top ranked Emotionally Healthy Leader podcast and is the author of a number of bestselling books, including The Emotionally Healthy Leader and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He is also the author of The Emotionally Healthy Discipleship Course (Part 1 and 2) that has transformed tens of thousands of lives around the world. For more information, visit emotionallyhealthy.org or connect with Pete on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram @petescazzero.