Our world has developed an obsession with speed and efficiency, and at times, it seems as if everything in life has been affected in one way or another. Major League Baseball instituted an assortment of rules aimed at speeding up games. Fast-food restaurant chains compete to get customers their food as quickly as possible. Businesses regularly push workers to maximize efficiency by completing the same amount of work in less time.
But what happens when our obsession for speed and efficiency becomes the driving force in the way churches and pastors think about and lead discipleship? What might the consequences be when we attempt to do quickly what God intends to do slowly?
The Aim of Discipleship
In the opening chapter of his classic on discipleship, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson writes, “One aspect of world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently.” While Peterson rightfully aims his warning at Christians in general, I wonder if it is possible that as pastors, our conformity to the ways of the world has affected the way we think of and execute discipleship in our churches?
As pastors, our aim in discipleship is to help believers mature in their faith, becoming more and more like Christ in every way. But maturity and Christlikeness do not happen overnight. And to try and rush progress in discipleship can have serious consequences for the people we are called to shepherd.
As many wise and experienced pastors have said before, most pastors overestimate what they can accomplish in five years and underestimate what they can accomplish in twenty. Eager to bring about positive change as fast as possible, it is easy to develop tunnel vision and only see a year or two in the future.
As we plan and develop visions for shepherding our people towards maturity, we search for those magic formulas that will bring men, women, youth, and children along in the faith quickly. We go to conferences and read books and glean ideas from successful pastors down the street, and we apply all that we learn to our own congregations expecting miraculous results, not ever considering that what worked for other churches might have taken decades. In our shortsightedness and impatience, we try to rush what cannot be rushed, often becoming frustrated and disillusioned with the lack of progress we see, or even worse, angry at our people for taking too long to get their act together. We set ourselves and our congregations up for failure by striving after the right goal in the wrong manner.
A Life-Long Process
There is a better way, the biblical way that sees discipleship for what it is: a life-long process of growth. Despite the Israelites seeing the wonders of God firsthand in the exodus, Moses still discipled the stiff-necked people to trust God for the entirety of their trip to the Promised Land. Jesus spent three years teaching twelve disciples how to live as a part of His kingdom, and they still had much to learn after He left them. Paul wrote to Christians he taught years earlier because they continued to sin and listen to false teachers.
A Christian’s journey to becoming more like Christ never stops until we breathe our last breath. That means the pastor’s responsibility of leading discipleship in their church never ends. As Paul writes in Ephesians 4, pastors are set apart by God for “[equipping] the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–13). Regardless of a pastor’s experience, gifting, and charisma, equipping, building up, seeking unity and maturity are not quickly-reached goals. A pastor’s work in discipleship is a long road he leads his people down.
Therefore, rather than looking for quick fixes and shortcuts in spiritual growth, pastors must shepherd their people, knowing that real spiritual growth through discipleship takes time. One “homerun” sermon might not change the course of our people’s lives, but five years of faithfully preaching the whole counsel of God will help them mature more than we might expect. Teaching your church the gospel and how to share it with others might be a frustrating experience at first, but steady encouragement and reinforcement can breed passion, confidence, and growth over the long haul.
The Goal of Discipleship
You might want to throw in the towel as you lead your congregation to live on mission and make disciples. But by persevering and trusting in the power of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, a breakthrough might be right around the corner or ten years ahead. Counseling members through times of suffering and battling sin might seem futile at times. But consistently pointing them to the hope of the gospel and the power of God in their lives can bring peace and freedom over time. If our goal in discipleship is a deeper love for Christ, deeper comprehension of the gospel, a deeper commitment to obedience, and a deeper joy in worship for our people, then it is time we stop relying on short-sighted, quick-fix methods of discipleship and begin to think of it as the long commitment it is.
Leading our churches to become mature disciples is not an easy journey, and it surely is not a quick one. There will be great successes and great failures along the way. There will be times when we rejoice with brothers and sisters in their victories and times when we weep with them in defeats. The road is long; the road is hard. But for pastors, this is the road we are called to travel with those entrusted into our care. Peterson later writes, “Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim.” Let it not be said of our churches that because of trying to cut corners throughout the process of discipleship, our churches are full of immature, shallow disciples. Let us lead our churches along the long road of discipleship.
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 Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 15–16. Emphasis original.
 Ibid., 16.