Guest editorial: The myth of partial discipleship

(Photo: “Master Gone Away” by Mark Ittleman / CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

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Every church has a few persistent traditions and myths that just will not die. Some are unique to a particular church, like these I’ve encountered:BillWilson 130Bill Wilson

  • “Our youth group only goes on retreats to Happy Valley Camp. All other options are inferior.”
  • “We only do Habitat projects one week a year and always in another state. Never locally.”
  • “We remain seated on the second hymn. Always.”
  • “The pastor stands at the left front door after worship. No exceptions.”
  • “The choir always sings the benediction.”

 Other myths are widespread and widely held:

  • “Only visits from the pastor count when I’m in the hospital.”
  • “Only young pastors can attract young families.”
  • “Old churches cannot thrive.”
  • “A changing neighborhood is a problem, not an opportunity.”
  • “My favorite style of music is best, and all others are inferior.”
  • “What I read on Facebook is more trustworthy than what my pastor says.”
  • “We will be fine as long as a small handful of ministers and lay persons take seriously the work and mission of the church. The rest of us can coast.”

That last one seldom is spoken, but it has taken root and runs deep in the psyche of most churches. One of my persistent messages to congregations is the day of only a handful of people doing the work of the church is over. If your church is to survive and thrive in the coming years, all those who claim the name of Christ will need to move from the ranks of those “being served” to those “serving.”

No opting out

I recently heard a fine sermon from the familiar text in Matthew 5 in which Jesus declares his disciples are both salt and light. The preacher made the point that Jesus stated this as a given fact: You are salt and light, as though there is no opting in or opting out of that role.

In other words, whoever you are, doing whatever you do wherever you do it, you are salt and light as a follower of Christ. There are no appeals in our churches to go on “salt and light” mission trips; everyone already is on their own mission trip through life. Our mission is to avoid losing our saltiness or succumbing to the temptation to hide our light. The seasoning/preserving and the illumination of our life is why we were created and wired and gifted in our own unique fashion.

Thus, vibrant churches always are marked by widespread recognition from laity and clergy alike that we all are to be about the business of bringing the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven. No bystanders, no spectators, no nonparticipants. You are salt and light as part of your very being.


A few years ago, I had a life-changing encounter at the dinner table of a young pastor in Hungary. I was preaching that Friday evening at his church and was enjoying a meal with him and his family prior to the service.

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I asked: “How many people are members of your congregation?”

“Fifty-six” was his reply.   

“And how many of them attend worship each week?”

“Fifty-six” was his answer, and he looked a bit puzzled by my question.

“Oh,” I said. “How about your weekly prayer gathering?”

“Fifty-six” he said, looking genuinely perplexed.

Finally, I said: “And I suppose those 56 and their friends will be here tonight?”

“But of course!  Why do you ask me this?!”

I simply said: “It is not that way where I come from.”

Sure enough, that evening, I preached to 75 of the most engaged people I ever have met.  When I came home, I did so with a much clearer idea of what a healthy church in a post-Christian culture looks like.

Partial discipleship

Where did the myth of partial discipleship come from? Aren’t we ready for that to die? When did we give up on the idea that we are salt and light, at all times and in all places? How do we come to appreciate that being salt and light is not a special program or reserved for only the ordained or the hyper-spiritual. How do we make being salt and light our calling and our destiny?

When a congregation embraces a healthy vision of their future, it nearly always recognizes the destructive atrophy that has enveloped our discipleship practices. It is such a pleasure to watch as they awaken to the radical call of Jesus to live out our faith in a seamless life of vocation, family, relationships and faith.

I am blessed to get to see churches come to life as men and women, boys and girls transform their community by spreading the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:16) in their wake.

Salt, light, aroma. If we are to survive and thrive, that is who we must be.

Bill Wilson is director of the Center for Healthy Churches.

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