The Blindspot Of Discipleship (Don’t let your family or institution become an obstacle)

Posted on January 12, 2011


During June of 2010,  I traveled the U.S. on an incredible coast to coast journey from Florida, to North Carolina, and then across the country to California where I stayed for the remainder of my time before driving home. There were several reasons that I embarked on this trip, but the main reason was to hear from the Lord. For me, getting in the car and on the road is a recipe for personal renewal.  He certainly knows how to speak our language!

When I returned from this trip, I knew without a doubt in my mind that the goal for this trip had been accomplished!  I was stunned as the Lord opened my eyes to a ‘blind spot’ in my life that I never knew existed.  What I’m going to discuss with you may be a bit challenging. This article may take a little more time for you to read than normal, but I would strongly urge you not to ignore what I am about to share with you.  I am not overstating when I say that your whole life and ministry may begin to shift as a result of what you are about to read.

Very soon after my trip began, I was blindsided with this re-occurring thought:

Jesus started the only church that exists, and that is why He never asked His disciples to be the head of their own churches.  Jesus did command His followers to make disciples however. This is the essense of the greatest command that Jesus gave His disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 after He rose from the dead.  He has expected me, as a leader, to demonstrate this by example.  This is not something that I can do on my own as an individual, (I have tried), but something an entire local church ccommunity must live out as a thriving community of life on life relationships. We have not done this because we have been preoccupied building organizations and institutions, something He has not commanded church leaders to do.

To be a Christian is to live like Jesus. He is our model. The essence of His command to us is all about making disciples. Simply put, this is the essence of the Christian life. It is impossible to live out the Christian life, and not do the central thing that Jesus commanded us to do. On this trip, the Lord opened my eyes to the fact that I have spent most of my life as a Christian not living like a Christian! My blind spot is that I gave lip service to the concept of discipleship, but never truly understood it. My good friend and fellow illuminate board member, Ken Dillman, has been harping on this for a long time, but I never knew that I never knew what he was truly saying until I took this trip. God was bringing back Ken’s words to me in a whole new way.

Coming away from this trip I am convinced, now more than ever, that a significant part of reforming and purifying the bride of Christ (the church) will be because there will be a reformation of our understanding regarding the nature and function of discipleship. As a graduate of a Christian university with a ministry -theological degree (and as a former pastor of an institutional church) I speak with experience when I say that the western institutional church has little concept and little experience regarding what it means to truly make disciples in the context of intimate and relational community as Jesus demonstrated and the early church lived out.

In my opinion, this problem is rampant in every branch of the church culture from the conservative evangelical stream to the charismatic stream of the church. I have seen it everywhere. Simply put, our misunderstanding of discipleship is an institutional problem, and it is a big one at that! Personally speaking, in the past I was too busy building and trying to maintain control of an institution or ministry to adequately understand and pursue what Jesus truly meant by discipleship and His command to make disciples. It is not enough to just give lip service to this concept of discipleship, and then spend the bulk of our time doing something else in the name of ministry. Making disciples is something that I am commanded to do and I must take it seriously. I am convinced that this ‘blind spot’ in my life is not only a problem in my life, but is a problem with most church leaders as well.

So, are pastors and church leaders the only ones tasked with making disciples?

No! This is a command that Jesus gave to all those who would follow in His footsteps and emulate His life. Hence, this is a command given to all Christians. While pastors and church leaders are not the only ones given this command, they have the opportunity to teach by setting the example.  The best form of communication is demonstration, not just information. This is where most of us have fallen short. Preaching exegetically verse by verse from the Bible means nothing if it is not demonstrated! I am afraid that in our attempt to lead and perform within the institution, many of us have missed out on actually living the Christian life.

Because many of us have been indoctrinated by an institutional mindset, there is a tendency to look at our faith, the scriptures, the church, and Jesus’ commands to us from an institutional vantage point, and from an individualistic mindset.  The church is a community of people and not simply an institution.  Here is my friend Frank Viola’s fine definition of a non-institutional (organic) church community:

By organic church, I mean a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grass roots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering. (Frank Viola)

Failure to understand this is a major reason why we have had a wrong definition of discipleship. Jesus said when a disciple is fully trained; he will be like his master. Not only does Jesus want us to be His disciples (be like Jesus), He has commanded us to make other disciples by teaching others about Himself and His commands (Matthew 28-18-20). We need a picture of what this could look like in our context however. Before I give you a non-institutional (organic) picture of discipleship, (which we badly need), I must share with you some things that discipleship is certainly NOT.

1. Discipleship is not simply a class or seminar.

While information is important, information distribution does not sum up the whole of what Jesus means when He commanded us to make disciples. In the west, a lack of information is not the reason why we do not have many true disciples of Jesus (communities of people who live like Jesus). We have some of the best preachers, theology books, and commentaries available in the world! While good Biblical understanding and information about God is vitally important in regards to making disciples, it certainly must go beyond that. If information were enough, Jesus would simply have held 1.5 hour meetings once a week in which he invited His disciples to come and listen to Him teach and tell stories, or he would have taught a class. Obviously, Jesus did more than this.

2. Discipleship is not simply a weekly lunch or coffee date with someone.

Don’t get me wrong, I love getting together with people and hearing about their lives and struggles. I also love coffee, but if you read the gospels and read about the nature of Jesus’ interaction with His disciples, you will see that Jesus’ effort to make disciples goes way beyond a weekly coffee date or meeting. I have spent years getting together with people over coffee in the name of ‘discipleship’, yet there were whole aspects of my life (and theirs) that we were never able to see. It is easy to project an image for a one hour meeting, but the depths of who you are cannot adequately come out during coffee meetings. If this were enough, Jesus would have simply made sure to have weekly coffee ‘dates’ & meetings with his disciples. Obviously, Jesus did more than this & meant more than this when He commanded us to make disciples.

3. Discipleship is not simply a weekly interrogation session.

I have been apart of weekly ‘accountability’ groups in which hard and very personal questions were asked, and we were encouraged to be open and share our deepest & darkest struggles. While I understand the heart behind these kinds of groups and meetings, more often than not people simply became comfortable sharing their struggles and the groups turned into ‘sin management’ groups.  When people fell back into a cycle of sin and bondage, the blame usually was directed at the group who did not hold them accountable enough.  If interrogation sessions were enough, Jesus would simply have met with his disciples in His office on a regular basis in which He proceeded to ask them tough questions about areas which they knew they needed to improve on. Obviously, Jesus did more than this & meant more than this when He commanded us to make disciples.

4. Discipleship is not a top down master & servant relationship.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had a very top-down understanding of leadership. Their authority came from their titles and offices that they held believing that their authority was a selective authority that was exercised in the absence of the authority of the people they were leading (This misunderstanding of authority is still a major problem in the religious community today as well). Unfortunately, it is also human nature to put our leaders up on pedestals and then give them authority based on this unrealistic view. I have seen this offense committed on a national basis regarding some of our more well known leaders. This offense has also occurred in every local institutional church that I have observed as well. This problem affects many regardless of the size of the institution because the problem is an institutional problem. Top-down leaders carry this very heavy burden and must therefore work very hard at protecting this unrealistic image of themselves knowing their authority comes from their follower’s view of them. By default, this causes the leaders to be separate at the ‘lonely’ top. This segregation of leadership makes true discipleship impossible.

Jesus, however, had a very different understanding of authority. Jesus could have been justified using a ‘top-down’ method of leadership, demanding that His disciples honor His God given authority as the second person of the trinity, and that His disciples serve Him because of that authority. Jesus lived radically different however. He demonstrated what Kingdom leadership and authority looks like so we would have an example to follow. Jesus’ authority came from His Father, and not from people and their opinions. His authority did not come from the numerical size of His ministry as well. Because Jesus’ authority came from His Father, He did not need to get it from dominating others from a top down perspective. He was free to serve others and deal with them as brothers and friends with no strings attached. His love and service to them was not a ploy to get them to come to His weekly meetings or join His organization. He truly loved them. Jesus shared everything with His disciples… His life, His time, His resources, His wisdom, etc…

At the end of the day, Jesus Himself said that He had held nothing back from them. He called them friends. Can you imagine the living God who created the universe calling us friends and sharing the Life of His Father with us? It truly is mindboggling! Jesus’ example of discipleship had never before been seen or commanded. This is why He said that He was giving us a new command. Consider this command that Jesus gave to us:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34).

This is a radical command that serves as the essence of true church life. I am convinced that we must begin to take this command to emulate Jesus seriously. In order to do this, we will need to remove some major obstacles that stand in our way. There is one major obstacle that currently stands in our way that I would like to address here.

The Idolatry of the ‘Nuclear’ family

I am convinced that the American Church’s commitment to the nuclear family (as a separate stand alone unit in society) comes more from the church’s embracing of the American Dream that was largely developed in the 1950’s nuclear era than it does with the New Testament. The concept of ‘nuclear’ family is the concept of the family consisting as a stand alone unit in society. While the church’s commitment to the ‘family’ (meaning nuclear family) may seem good on the surface, it has done much damage to our understanding of the organic nature of church, and prevents us from radically embracing a lifestyle of discipleship and community.

Let me illustrate to you a story that may help clarify what I’m saying. A while back I had the opportunity of attending a pastor’s conference in which a pastor was voicing some of these same concerns about his understanding of the church. He said that he was trained to live a ‘balanced’ life with the correct priorities. Here were the priorities that he was taught to value and prioritize in this order:

1. God

2. Family

3. Church

This pastor went on to say that spending time with God was his first priority, then came the time spent with his wife and kids. He was taught that time with family (Nuclear family) should be a huge priority right after his commitment to spend time with God. (After all, how many times have we heard about the pastor who gave all his time to the ‘church’ *institution* and neglected his family?) If and when these needs were taken care of, he was then allowed to serve the church. This pastor went on to say that by the time that God and family were ‘taken care of’, there wasn’t much left for the church. These three priorities became separate from each other. Then he asked a couple of very profound questions…

”Why can’t God, family, and the church (people) all exist together? Why do they have to be separate?”

This pastor realized that the more he kept his family as a ‘stand alone unit’, the less that his family was in community with others in the church community. In Eastern or Middle Eastern culture, the community has an important role to play in everything, including the raising of children.

The questions astounded me! He was shedding light on a problem that was mainly a problem in the West. In the West, the ‘nuclear’ family unit had become a separate unit by default that existed on its own throughout the week, and then this family unit was taken to the weekly church ‘meeting’ on Sunday morning and maybe one or two other ‘meetings’ throughout the week if they were really committed. The problem is, the more the family attended church ‘meetings’, the harder it was to have any kind of stable home life (protection of the nuclear family as a stand alone unit), and that is why the family mistakenly had to be placed as a priority above the church.

Obviously, this is strictly a Western concept. Because we mistakenly view the church through institutional eyes here in the West, we tend to see church expression largely through a series of meetings (Sunday worship meeting, weekly Bible study meeting, corporate prayer meeting, etc…) Please don’t misunderstand me; attending meetings is not bad itself, but I’m trying to make a point here. People ‘attend’ meetings, but people do not ‘attend’ their home life or ‘attend’ spending time with friends. People simply exist at home & with friends. Your true life is lived in the place where you simply exist. If you’ve ever been to a non-western place in the world, you will know that the small (nuclear) family is not an island unto themselves. Things are much more communal. Extended family and friends are in constant community with each other. They cook and share meals together, drop in and out of their homes, play games together, simply put, they live life together. True life is lived in the place where we simply exist.

We must remember that the concept of ‘church’ as it is described in the New Testament comes from a Middle Eastern culture that values community as a way of life. All we have to do is read Acts 2:42-47 to see a clear demonstration of the church at its purest form. I’m convinced that we must begin to see the church from a Middle Eastern understanding and less from a Western understanding if we are to understand and embrace how God designed the church to operate. If we believe that the church is not a lifeless institution, but a community of people who belong to Jesus, then I would like to ask you these questions:

1. Where do you exist? Where can you simply ‘be’ as a person, and who exists there with you?

2. Why should we keep our church community (people who belong to Jesus) out of the places where we exist and live? What could we be trying to protect?

3. What benefits could there be by letting people into your home life?

4. What benefits could there be by making sure people are being connected relationally to the other members of the local church community?

4. Do you think you should make disciples differently than Jesus did?

Remember, Jesus’ relationship with His disciples did not center around meetings. His ministry was not a 9-5 job. He lived His life and carried out His mission with them. Even though Jesus did not have a home, He did exist with His disciples. The home of the disciples was with Jesus. Like Jesus, your disciples will learn from you by existing with you. True life change is something that is ‘caught’ by demonstration more than ‘taught’ by information. If others are not ‘existing’ with you in the context of the community of believers that you are relationally connected to, then you are not truly making disciples. Again, the term -Christian- means ‘little Christ’ or ‘imitator of Christ.’ If you are not making disciples, are you really living the Christian life?

Let me be clear; the God invented institution of marriage should be defended, but the undue emphasis on the ‘nuclear’ family as a stand alone unit should not be. Your home should be a place that the people in your community are very familiar with. Simply put, you should be very accessible to the people you are shepherding and discipling. If you consider yourself a church leader, then you should be leading the way by example. Like Jesus, the place where you simply ‘exist’ and live life will be the place where your true teaching will occur. Anyone can stand behind a pulpit, teach a class, or put together a Bible study once a week and wax eloquent, but your true teaching will be demonstrated where you exist! If you think you are making disciples and yet these ‘disciples’ are not sitting around your table with you or spending significant time simply existing with you at home and in your community, you are not making disciples as Jesus did.

When I think back to my own life experience, I can see that God was giving me an example of this early in my Christian life. Scott Walden is one of my mentors and is also on the board of directors of illuminate. I remember spending significant amounts of time simply ‘being’ with Scott with no strings attached when I was a new believer. His home became my home, and it seemed that Scott always had time for me. Little did I know that during the regular time I simply spent hanging out with Scott in his home, something profound was happening. Everything that the Lord had taught Scott in his relationship with Jesus was being passed on to me. Today, much of who I am as a follower of Jesus is a result of this period of my life. It is a great picture of discipleship. I am thankful for Scott’s boldness and vulnerability of letting me into the ‘inner circle’ of His life and home.

Remember, making disciples is not a matter of being qualified; it is a matter of obedience. It is simply a matter of passing on the grace of God and the life of the kingdom that we have received. Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that freely we have received, now freely we are to give. To the degree that we have received life and have lived in the kingdom of God will be the degree that we are able to give this life away. I’m afraid that many people will find this kind of a lifestyle too difficult because they have no spiritual life to give away. They are dry on the inside, and can simply express their faith during church meetings only. Living this kind of a community lifestyle will mean we need to be abiding in the vine (John 15) as a way of life.

There is no doubt in my mind that if we take the things that I have brought up here seriously, our entire lifestyle will change. Most people dismiss this radical Jesus lifestyle of discipleship as impossible in 21’st century America, and that is why our understanding of discipleship has been boiled down to classes and meetings. It is time, however, to stop allowing our culture to dictate to us how we live the Christian life. What is needed today is a model of what this looks like in our context. I would contend that it is the job of an entire local the church community to demonstrate discipleship together as a community.  People will learn the teachings and character of Jesus (become a disciple) by being exposed to Jesus through each member of His body.


Thanks so much for taking the time to read and prayerfully consider what I have said. I hope you will stay tuned to the next article in which I will be laying out the next steps my family and I will be taking to implement a lifestyle of true discipleship. In the meantime, it would be good to ask the Lord what He may be trying to communicate to you through this article.

For His glory in the church,

Jamal Jivanjee