I have noticed a curious phenomenon in many contemporary discipleship practices. Discipleship quite rightly involves both the individual and the community, but in current practice we frequently flip the proper place of each. Let me explain.
In the New Testament, we see that discipleship has a communal telos and an individual methodology, by and large. The ultimate aim is not a loose collection of mature individuals, but rather a mature community. So, for example, Paul reminds the church in Ephesus,
In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (2:21-22, emphasis added)
And a bit later in the same letter, he teaches,
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (4:11-13, emphasis added)
In both cases, the ultimate aim is corporate maturity, as the analogies make clear. Paul does not envision a loose collection of holy bricks, but rather a holy temple (composed, undoubtedly, of holy bricks) in which God dwells by his Spirit. Likewise, he sees the purpose of leaders equipping members for works of service as producing not just holy cells or holy body parts, but a holy body, with Christ himself as the Head. The apostle Peter makes a similar point, and even draws on a similar analogy, when he writes,
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you [plural in the Greek] also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)
It seems clear that God’s vision for the church is one of corporate maturity, in which the entire assembly grows in holiness together for the sake of his Name. The communal telos is clear. What about the individual methodology? (A quick aside: By individual, I don’t necessarily mean one-on-one, but life-on-life, which will almost certainly include small, intensely relational discipleship groups.)
We see this most obviously in the ministry of Jesus himself. While Jesus certainly preached to the crowds, the focus of his ministry—and the greatest expenditure of his time and energy—was on the disciples. In Mark’s stunning phrase, “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (3:14). Jesus called men to himself in order that they might simply spend time with him—life-on-life discipleship—knowing that through this experience they would be equipped to continue the apostolic ministry.
Paul conveys a similar approach, though he only hints at it. In reminding the Thessalonians of his ministry there, he says,
For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)
The key phrase for our purposes is “each of you,” which strongly suggests an individual, life-on-life methodology. Again, this is not to say that Paul never preached to the crowds; Acts records many such occasions. However, it seems that the bulk of his ministry—during the “work week,” we might say—took place in his leather-working shop, as individuals or small groups of people would come in to receive training, instruction, and encouragement. We also see Paul’s individual dedication to young men like Timothy and Titus as further evidence of this approach.
So it seems that the New Testament envisions a communal telos achieved primarily through an individual methodology.
I fear that in much of our contemporary practice, however, we flip the two: that is, we have an individual telos achieved through a communal methodology.
Western society is overwhelmingly, and self-evidently individualistic, so it is easy to see how we could unwittingly adopt our culture’s values. Generally speaking, we are concerned about our personal growth in holiness. Pastors routinely ask, “How are you doing in this area?” not “How are we doing in this area?” Rarely does one hear of corporate application in a message. We see this trend especially reflected in our lack of commitment to the local church, and our willingness to switch churches upon the slightest provocation. One of the commonest reasons given for leaving a church and joining another is a desire to “get fed.” In leaving for this reason, however, the church-hopper belies an individual focus, and—quite frankly—an unwillingness to strive for corporate growth. Ephesians 4:16 doesn’t come into play.
We all have a tendency to selfishness (cf. 2 Timothy 3:1), so this phenomenon is unsurprising, even if we need to challenge it more actively in our own lives and in our communities. However, our communal methodology has no such extenuating circumstances. I suspect it is driven by our peculiarly American pragmatism, and our business mindset—streamlining and efficiency—more than any systemic spiritual dearth. Whatever the case, many churches adopt a community-wide, assembly-line approach to discipleship. Rather than a life-on-life approach, we provide a uniform curriculum and depersonalized programs or classes. The large-group setting and impersonal material provides little impetus for true growth, even at the individual level. At its worst, those who complete the class get their certificate of individual achievement and proceed on their merry way, without any thought of how their growth should multiply as they serve within the community.
The New Testament provides a wealth of information and instruction regarding discipleship in the local church, and many have returned to the fount for guidance in this area. I thank God for the revival of life-on-life discipleship happening across our country—and really, across the globe. I hope and pray that many more will choose the hard, slow way of relational disciple-making—the Master’s way—as they strive to become a community growing in maturity to the glory of God.
 I realize, of course, that some people leave because they have striven for corporate change, but have discovered that the leadership of the church is stifling it.