The Relational Disciple

joelI’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately about how God uses community to shape followers of Jesus. That’s the theme of my book The Relational rdDisciple, which is set to see daylight in October 2009.

In Relational Disciple, I contrast the way we do discipleship in the west (individualistic approach) with the way Jesus discipled people (though accountability relationships).

While growing as a believer I attended a large, well-known church in the southern California area. One of the attractive features of this church was anonymity. The church’s philosophy was to make it easy for people to come, leave, give, or not to give. People flocked to the church for the pastoral teaching, but everything depended on whether the individual attendee was able to personally apply the teaching. Thankfully, God gave me the grace to apply the teaching and follow Jesus. Many weren’t so fortunate and fell away. Today, many churches use the same philosophy of anonymity to grow their churches.

Jesus discipled people differently. Take the first twelve disciples of Christ. They lived, walked, and ate with Jesus for three full years. Jesus taught them through parables and real-life object lessons–not primarily in the large group setting. The early church followed the same example. They applied the apostles teaching from house to house. And when they could no longer hear the apostle’s teaching openly, they only met from house to house.

The private, individualized form of discipleship practiced in the west is now having disastrous consequences (North America, Europe, Australia). All three continents are leading the world in negative church growth.

Christ’s plan was discipleship through accountability at a smaller group level. Look at the one-another’s of Scripture, the example of the Trinity, and the witness of church history–starting with Jesus and the twelve. In my upcoming book I will talk about how discipleship must start at the nuclear family level (if relational discipleship doesn’t happen there, everything else will implode). And of course I highlight the cell, the local church, and the church scattered in mission.

I believe Christ is calling His church back to relational discipleship.


Joel Comiskey

14 thoughts on “The Relational Disciple

  • I can’t wait to read your book. I applaud your efforts to help pastors and churches see the need for a highly relational discipleship process that mirrors what Jesus did with his disciples, who became world changers.

  • I have asked people I know why they attend one of the fastest growing churches in the North Texas region. One of the top reasons given is because the large crowd permits them to remain anonymous.

    How ironic! One of the top reasons Americans give for attending the fastest growing churches in the US of A is “anonymity” when one of the most basic needs in every person’s life is the need for authentic relationships and for belonging in community.

    A truly balanced church is one that is large enough to celebrate [ie; congregation] while remaining small enough to care [ie; cells]. Yes, everything revolves around relationships; everything!

  • Sometimes I talk to people who are taking a break from ‘busyness’ (they call it ministry) and they sort of go and park in a big church (big enough that no one notices them and tries to sign them up for more busyness).. What that means is that they just attend church on a sunday, enjoy the sermons and recover from all the busyitis they have been suffering from in their previous church context. Kind of a crazy situation I say. Anonyminity is often a cure for being burned out. Treating the symptom instead of dealing with the root cause of the problem (which is being busy instead of relating).

  • Another take on “anonymity”…

    In our cell-based church, we have had two young children (7 & 9 yrs old) attending our church without their parents for almost a year. Then, about 3 months ago their mother started attending and became very active in both cell and celebration but her husband refused to join her and their children.

    His wife has shared with us that he has told her he won’t attend our church because, since we don’t do ‘Sunday School’, “We are not a ‘real church’. His most recent remark for not wanting to attend cell meetings is that he doesn’t want anyone ‘sticking their nose is his business’.

    I (as well as everyone who lives within ear-shout of their house) know this man has major anger issues and recently his wife told us she had to cancel the Internet service because of his addiction to pornography.

    Then, she and her children did not attend celebration service last Sunday. In a follow-up visit we have learned that her husband said the ONLY way he will agree to ‘go to church’ is for the family to agree to attend the church in which he ‘grew up in’. (I wanted to pull a Dr. Phil and ask him, “So how’s that working for you?” but didn’t).

    She has reluctantly agreed and so last Sunday they traveled 60 miles (one way) to attend a traditional church where, as she reported, they were the youngest family in attendance (the youngest person their was in their 60’s) and one of the older women has promised that if they return she’ll start a Sunday School class for the children and teach them two of the Ten Commandments each week for the next five weeks.

    Mom is miserable. Dad is ‘happy’ with his ‘real church’. And why shouldn’t he be? With no no threat of accountability, being that the church is an hour’s drive away, he can continue cursing his wife and children and never have to confess his pornography addiction. This whole scenerio reeks of the anonymity that exists even in small traditional churches!

  • I’m not sure it’s an unwise strategy to allow anonymity in a large group environment of a program based church. Let’s not forget that the structure and philosophy of a program based ministry is differently then a cell-based ministry. If one of their primary means of getting unchurched folks introduced to ‘church’ is having a Sunday AM service where they feel comfortable, then allowing people to be invisible until they are ready for a next steps seems like a good approach to me.

    Another fast growing mega-church I know of uses this approach but they make sure it is very clear what the next step are for the anonymous attender. And, by the way, everything this church does aims to get people into small groups. In talking to one of the leaders once, they compared first-time guests at a church service to walking onto a used car lot – your defenses go up the minute a person in a suit approaches you. They have found that allowing anonymity has been very effective.

    In my own church, I hope people come to a service because they have been invited by a friend who already attends. But most of our first time guest show up because they moved into town and saw our website.

  • Ben,

    I believe you are right-on about ‘allowing anonymity in a large group environment’. In our church system we have identified the two-fold purpose of the Sunday morning congregational gathering to be worship and biblical instruction; whereas ‘worship’ is man talking to God and biblical ‘instruction’ is God talking to man through His Word.

    So yes, you’re ‘right-on’ about providing opportunity for anonymity in the congregational meeting. Afterall, in the corporate congregational setting, the time for ‘worship’ and receiving biblical ‘instruction’ is intended to be a personal time focused on talking to and hearing from God and most definitely NOT the time to be distracted by others or concerned about what others may be thinking about you.

  • Ben is missing the point, and maybe Rick is as well. Joel said – Christ’s plan was discipleship through accountability at a smaller group level. (See the blog entry) I don’t think that hanging out with a large group of Christians once a week ‘anonymously’ is what ‘church’ is meant to be. It’s pseudo church. I don’t like what the program based church is doing in Ben’s example. I don’t like what the mega church Ben mentioned is doing either, trying to attract people to a Sunday service. That’s not optimal. It’s back to front. I want to attract people to church through the cells. Through people. Through relationship. Then when the cells gather in a Congregational setting those people are already in relationship (and heading towards accountability). Joel isn’t talking about something that you bolt on to a traditional church setting, he’s talking about a different way of doing church altogether.

  • Thanks, Iain for that clarification. Actually, the church mentioned in my example was more of a BIBLE church that taught the WORD in a large setting and then hoped people would be discipled on their own through an “individual” relationship. My point was that many, many do not–and increasingly so.

    And yes, my blog was trying to contrast the New Testament way of making disciples with our western individualistic approach.

    With regard to anonymity as a strategy (what Ben mentioned), I don’t agree with using anonymity as a key strategy. I’m referring to the crowd to core approach. Some teach that you first must have a crowd and then you try to get to the core. Thus, to plant a church you must have someone who can attract and sustain a crowd. I have problems with this. First, it rules out the vast majority of church planters because the majority simply lack the charisma to attract and hold large crowds. Second, it projects a distorted definition of a church (an anonymous crowd). Third, I’ve noticed that “crowd oriented churches” expend most of their energy trying to keep the event attractive each Sunday.

    I promote cell driven church which is relationally oriented.

    HOWEVER, please hear my heart. I have found that ministry in the west is very hard. I rejoice in the growth of Christ’s church, wherever it may be found. And I’ll be the first to admit that I need help because I desire to see far more and better disciples than I’m currently seeing.

  • Joel,

    You wrote, ‘I don’t agree with using anonymity as a key strategy. I’m referring to the crowd to core approach.’

    Neither do I but unfortunately there is truth to the ideal of ‘crowds attracting crowds’. And, as with you and even more importantly, as with Jesus, I have no desire to spend my life simply entertaining crowds. And so, we use a dual approach in our cell-based church.

    We do have a solid core. These people are easy to identify. They are the ones who ‘actively participate’ in cell and are present in celebration services. And we also have the crowd. Again easy to identify. These are the folks who do the ‘Sunday-morning-only-go-to-meeting-thingy’.

    Our core members understand that it is important that they are present during celebration services, of course for many reasons, but in the context of this discussion — so that when the Sunday visitors/guest arrive, they can ‘blend’ in a crowd setting and remain somewhat anonymous while ‘checking us out’.

    However, and now I’m referring to the ‘crowd-to-core’ approach, in our cell-based church we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone who in our opinion is in conflict with the structure and strategy of our cell-based church system. In other words, we insist upon ‘active participation’ in cell so much so that ONLY those who are connected with a cell are identified as ‘members’ of our church.

    And so we permit those within the crowd to ‘check us out’ for a brief period and if they haven’t connected with a cell within about 4 weeks, we lovingly yet firmly pull them aside and instruct them to either climb aboard the vision God has given for the structure and strategy of our cell-based church system OR to continue in their search for a church that best fits their definition of ‘church’.

    I once heard Brother Larrt Stockstill, pastor of Bethany World Prayer Center, say (and I wholeheartedly agree), “We need not be as concerned about those who leave as we should be about those who need to leave but refuse to do so.” We have discovered that there are plenty of neighboring churches who will gladly accept such ‘Sunday-morning-only-go-to-meeting-thingy’ folks and add such folks to their membership rolls.

  • It’s good to be in the discussion. I would think that most of us find ourselves here is because we believe that the Western Traditional model of ministry is not cutting it. I wasn’t trying to make the point that visitor anonymity is a good strategy overall. Church leaders who have decided to pursue ministry using the traditional Sunday morning large group approach may find anonymity an effective way to bring newcomers and/or non-christians into their congregation.

    Personally, I agree with what you are all saying. I do believe we have it backwards. I think that our resources are better spent on reaching people through one on one relationships in the lives of believers. I think the large group should exist to support small group communities.

    Steve Cordle’s church seems to be a successful hybrid of a cell/traditional model. From what I understand, their small groups and large group are both front doors to their church. I’d be interested to know how they handle the anonymous visitor and get them assimilated into group life.

    I would also recommend Ralph Neighbour Jr.’s new book “Christ’s Basic Bodies” for a fresh exploration of God’s original plan for the church “ekklesia” to exist in small group communities.

  • Yes, good discussion. And Rick, your point is well taken about allowing a visitor to check out a service without OVERLOADING him or her. I’ve had to learn that more recently.

    And it is true, Ben, as you mentioned, that Steve Cordle and Jim Wall (Western Branch in Virigina) both have more seeker oriented worship services COMBINED with excellent cell structures. And that’s why I’m not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, both Cordle and Wall transitioned to the cell church strategy AFTER they realized that a seeker/anoymous approach was simply not sufficient.

    I could go on about this, but today is my coaching day, so I better prepare. . .

  • Joel,

    I have also had to back-off so not to OVERLOAD people with the cell-based vision for our church. This is a very difficult thing for us ‘primary-vision-carriers’ to do! I’m learning this to be (for me) an aspect of the ‘dying-to-self’ we were presented with at the symposium and letting God be God.

    On the one hand, I absolutely refuse to pastor a church that looks like every other church in the US of A and on the other hand wanting to reach as many people as possible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hence, the permiting of ‘anonymity’ for about 4 visits to our Celebration services before informing folks they either climb aboard or continue their search for a church that best fits their definition of ‘church’.

    P.S. Since I know most pastors in the area, I’ll even refer them to that church that best fits their definition of ‘church’.

  • Greetings from England,

    From Pittsburgh, PA but have been in England for 18 years. No idea what works in the USA but I was listening to a Podcast with Francis Chan. and he said that he has a desire to get the church back in the home otherwise he went on to say that if we don’t move the church to the home then we forfeit the cities because the scale of an operation that they need to finance a church of 1,000 is too high. It is the Catalyst podcast from March 13, 2009. Fascinating. As for what works in England, not much as we now have more Muslims in Mosques than Anglicans in church.


  • Yes, get back to the homes. I’m in agreement. Your last sentence caught my attention: “As for what works in England, not much as we now have more Muslims in Mosques than Anglicans in church.” Wooo, that’s loaded. I feel for you guys. Let’s pray for one another!

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