Moving Beyond Breadth to Depth in Discipleship

Deep discipleship that presses believers into maturity in Christ requires intentionality. We do not drift toward holiness, as I’ve heard it well put. This intentionality must be applied by both the church and individual believers. From both of these perspectives discipleship must be pursued through BOTH breadth and depth. My fear is that too often in our context we settle for more of the former while neglecting the latter. Allow me to explain the difference and why the pursuit of both is so very vital to the health of the church.

When I speak of breadth I am speaking contextually. Think quantity. The breadth of discipleship includes the numbers of opportunities believers have to pursue maturity together. From a church standpoint breadth would include the number of programs or ministries the church organizes and offers to believers to learn and grow together. Certainly the church should offer opportunities for corporate discipleship to take place beyond the weekly worship gathering. But beyond the ministry of the church our western context continually expands the breadth of discipleship opportunities for believers, primarily through various media outlets. Believers today have greater access to an abundance of preaching, podcasts, video clips, soundbites, articles than at any other time in history. This can be a wonderful thing! It can also be a dangerous thing for several reasons, but I only want to highlight one of those dangers here.

When I speak of depth I am speaking relationally and about fitness. Think quality. By quality I am not referring to the nature of the teaching one chooses to receive. By quality I am speaking of the intimate level of relational interaction with others in the Scriptures. I am speaking of the increased personal ownership and struggle to know God through his Word. Depth refers to greater proficiency, or the accumulation of skills in rightly dividing God’s Word. Depth results in the ability to reproduce the truth of God’s Word in the lives of other believers. It results in greater confidence that corresponds to a greater capacity to understand and apply the Word to life.

A distinction that I mention to our students at Westwood often highlights the crucial difference between knowing about God and knowing God. God created us to know him, not just know about him. And this is the danger of greater breadth in discipleship. We live in a world saturated with biblical teaching. With a press of a thumb we can listen messages by some of the greatest preachers. We can scroll through endless lists of podcasts that offer solid doctrinal teaching. We can find a wealth of canned Bible studies on virtually any topic, and many of them include videos of excellent teachers that will lead us through those studies. Our churches offer a plethora of programs.

My fear is that with all of the available breadth in discipleship that it has allowed us to build walls of comfort in our pursuit of Christ that we can point to as “enough” while those walls also blind us from the need for greater depth through deeper intimacy and personal struggle. Don’t get me wrong. Church programs are a good thing, as long as they do fulfill the purpose of pressing believers deeper into Christ. The myriad teaching outlets through media are such a wonderful gift, as long as they offer solid teaching that accords with sound doctrine and exalts Jesus. But here is the inherent danger: comfortable consumerism. We can sit and consume the fruit of deep work and struggle of other teachers.

Greater breadth that neglects increasing depth can negatively shape our posture toward God’s Word. Instead of growing in greater dependence on the Spirit it can cause us to become dependent on a screen, on a pre-packaged material, or on specific teachers. It’s not that those resources are bad for us, per se. We need teaching. We need instruction. But we also need to move deeper into struggling through the text for ourselves. We need to attain the skills of proper biblical interpretation and application. We need to learn the right questions to ask as we seek to know God through his Word for ourselves. We need to attain the ability to take others there and teach them how to do the same. We need to struggle together, seek the Lord together, and search the heart of God in his Word together.

This is a picture of depth. This is the essence of discipleship that is reproductive and kingdom-building. This is the kind of discipleship that presses disciples into dependency on the Lord, into attunement with the Spirit, and into maturity through the edifying struggle of pursuit. This is the type of discipleship that leads disciples to know God, and to know his Word.

In order to lead people into this type of balanced discipleship the church must be careful to press believers into depth through breadth. I am convinced that breadth in discipleship should intentionally carry participants into the depth desired. A church enters into dangerous territory when its breadth neglects depth, or when its discipleship programs allow its members to simply become consumers and never confronted with the cost of greater depth.

In order for individuals to seek this balance they need to be led by the right questions. The question we must guard against is, “What is there for me?” This question will almost always lead us to adopt a consumer posture that, although it may take us a mile wide, will fail to take us to any meaningful depth. For young believers a good question would be, “Who can help me grow in knowing God through his Word?” This is a question that pursues replication from the onset. For a believer who has grown in some measure of depth a good question is, “Who can I bring along so that they may grow in depth as well?” These are questions of intentionality. They are questions that look for the next step with the overall objective of spiritual maturity and reproducible discipleship squarely in focus.

Well-programmed breadth will lead to greater depth. This is the desire for our programs at our local church. But we are realizing that we need to go deeper yet! Folks are able to move from the corporate worship service into one type of small group in Sunday School that models proper Bible study and allows for more interaction together through discussion. Another type of small group through Life Groups offers the opportunity for families to have further interactions with and reflection upon weekly sermons in an effort to consider application to life. Each movement toward more breadth also provides more depth. But Life Groups aren’t enough depth! Ultimately the greatest depth in our community interactions among a very few believers through gender-specific and biblically-centered relationships.

The best way to do this? Follow the Titus 2 model. Older women: look for younger women. Older men: look for younger men.

In these contexts men and women meet together with the pure tools of Word and prayer. It is in these contexts that believers can truly struggle to know God through his Word together. It is in these contexts that believers can practice spiritual disciplines together and press each other more deeply into prayer and dependency on God. It is in these contexts that believers can be most vulnerable and open up about their real life struggles and search together the gospel promises contained in God’s Word.

Are you pursuing God in this way? Are you sacrificing depth for breadth? Are you being led by the wrong questions? Are you content to know about God rather than entering into the personal struggle of truly knowing him? Are you carrying out the vision for the saints of God Paul lays out in Ephesians 4:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all 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, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:11-16

What is the first step you can take toward pursuing that vision in your church? Don’t settle for breadth. Go deep. Instead of looking for another Bible study, podcast, or class, perhaps it’s time to look around and consider who you can invite to go deeper with you in the purity of the Word and prayer. I know that can seem intimidating–maybe even a little scary–but it’s also an opportunity to take God at his Word! When we do that we always come to know just how faithful and good he truly is.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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