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“Our discipleship is not robust enough to handle the trials of a pandemic and the realities of racial struggle.” 

Over and over, I hear pastors and church leaders lament that we did not make disciples for such a time as this. Our discipleship was thin. We thought a worship service a week was enough to shape people who could handle the hard days. We assumed that people were growing deep in Jesus, but it was veneer discipleship that reality has scratched through.

Making disciples is never easy but always necessary. What can we learn right now to make disciples who can handle both these days, and what are sure to be challenging days ahead?

To help answer that question, I had a conversation with some of the leadership team of City Church in Compton, California. Viviana Escobar, with her husband, serve as Spanish speaking pastors. Barry Cunnigan is a church leader and teacher. Pat Dirkse serves with his wife Julie as lead pastors of City Church.

The conversation was wonderful, hope-filled, and insightful on wise ways to make disciples. Below is a summary of our discussion.

We often hear about personal discipleship, but I’m wondering what does a community of faith look like that’s committed to discipleship?

Viviana: We focus on the Greek word “oikos”, family. It is family on mission-what does that mean for our community? Family opens their lives and seeks how to follow Christ. How can we be a family that can be replicated anywhere we go in our community? 

Pat: Family on mission gets to feel like a mutual challenge. There’s a level of access where you get to challenge people because you get to see everyday living, which is beyond a classroom or a traditional learning setting. Many people get to challenge and give encouragement along the way of living life together.

Barry: This is  life on life discipleship. You are deeply impacted by being close: you gain knowledge, information, predictable patterns. It’s being lived out, rather than being instructed or told.

What do you see in a person that’s committed to discipleship?

Barry: From the great commission, we can understand that discipleship is something we’re supposed to do. This is a mark of a believer (one who wants to be discipled and one who is eager to make disciples). The greatest disciple that we can ever make is started in our own homes with our children and our families. We can invite others in to see those examples. It can start as individuals, but it can’t stay there. We can sharpen each other. You don’t stay where you started-you grow and advance.

Pat: "Have the desire to have the people that know you the most, respect you the most." - Andy Stanley. It’s not just memorizing Jesus’s words or doing the work of Jesus; we need to reclaim His way. Everyday living comes into play. The challenge is to claim all of life as the way of Jesus.

Viviana: People who are open to be open to you, what you teach, and to be willing to support you and to take your challenge.

Have you seen any shift in discipleship with the topics in society recently? (i.e. lockdown, BLM, other disruptions in your community)

Pat: The pandemic and distancing requirements limits the ability to give people access to your life, which is a big part of discipleship. It is challenging to find ways to do that. We’ve increased virtual groups and decreased in person groups. Methods have had to change some, but you’re still trying to get at how to give people access to your life.  

The events of George Floyd are shaping me. I’m watching a lot of people push BLM to a Marxist movement or to smokescreen the issue to avoid discussions around systemic racism. We need to start with a scriptural point of view that the imago dei is being violated over and over again. We can talk about BLM, but as a faith community we can start with the imago dei being violated. Many white evangelicals are not standing in solidarity in saying that what has been happening to our black brothers and sisters is wrong, but standing against the BLM movement and so they are missing the point. 

Viviana: Romans tells us that all things work together for the good of those who love God. Even through grieving the times, this time has caused us to come out of our comfort zone. We weren’t comfortable on social media, but have been forced to get out of our comfort zone and use social media. We’ve  expanded from Spanish congregation to the public spaces online. I’ve learned again to go on God’s desires, not your own comforts. We’ve found that we can reach further to disciple people over the miles. God is stretching us. “Go into all nations…” We are able to share daily struggles with people from all over the world and have people respond to them.

Barry: Accountability is important, but what is accountability if there is no accountability for my well being? If we want to encourage people to enter discipleship relationships and become ambassadors for Christ, but forget to care for their physical well-being, what does that say about us? We need to care for the whole person: physical and spiritual wellbeing. This is felt by people--that you actually care about me. That helps people go deep when they feel cared for. People in their community can challenge each other to stay healthy--even on a weight loss journey (eating healthier and getting more exercise).  

Viviana: The openness of daily struggles causes others to open up. People can gain wisdom from each other in how they are handling things. For instance, we have been able to buy large portions of food because it is less expensive to be able to share with others who can’t afford it. People see our care for them and they see how we handle this crisis.

What kind of things have you discerned about discipleship over the past 6 months?

Barry: There must be intentionality. There are so many distractions that can easily/unintentionally get pushed to the top of the priority list. Discipleship often gets pushed to the bottom of the list. Carve out space to make this a priority. This needs to be on both sides (either as disciple or person discipling).

Viviana: We can’t just follow a program. The call is to walk with people and be real and allow things to be messy.

Pat: There is so much information being offered during this time of pandemic, BLM, etc. People are hungry for an answer. What most people are looking for more than an answer is an example of how to live. People aren’t looking for a perfect example, but they are looking for a living one. People are looking for someone to walk with them and hear them.

One of the realities I’ve discerned is a lot of people were not discipled for this moment.  Their faith wasn’t deep enough to handle this moment.  Do you see people’s discipleship that has been able to sustain them during this time in your community?

Pat: If the primary place you got your spiritual investment was a Sunday morning church service, you felt like we have an IT problem. What we found out is that there’s not an IT problem, but a discipleship problem. If people had connection points and investment that went beyond a single experience, they began to feel they could weather the hardship in a more manageable way.  

Barry: Christians paint the picture that when you come to Christ, that everything is going to be great. When hardship comes, that is hard to figure that out.  The fact is that there is going to be trouble. We cannot give the false picture that everything will be great. The journey is filled with peaks and valleys; Jesus has promised that he will be with us. He won’t leave us.

Viviana: God keeps reminding me to be intentional and connect. There needs to be an intentional relationship with God. Are we listening and following his direction? We also need to join as a community and lean on each other and shine our gifts. We can’t carry it all ourselves.

What other wisdom do you have for congregations who are committed to making disciples? 

Pat: An amateur does something for the love of the game; if it’s worth doing, it's worth doing poorly until you get better at it. Oftentimes it's what people have a call to do when they go into ministry but get caught up doing other stuff. Everyone can agree that they need a coach. I encourage people to get a coach and have someone go with you along the way.

Barry: We have a value that talks about progress-not perfection. Go after it. As long as you are progressing you’re going to get some stuff right and some wrong. You will fall down, but it’s worth it to keep going. Go on the journey, and see what God will do. Trust God with the end result.  

Viviana: Just obey and the blessing will come after. If God is calling you to go and make disciples, then listen to Him.


“Discipleship in a Time of Pandemic” is is provided by Larry Doornbos, director of Vibrant Congregations. Vibrant Congregations assists congregations in taking fresh steps in ministry and mission. We are a joint endeavor of the CRC and RCA. For more resources and our latest Church Now Conversation, visit Vibrant’s website.

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