Leadership Has Replaced Discipleship

Cole Ryan

Megachurch pastor Steven Furtick has a lot of followers on Instagram, according to his churches’ annual report. Elevation Church’s most recent annual report is chockfull of numbers boasting their “digital reach.” And they’re not alone — in the various annual reports that I could find (many megachurches don’t make them readily available to the public), all kinds of “digital reach” numbers were highlighted. This represents a fundamental shift in the way we view discipleship, evangelism, and the mission of the church.

As our days have been reshaped to revolve around our screens, both at work and at home, you’d expect our churches to have something to say about it. The simultaneous rise of the internet, social media, and the smartphone is arguably the single-largest revolution in modern history — and it has had all kinds of implications on our relationships, families, and communities — but the evangelical church has remained largely silent about it. There’s been very little critical thinking and thoughtful commentary on the subject from within the church (this, of course, is exactly what the tech giants want, but that’s beside the point). As a result, most churches have unconsciously welcomed these new technologies with open arms, incorporating them into all parts of their gatherings. They not only have little to no skepticism about them — seeing them as a normal and necessary part of everyday life — they often see them as a God-given tool to spread the Gospel. “Digital reach has no limits,” as Elevation’s annual report notes. Many of these same churches have started what they call “online campuses” equipped with “online pastors.”

According to many recent studies, these new technologies are shaping our daily habits, practices, and opinions far more than most of us are aware, and in mostly negative ways. They have created cultural liturgies that form who we are and how we interact with one another, and they’ve undoubtedly changed the way we worship. But I would argue that the most significant way these technologies have impacted Christians is in the way we view discipleship.

Since the founding of the early church, discipleship has been seen as the primary vehicle of evangelism, but like many things in our technological age, that’s quickly changing. The technological revolution, among other things, has caused my generation of Christians to conflate — and often replace — discipleship with leadership. This is no small thing.

Among my generation, leadership is unconsciously seen as a better, more effective version of discipleship. Discipleship requires that you meet someone for lunch or visit them at the hospital. You can only disciple a handful of people at a time. It’s limiting and inconvenient. It takes time, patience, vulnerability, and long-suffering. Leadership, on the other hand, is easy and has a near endless reach. Thanks to the internet and social media, you can now lead an innumerable amount of people online through live-streamed sermons and Facebook posts. Leadership is discipleship writ large. Discipleship with a greater ROI. Discipleship 2.0. The transformation that has taken place to listening to music, communicating with friends, buying groceries, and just about everything else we do on a daily basis, is now happening to discipleship — it’s being upgraded for a more digital, convenient, “efficient” version.

This is never more evident then when we look at modern evangelicals’ obsession with leadership. Everywhere you look, there are Christian resources on leadership. It seems as if there’s an influx of new leadership conferences, podcasts, and books sprouting up almost every day. Many of today’s pastors could moonlight as leadership gurus, and Christians are being taught that they too are called to be leaders. Words like “influence” and “reach” are used widely and frequently. Churches livestream their services and post sermon clips and Bible verses on Instagram. And many pastors feel like their primary and most important role is that of “leader,” both on stage and online. But this hasn’t always been the case. This is a new phenomenon.

As Alan Noble points out in Disruptive Witness, “we have made communion with God something that happens inside our heads, not with our whole selves, including our bodies. To find evidence of this we only have to look at ‘online churches,’ ‘satellite campuses,’ the normalization of smartphone use during services, and the lack of participation expected of congregations.” Today, the focal point of the Christian life is the transfer of knowledge through a message or sermon, as opposed to the molding of character and habits through discipleship. Being that communion with God is now seen as “something that happens in our head,” discipleship has taken a backseat to the sermon. It is not surprising, then, that many of today’s Christians think listening to a sermon online is a sufficient replacement for church. In many ways, the modern church is primarily a place we go to listen to sermons. And you can see how this view of church lends itself to the topic of leadership.

But there’s a reason why Jesus commissioned us to make disciples and live in community, as counterintuitive and inefficient as it might seem today. It is through the slow, painful, embodied experience of befriending a person and walking alongside them through life that they are discipled in the way of Jesus. There is no true replacement for this! Not to mention, this was the only imaginable way to make disciples before the advent of the internet. There was no other option, and there still isn’t. The internet has led us to believe we have a newer, better way to change people’s lives, but it’s a facade. Our lives are not meaningfully, consistently changed by distant voices; they’re changed by the people closest to us, and Jesus knew this. It is our friends and family who have the most influence over our lives, because they know us, and we are only truly changed when we are known. In his brilliant talk on personal connection, Andy Crouch said “Every one of us came into the world looking for one thing. The moment we were born we were looking for one thing: a face. Because until we see a face—until another sees us — we do not know who we are.”

And we never stop looking for a face.

This is the brilliance of discipleship —while tech giants and their products are pulling us further and further away from embodied community, discipleship requires that we resist that pull and devote ourselves to one another. That we see a face. Discipleship is exactly what humans need, and it flies in the face of innovation and progress. It is the people already in our lives, who know us and know our family and our place in life, that can truly change us. We cannot improve upon or streamline this process — it is inherently human. And while all the new technologies and advancements in life try to pull us away from real, embodied, communal life — from a face — discipleship just keeps pulling us right back together. That’s the thing about discipleship, it’s completely ordinary. It’s not glamorous or even immediately recognizable. It’s not something that you can post on Instagram, and it certainly won’t make you famous. In fact, to truly make disciples, it will mean we spend less time on our phones and online and on stage. It will mean we travel less, move less, and work less. It will mean we recover the practice of friendship, citizenship, and embodied community. And finally, it will mean we commit to the people around us. Being a disciple looks more like being a mother or a neighbor than it does being a “leader” or an “influencer.”

Leadership is not a bad thing so long as it is not confused for or prioritized over what is most central to the church: discipl