The Problem With Traditional Spiritual Disciplines and Disciple Making

Faith communities practice spiritual disciplines. Traditional spiritual disciplines are well defined by Richard J. Foster in Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998). Foster identifies twelve spiritual disciplines divided into three groups. Internal disciplines include: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, and Study. External disciplines include: Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, and Service. Finally, corporate disciplines, those that are completed within community, are Confession, Worship, Guidance, and Celebration.

The problem with traditional spiritual disciples, however, is that they do not have a focus on evangelism. They can be practiced with dedication and vigor, and without influencing another person (except indirectly) to become a Christian. As such, they are therefore not sufficient to observe the command given to all disciples in the Great Commission.

Traditional spiritual disciplines arose during the era of Christendom when a local community was perceived to be an entirely Christian one; everyone was baptized, so everyone was within the church and already Christian. Evangelism was not therefore necessary as in “pagan” lands; what is needed is to form the spirituality that is already present within the person who is already Christian. Spirituality on a local basis, therefore, shifted focus away from evangelism toward spiritual growth or developing one’s own spirituality. Traditional spiritual disciplines allow one to form one’s own spirituality, just as Paul encouraged believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). They are an excellent means of forming one’s own spirituality; the problem with this can be strengthening what is already strong to the neglect of what the person is disinterested in learning. Persons forming their own spirituality, therefore, can become narrower rather than wholistic.

The Great Commission, however, does not speak of a people making themselves into disciples or nurturing their own spirituality; this is fundamentally an act primarily for one’s own benefit. The focus is on a disciple becoming a better disciple, but the process does not necessarily or automatically lead to that better disciple becoming a disciple maker. Worse, that responsibility of disciple making and evangelism is expected to be fulfilled by someone other than a disciple. (Traditionally this was the responsibility of the clergy and excluded from the laity.) Traditional spiritual disciplines do not include spiritual disciplines that are effective for making new disciples (evangelism) or making disciples into disciple makers. This is a primary reason for numerical decline in a universal church that has focused on traditional spiritual disciplines for centuries.

The Great Commission commands that someone other than ourselves is to go in order to form us spiritually into disciples and then teach us to obey. Jesus directly made disciples and personally taught them to obey; to be like Jesus would be to do the same. The Great Commission directs that spiritual formation  takes this form: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” as described in Matthew 28:20. This direction must include the command of the Great Commission itself, thereby creating a cycle where training occurs with a result of disciples making disciples making disciples. This training is not a part of traditional spiritual disciplines.

This is only one of the practices of Jesus which were taught to the original disciples which are ignored among later disciples. The most frequently mentioned reasons for this are (1) these are the duties for clergy only or (2) these are requirements for the original 12 disciples only. The requirement that all commands be taught to all disciples mentioned in Matthew 28:20 clearly refutes this principle.

The responsibility of all Christians to personally evangelize and methods to accomplish this goal are not to be found in most writing on spiritual maturity or spiritual disciplines that I have reviewed. Well known resources on discipleship focus on developing one’s own spirituality to “be more like Jesus” yet do not mention any personal responsibility either to evangelize or to teach disciples to become evangelistic. One can practice traditional spiritual disciplines without ever being evangelistic. One cannot be like Jesus without making disciples. The only well known resource on discipleship that I found prior to 2007 that expects Christians to personally make disciples (outside of the church planting literature) is Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 279, 281-288.

Jesus stated that his purpose clearly in the call to the original disciples in Matthew 4:19:   And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The directly announced purpose of Jesus in calling the disciples is to teach them to “fish for people” – to evangelize and make disciples. The overall purpose of Jesus is to teach them a system of making disciples that can also be taught to others … or, in other words, a process to make disciple makers. Teaching this entire process is reflected in the command of Matthew 28:20. The end result of the Great Commission is not a disciple, nor a “fully formed” improved disciple, but a disciple maker. Therefore, one cannot be like Jesus without forming disciple makers. 

A fully formed, spiritually mature disciple is a disciple maker. Traditional spiritual disciplines are beneficial, but do not address the making of a disciple or the making of disciple makers.



Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998)

“Spiritual Formation” from Wikipedia:

This post is based on material quoted from footnote 11, in Chapter Two: Discipleship Systems, from the DMin project available from the Resources page at

Sermon Series: SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES. 10-25-09 through 11-22-09. (This series was preached at Caseyville UMC. It was based on the book “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster; it was also coordinated with Adult Sunday School lessons.)




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