The disciple-making machine is broken. Though most church leaders would say discipleship is a crucial part of their mission and ministry, they fear it’s not working.

A recent Barna study revealed that only one percent of church leaders say “today’s churches are doing very well at discipling new and young believers.”

The church’s role in discipling people was a major point of discussion at Group’s annual Future of the Church summit. (We’ll look at other major trends from the summit in future articles here.)

Churches typically view their work in “making disciples” to be largely a mass-production academic endeavor. The thinking seems to be if people just know enough doctrine, memorize enough scripture, accumulate enough Bible knowledge, sit through enough sermons, attend enough classes, they’ll become disciples.

That’s not working—for a number of reasons. People are spending less time at church, especially in academic programs. Fewer churches even offer an education hour.

And, the old academic model itself is crumbling. The concept of an all-knowing teacher lecturing a room of passive students produces few lasting results. Outside the church, academia is recognizing this collapse. Experts in primary, secondary and higher education are abandoning the old methodology. Eventually this epiphany will reach the church, and ministry people will reconsider the routine of monologue-based teaching in sermons and studies.

The church has attempted to propagate the faith as one more academic subject. But here’s the problem. Faith is not a subject to be studied. Faith is a relationship to be nurtured.

If we truly care about helping people grow a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we need to understand how relationships develop. Relationships—with people and with God—develop relationally, not academically.

Effective churches will relook at how the original discipling process worked. Following Jesus’ example, ministry people will approach discipleship with more relational emphasis, interactivity, dialog, question-asking, teamwork, risk-taking, participatory experiences, shared adventures, mentoring, and deep prayer.

Academic endeavors have their place. But discipleship isn’t merely about academics. It’s not merely about the transmittal of information. It’s about personal transformation.

And it’s about reaching that point, as did the original disciples, that Jesus no longer calls us mere servants, but calls us his friends. (John 15:15)