<p>The Key to Discipleship unlocks the mystery to why some Christians and churches grow while others don’t</p>

Written by Paul J Bucknell on November, 02, 2019

The Key to Discipleship: Unlock the mystery to why some Christians and churches grow while others don’t

“But the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:5-7).

Many churches wonder why their people gradually turn cold, sometimes after several decades but often only after a few years. No doubt there are several answers to this question, but the key to turning this trend around starts by examining why we do things. Yes, we can observe developing issues by discerning our choices. But in this article, we necessarily descend one level down to reach the foundation of our lives. 

We need to inspect whether we are act-oriented or heart-oriented. Are we more influenced by the outward pressures around us— what we hear and see—or by inward stirrings from the Holy Spirit?


Act-oriented people serve God because they are expected to. Pressure from the outside leads to conformity.

Here are some symptoms of this law/religious mindset:

  • “Of course, I join in. Everyone is doing it.”
  • “What would people think if I don’t do it?”
  • “What else would I do?”
  • “I don’t know why I do it; I just do it.”

In this case, our motivation and energy derive from people and situations around us rather than from the living God. While the expectations from the church have declined for the most part, our societies have turned up the pressure by making fun of Christian standards and beliefs.

This perspective is reinforced by some because it looks proper. However, it is deadly. Like the Law and religiosity, it is insufficient to save.

5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5-7)

We must identify our tendency to do things because of outward pressures and re-incline our hearts to please God (Col 1:10).

act-oriented: living from outward pressures


Heart-oriented people serve God because they love God and those around them. Instead of being moved by their pride and how others think, they are driven by their love for God and others.

In this case, both our motivation and power to do these things derive from the person, pleasure, and power of God.

Here are some marks of a Spirit-guided mindset:

  • “I’m here because God has been so good to me!”
  • “What would God think if I don’t do it?”
  • “Where else would I go to find life?” (John 6:68)
  • “I do these things because I love God.”

As lovers of God’s Word, we must deliberately reflect on the guiding light from God’s life-giving Spirit. Jesus indicates that our hearts and affections remain key to a vibrant Christian life. Our lives become the “fruit” of the Spirit’s work (John 3:1-6; Gal 5:22-23).

And He (Jesus) said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me.’” (Mark 7:6, NASB)

The Prodigal Son

The life lesson that Jesus addressed in the Prodigal Son highlights this lesson. One study from this story is how the Lord forgives our many mistakes when we return to Him. He will receive us. That repentant son was very appreciative of His father’s welcome.  “‘For this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:24). Due to the depths of our sin, our hearts can better appreciate the endless touches of God’s mercy.

There is another lesson, however—perhaps the chief lesson of the Prodigal Son. The dutiful son complained that his father never did anything like this for him. This lofty view of life and self must be broken before this kind of person can discover God’s grace. “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him” (Luke 15:28). These individuals are trapped in a performance circus and cannot see and appreciate God’s amazing love. Due to their view of their dutifulness, they are distanced from God’s mercy and thus remain far from the felicity of God’s mercy.


We must regularly inspect our hearts and ask, “Why am I doing these religious activities?” “Why do I sing songs and worship?” “Why do I read my Bible?” Either we will be outwardly induced to perform or prodded in our inner hearts by the Holy Spirit to obey. Without the Spirit of God, no spiritual life or accompanying expressions exists. Our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit can lessen over time if we do not guard our hearts.

Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap. (Luke 21:34)

Spiritual disciplines can be profitable, but damming—if done for reasons of pride. Our focus here, though, has not been on what we are doing but on why we do those things.

If we find that we are people pleasers or always wondering what people will think, we need to move away from an act-oriented life to a heart-oriented life. Spiritual disciplines, like Bible reading, must be maintained, but, at the same time, we ought to aggressively step ahead to retrain our hearts to plead for God to rekindle our hearts powerfully. Speak personally to God. Tell Him your problems like you would another person. Engage your heart in your relationship with God.

Heart-oriented: living from our hearts

Study Questions

  1. What is the danger that the author is concerned about? Do you agree with this assessment?
  2. What does act-oriented living look like? Give at least two examples.
  3. What does heart-oriented living look like? Give at least two examples of how this works.
  4. Why is the Law or religion often associated with an act-oriented living?
  5. Which verse from above was most significant to you? ___________ Please memorize that verse.
  6. What are the two lessons of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15)?
  7. Relate how each Prodigal’s lessons match either act-oriented or heart-oriented living.
  8. What are some suggestions for going from act-oriented living to Spirit-prodded Christian living?
  9. Which best characterizes your life? Explain.
  10. What steps might you take to either move to heart-oriented or to keep a vibrant heart towards God?


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