Reimagining Disciple Making

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Our Current Situation

Every statistical study over the past forty years clearly shows that Western culture is in the midst of a complete moral collapse. Though we have more and bigger churches, more and bigger conferences, more teaching, more books—Christianity is not transforming Western culture. Dallas Willard says,

Nondiscipleship is the elephant in the church. It is not the much discussed moral failures, financial abuses, or the amazing general similarity between Christians and non-Christians. These are only effects of the underlying problem. The fundamental negative reality among Christian believers now is their failure to be constantly learning how to live their lives in The Kingdom Among Us.2

In agreement with Willard, we are convinced that the lost art of disciple making must be rediscovered and replanted into the heart and psyche of the church if we are to have any hope of making a kingdom impact in the West. Alan and Debra Hirsch emphasize the followership crisis before us:

Our lives, individual and corporate, play a vital role in the unfolding of the grand purposes of God. More is at stake 
in discipleship than our own personal salvation. The gospel cannot be limited to being about my personal healing and wholeness, but rather extends in and through my salvation to the salvation of the world. To fail in discipleship and disciple-making is therefore to fail in the primary mission (or “sentness”) of the church. And it does not take a genius to realize that we have all but lost the art of disciple-making in the contemporary Western church.3


Preaching Is Not the Answer

We have massive bookstores and libraries of information on what a disciple is. But if you search for information on how to make a disciple, well, that’s another matter. We have reduced the Great Commission to a treatise on salvation. How puzzling that is in the light of Jesus’ command to give ourselves wholly to training disciples: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:18-20).

Jesus’ words are commissioning his followers not merely to make converts to or to give lectures on a belief system but to do with others what he had done with them, following his pattern and model. There is no substitute for this. When we unpack Jesus’ disciple-making modus operandi, we see Jesus giving three years of his life, sharing his personal journey with God with a group of others. Reading through the Gospels we see Jesus doing a lot of eating with his disciples, a lot of praying, and a lot of healing others—a lot of serving. After he taught the crowds, he would get alone with his disciples and unpack the “sermon,” asking them what they heard, how they perceived what he had said. He taught servantship through followership. The result was a group of people that became disciples and turned their world upside down.

Jesus invited his followers to get the dirt of ministry under their fingernails by pushing them into situations where they had to take the reins and do the serving, casting out of demons and laying hands on the sick. And he would do follow-up by debriefing them after their experiences. No, this was not teaching and preaching; it was training. It included teaching, but it went way beyond that.

The issue of disciple making and what it means to be and
 to make authentic followers of Jesus is probably the most vital factor in the shaping of our church’s culture and mission. We have proven our ability to amass large groups of people in church buildings, but to fail in servant/disciple making through followership is the ultimate failure of all. C. S. Lewis was on target when he said that the paramount purpose of the church was to create little Christs. He said, “If the Church is not doing this, then all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible, are a waste of time.”4 Jesus invited his followers into a process that was more apprentice-like than classroom-like. He formed a life-as-laboratory culture in which ideas and theories were practiced and tested rather than merely preached and taught. His was a community 
of disciples, where the newly converted followed the previously converted in a new way of doing life.


Study Groups Are Not the Answer

Imagine this scenario. You are a parent of a recently born baby girl, and unfortunately the doctors discover the infant has a small hole in her heart, but they assure you surgery can correct the issue and recommend a particular surgeon. Straight away you schedule an appointment with the surgeon and show up to meet her. At this meeting you engage in a conversation that revolves around the doctor’s experience and background. She shares that she has never actually practiced in a hospital
 or doctor’s office before opening her own practice. Gleefully though, she shows you a wall of books she has faithfully studied and shares that every Thursday night she is in a “heart surgeon’s handbook” study group. Needless to say, there would be no way you would let this surgeon anywhere near your child. The same type of scenario could be set to the idea of a car mechanic, an electrician or a plumber working on your house, or a carpenter hired to add a room to your house.

We expect doctors and trade professionals to have spent a sufficient amount of time as apprentices to more experienced doctors and master craftspeople. It is not enough to have read books or heard lectures on a subject. Studying is but one aspect of learning. Hands-on training is absolutely essential to develop core competencies in any subject or skill. It is past time we realize we have been given the responsibility of bringing believers into maturity, and we cannot continue to serve up more Bible study as an answer for making disciples.

We must resist a posture that says, “Let the Scriptures make disciples.” The Bible is the Word of God—a follow me Word that must be demonstrated if disciples are to emerge from exposure to it. Bible studies are an essential part of the ongoing discipleship process, but “part” is the operative word here. They are only one tool within the disciple-making process. Many church leaders will point to the menu of Bible studies their church has when asked to describe their disciple-making process. This is tantamount to a restaurant that only serves recipes. The Bible teaches us how to make a life cultivated in God.

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  • Erich Schindler

    Nov 15, 2013 - Reply

    Loved your article. I myself am a recovering from a long period of ‘outsourcing’ my discipleship responsibilities to pastors and teachers (the professionals) in classroom settings. Recently began intentionally meeting with a small group of men for ongoing discipleship, using Neil Cole’s Life Transformation Groups model. Excited to lead disciples who themselves naturally reproduce!

  • Elizabeth Perry

    Nov 15, 2013 - Reply

    Erich, thanks for your feedback! I love that term “outsourcing.” Certainly we need to bring discipleship back in-house. Sounds like you are doing just that. Blessings to you!

  • David Kueker

    Jun 22, 2014 - Reply

    Very good points. The only thing that I would wish to add is that the end result of “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” is not a good disciple but a disciple maker.

    As with parenting: the relationship that leads to involvement in the church is typically with a lay person rather than the pastor and the job of Matthew 2820 is the duty of the person in Matthew 28:19. One follows the other.

    They are not specialists. The challenge of the traditional way of thinking is that there is someone in the church other than the one who brought me that should mentor me and who can do a better job of it. As with parenting, you make them, you raise them. Disciple making is not something we send people to a building to get from professionals.

    In addition, good parents can send their children to school taught by professionals. Disciple making is not home schooling, but a relationship that watches over in love encourages growth. There is still too much of an emphasis on ideas that people need to learn and study … this is where discipleship went astray in the first century. Or so it seems to me.

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