A Disciple-Making Church

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Is your church effectively making disciples of Jesus? I once gave a presentation titled “Creating a Culture of Discipleship in your Local Church.” After the presentation, I opened the floor for questions. The two responses I remember receiving demonstrated to me why there is a great divide in our thinking on making disciples.

A Fundamental Misunderstanding

The first question had to do with small groups. “How were you able to get people to buy into having small groups in a small church?” That is a legitimate question, and it was related to the discussion since small groups have been part of my strategy for creating a culture of discipleship. I have seen them prove very effective in helping people “learn and live out the teachings and example of Jesus,” the definition of discipleship I had shared that day.

However, very little of my discussion had been about small groups. Yet that is where the conversation went. Why? I believe it is because we have unwittingly equated discipleship with small groups. Many churches and pastors who have been advancing Jesus’ command to “make disciples” have pushed the small group medium as the best way to accomplish it. The challenge comes from the merging of the two concepts in many people’s thinking, so that when you speak of discipleship, people automatically envision a small group. This is what brought about the next question.

We have unwittingly equated discipleship with small groups.

The second question was born out of the definition of discipleship that I had shared. The questioner had been wary of embracing discipleship because it seemed to be a buzzword, a fad. But when he heard that discipleship is simply teaching people to “learn and live out the teachings and example of Jesus,” he rightly concluded that his church is making disciples, even without small groups!

Any church that is teaching people to follow Jesus, is making disciples of Jesus, no matter what methods they are using. This conversation must begin with the baseline that every church that is producing Christ-followers is making disciples.

The Challenge

The reason that small groups have become somewhat of a point of contention is the misconception that if you aren’t meeting in small groups, you aren’t fulfilling Christ’s command to make disciples. No one would say it outright, but it appears that people are hearing that when discipleship in the local church is discussed. The response has been fair: “You cannot delegitimize what our church has been doing for the last 100 years. You cannot tell me that the old saints in our church are not disciples of Jesus just because they haven’t met in small groups.”

The reaction has often been to reject the method of small groups. If the contention is between the legitimacy of the old methods versus the legitimacy of popular methods, then the old methods will almost always win out among us, since we are a group whose identity is tied to conservatism. Therefore, some have completely opposed small groups. I don’t believe it is because any of us would be opposed to combining Wesley’s class meetings with cottage prayer meetings. I believe that a common reason people oppose small groups is that the legitimacy of former methods have been challenged, and people are not willing to accept the implication that their church, which has experienced the blessing and presence of God, has been completely missing it.

The Answer

It does not need to be an either/or scenario. I firmly believe that disciples were born and raised in the church of my childhood, although I never heard of a small group until I was grown. At the same time, I also firmly believe in the value of small groups for the spiritual development of God’s people (Methodist class meetings were essentially small groups; see “The History and Significance of the Wesleyan Class Meeting” by Jon Earls).

Every church that is producing Christ-followers is making disciples.

The answer is that anywhere people are learning to follow Jesus, disciples are being made. And anywhere disciples are being made, the church is fulfilling the commission Christ gave. Anywhere that Scripture is being preached and taught, it will not return void, but will bear fruit in the lives of believers. The adult Sunday school teacher who is reading out of the quarterly, the children’s church where Bible stories are being told on flannelgraph, the Sunday morning sermon: these are all methods of disciple-making. People are being taught to learn and live out the teachings and example of Jesus. If someone in your local church is rightly dividing God’s Word, then your church is making disciples.

A Bible-Based Test of Effectiveness

The most important question that must now be asked is this: “How effective is my church at making disciples?” If addressing the above point of contention could perhaps assuage some reservations on this topic, it would be good to look into God’s Word and evaluate how well we are fulfilling the clear command of Jesus to make disciples. 

That test is based on Jesus’ commission in Matthew 28:19-20: “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.”

The three participles that are linked to the command to make disciples will be our test for how thoroughly we are fulfilling the elements of the commission Jesus gave His church. 

GO

In Greek the main verb is “make disciples,” but “going” is closely associated with that action. They must occur together. Also, the force (mood) of Go assumes the force of the main verb: since make disciples is a command, Go becomes a command as well. It is not communicating simply the idea of making disciples while you are out buying groceries (though I would not oppose that!), but rather commands the Go-ing as a necessary coordinate action of making disciples. 

To put it another way, we are expected to “go” as part of the disciple-making process. That becomes our first criteria on how well our churches are fulfilling Christ’s command. Are we going?

When COVID began taking over our lives, a shirt became popular on my social media feed, and it had an appealing message. It read, “The church has left the building.” The implication was that, because we could no longer meet on Sunday mornings in the church building, the church had escaped the four walls and was finally out in the world.

But was that true? Because we were forced, for a time, to listen to the preached word while we sit in our living rooms or church parking lots, did that mean that we were engaging culture, touching broken lives, escaping the comfort of our isolation? I believe the answer to that question is obvious. It was very easy for us to continue to sequester ourselves from the world, even with our being forced out of our church buildings for a few weeks. 

If our churches are going to fulfill this element of Christ’s commission, we must do better than patting ourselves on the back for worshipping in our living rooms for a few weeks. We must engage with culture. We must find hurting people on their way to hell and offer them the grace of a Savior. We must enter into the lives of people whose situations challenge us to be filled with the Spirit, whose broken lives drive us to our knees, seeking God for how He wants to redeem and restore. It needs to be a challenge. It needs to stretch us to find answers to questions we did not know existed. We must go out from our padded pews and Sunday-best attire and figure out how to live redemptively in a God-opposing culture.

The best way for us to fulfill Christ’s command to “Go” is to engage with our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers redemptively.

Effectiveness is on a scale. The least effective method would seem to be to sit in the church and see if anyone new shows up this week. This is followed closely by reliance on the pastor to single-handedly reach the lost. Inviting a neighborhood to church has value, since it gives opportunity for people to encounter God’s presence and hear His gospel proclaimed. Inviting friends and neighbors is far superior to inviting strangers because of the power of the relational element. But it has been thoroughly demonstrated that the best way for us to fulfill Christ’s command to “Go” is to engage with our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers redemptively, intentionally pointing them to Jesus through light-shining and gospel-sharing. 

As a pastor who moved into an area where I had no friends, family, neighbors, or coworkers (besides my wife and kids), I’ve had to be intentional about building relationships for the purpose of pointing people to Jesus. The ideal situation is one where many engaged people can use their diverse gifts together to build redemptive relationships. One person is an excellent host. Another is a connector. Another sees and seizes opportunities to point people to God. People engage in the work together, using their diverse comfort levels and gifts to bring a sinner into the kingdom. Yes, a small group is an ideal place for this to happen, but the key is intentionality, and not the particular mode or venue.

If it helps, I’ve created a rough grading scale for churches that want to evaluate their effectiveness in making disciples. The point value reflects my own experience of the best ways to reach people for Christ. As you evaluate your church against the levels of effectiveness, you may need to average multiple categories as you see appropriate.

Disciple-Making Evaluation

Part 1: “Go”

33 Points A majority of the church engaged together in developing highly-personal redemptive relationships through regular community connection activities or small groups
28 Points At least 30% of the church individually engaged in building relationships with sinners for the purpose of pointing them to Christ.
22 Points A robust calling ministry, where strangers are invited to church and perhaps picked up for church on Sunday.
20 Points A significant number of people regularly invite friends and neighbors to church
15 Points A small number of people regularly go out to invite strangers to come to church.
8 Points 2-3 people are responsible for our outreach efforts.
0 Points We are elated to see visitors on Sunday, but we do not make any particular effort to go reach people.

BAPTIZE

The New Testament frequently links conversion and baptism as corresponding events (see Acts 2:38). When Jesus commands us in Matthew 28 to baptize disciples, implicit in the command is to bring them to a place of commitment to follow Christ, which is to be publicly expressed through baptism. Therefore, when evaluating our effectiveness in making disciples, we need to evaluate whether we are seeing sinners making the commitment to begin following Christ. 

A church that is successful in this area will see their own children committing to following Christ. They will see people pray to be saved, whether at an altar, in the pastor’s office, in Sunday School rooms, or at a coffee shop. These people will not all be the same people who were saved during the previous revival. They also will not simply be people who transferred from another church. They will be sinners, living in rebellion against God, dead in their sins, who are awakened to new life by God’s grace. These ones, having escaped the death of their sins by the grace of God, will be baptized into Christ through the Spirit, according to the will of the Father. Water baptism is not optional; it’s essential.

Our commitment to follow Christ must be publicly expressed through baptism.

Is this happening in our churches? One thing I have learned is that I do not have the ability to effect spiritual transformation in people: Only God can awaken spiritual desire and commitment.

Only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to the place of repentance. But I have also clearly witnessed that God works through Spirit-filled people who follow God’s leading and engage in doing the work He has called them to do. If people are being brought from death unto life through a church’s ministry, then that church is effectively fulfilling the second element of making disciples. If not, then existing believers may still be learning to follow Christ, but a church cannot say that they are fulfilling Jesus’ command in its entirety.

Here’s another rough grading scale for churches that want to evaluate their effectiveness in making disciples.

Disciple-Making Evaluation

Part 2: “Baptize”

33 Points Church children are committing to follow Christ, and unchurched sinners are converted on a regular basis. Those who believe are also baptized in the triune name.
22 Points Conversions are occasional, and some church kids slip through the cracks. Believers are usually baptized.
10 Points Most conversions are the same people as the last revival and rarely does anyone different pray for forgiveness. About half of the church kids never commit to follow Christ. Water baptism is treated as optional or unimportant.
0 Points No one ever gets saved through the ministry of the church. Almost no children who were raised in the church are still following Christ.

TEACH THEM

This is the element that separates the highly effective churches from the unintentional churches. The highly effective churches are connected enough with people’s lives that they don’t just teach the commands, but they teach people to keep the commands. To teach someone to observe Christ’s commands is not to just to pass on head knowledge. The word that is translated “keep” or “observe” here is more than knowledge, which is best illustrated in Revelation 3:3, where keeping (observing) the command is something beyond just remembering it: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.”

There is a difference between teaching someone what Jesus said and teaching them to live it. How do you teach people to live the faith? How do you teach them to love their neighbor as themselves so that they actually begin to do it? This kind of teaching does not happen from the lectern or pulpit, but it must happen individually, as we interact with people at their point of development.

The New Testament is full of commands that can only be accomplished when people are in an environment where their voices can be heard. Paul praised the church in Rome for their ability to admonish one another (Romans 15:14). Warning the unruly, comforting the feebleminded, and supporting the weak (1 Thess. 5:14) are not likely to happen in a public church service. Exhorting one another daily against being hardened by sin (Hebrews 3:13) necessitates a relationship that goes beyond a weekly public address. Where do older women teach younger women to love their husbands and children (Titus 2:4), if not in a living room with a fussy toddler on the knee?

When groups of believers begin to meet for accountability and encouragement, more spiritual progress can be made in a month than has occurred in years of weekly attendance. It is in a one on one environment when specific Scripture can be applied to specific areas of need. When people have the chance to be heard—their questions, their hang-ups, their struggles—the opportunity exists for grace to flow through the words and love of a spiritual guide into the life of a growing believer. 

For the environment to exist where spiritual growth can happen, there must be a healthy community of believers that freely welcomes new family members. Outreach and discipleship absolutely cannot be separated from the main body of the church if the church is going to be effective. A new Christian will be starved for the love of their new kingdom family if the extent of their edifying, encouraging Christian fellowship occurs on Sunday morning. Therefore, for a church to be effective in teaching believers to live out all that Christ commanded, a healthy community must exist, where edification, instruction, and encouragement are normal parts of the Christian fellowship. 

Some churches regularly have new converts, but none of them seem to stick. Some churches lose all their kids once they reach adulthood, and they must be won back years later. Notwithstanding the myriad of issues that may bring about this result, I’ve observed two primary practices that such churches lack. First, there is a weak community, or perhaps a closed community. New attenders and new believers are isolated from the social life of the church. They may be invited to church potlucks, but they never get the invitation for the game nights in individual households. The second issue is the lack of Scripture-based, individualized, discipleship training within real-life contexts.

A church can knock on all the doors they want. They can have “reach the lost at any cost” plastered above all their doors. But if new disciples are socially isolated or miss out on individualized instruction on how to live like Christ in their unique situation, they will be starved of the grace that God designed for them to receive, and they will have an uphill path to spiritual success.

Disciple-Making Evaluation

Part 3: “Teach them to observe”

34 Points Everyone in the church is connected relationally on multiple levels, and the fellowship of the church produces spiritual benefit. Newcomers are quickly integrated into groups of friends within the church, outside of the parsonage.  These relationships regularly produce personalized, Bible-based instruction on how to live the Christ-life.
 22 Points The church has some connectors who try to make sure people get occasional invitations to Sunday dinner. A discipleship program makes sure every new convert meets individually with a trained disciple-maker.
 10 Points  New believers have a class offered to them, but it is completely material-based, with no needs-based instruction. “Outreach people” have a very difficult time infiltrating the long-established social circles within the church.
 5 Points Spiritual development is the combination of an individual’s private efforts and an effective pulpit ministry.

The Right Focus in Evaluating Our Effectiveness

This author would be scared to honestly assign a score to my own life and ministry. When we evaluate what actually happens in our local church versus the most effective methods, a wrong focus can bring discouragement. We may still be early in the process of building an effective discipleship culture. We may be years away from having people trained and equipped to teach the Christ-life to new believers. One may read the percentages and think, “I’m only one person! How can I account for 30% of the church?”

The wrong focus is to assume failure if we did not achieve a 100% grade on our self-evaluation. It is true: We are deficient. However, remember the emphasis at the beginning of the article: We are making disciples if there is engagement at any level in going, baptizing, and teaching. The question is not whether our 52% is failure, but rather what the next step needs to be for us to better obey Jesus’ command.

How do we encourage an open door into our fellowship, which will give us opportunity for personalized training? How do we begin to equip believers to teach other believers? How do we transition from simply inviting people to church to also intentionally showing them Christ across the backyard fence? How do we communicate this passion for disciple-making to the masses of Sunday attenders, so that each person’s individual gifts are utilized in the effort? 

The current emphasis on discipleship is a central command of Christ, not a modern fad. While small groups give an excellent opportunity to accomplish Jesus’ commands well, other efforts or traditions need not be marginalized if they fulfill Christ’s command. God is calling each of us to seek His wisdom and direction on how we can most effectively carry out the mission He has called us to: making disciples of all nations.