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Making Disciples Jesus’ Way: A Few at a Time

By Greg Ogden

The church urgently needs to recapture its original mission of making disciples of Jesus by creating intimate, relational environments of multiplication and transformation.

“The crisis at the heart of the church is a crisis of product,”1 writes Bill Hull. Is there any more important question for pastors to answer than, What kind of people are we growing in our ministries? According to George Barna and George Gallup, we are not producing people who are much different in conviction and lifestyle than the rest of society. This has been well-documented so I will not repeat the bad news. But, here is the solution.

Jesus made it clear that He equates a singular product with the mission of the Church — “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Every church’s mission is the same: Making disciples of Jesus. We may prefer to express it in a fresh, contemporary way — “to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ.”2 But, this is just a restatement of the Great Commission.

When I speak to pastors on disciple making, I take an informal poll. I ask, “Raise your hand if you meet weekly with a few people to help them become reproducing disciples of Jesus.” Sadly, I get minimal response. A larger response ought to be expected since Jesus modeled for us how to grow disciples. He called the Twelve to be with Him so He could shape their character and to transfer His mission to them. We have a crisis of product because pastors are not following Jesus’ model. As a result we are missing out on a most joyful and fruitful opportunity.

In this article I describe a simple, reproducible way to grow disciples of Jesus that will forever change your practice of ministry. It will also leave your church with self-initiating, reproducing disciples of Christ.

The model is: Disciples are made in small, reproducible groups of 3 or 4 (triads or quads) that cultivate an environment of transformation and multiplication.

In my experience, the following three elements form the necessary building blocks to grow disciples. This, in turn, addresses our crisis of product:

The Model for Multiplication

I call it the major ah-ha moment in ministry that has, more than anything else, shaped my approach to growing disciples. I had stumbled on a discovery breakthrough.

I had been frustrated because I was not seeing a multiplication of disciples. I had assumed the one-on-one model was the best way to make reproducing disciples. After all, wasn’t the Paul-Timothy relationship the biblical pattern? Discipling meant giving myself to one person to see the life of Christ built in him. This would then lead him to do the same for another and so on. The trouble was that I was not seeing him doing the same for another. There was no multiplication.

What was I doing wrong? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Frustrated, I redoubled my efforts. I made sure I had good content, ratcheted up my prayer life, and taught the skills of Bible study and witness. Yet I was not able to instill confidence, pass on the vision, or empower people to disciple others. All my refinements led to the same results.

Then the breakthrough came. I had written a disciple-making curriculum3 that became the basis for my doctor of ministry degree project. My faculty mentor thought it would be a worthy experiment to test the dynamics of this material in a variety of settings. In addition to a one-on-one approach, I invited two others to join me. I could not have anticipated the potency that would be unleashed. By adding a third person, it seemed the Holy Spirit was present to us in a way that was life giving, transforming, and laid the foundation for multiplication.

I have never returned to the one-on-one model for making disciples because of what I experienced. Twenty years later I have had considerable opportunity to reflect on the difference in dynamics between triad and quads, and the one-on-one approach.

What were the limitations of the one-on-one model?

  1. In the one-on-one model the discipler is responsible for the spiritual welfare of another. The discipler is like a mother bird that goes out to find worms to feed to her babies. With their mouths wide open, the babes wait in their nest for the mother bird to return. The discipler is cast in the role of passing on his vast knowledge to someone with limited knowledge.
  2. The one-on-one relationship establishes a hierarchy that often results in dependency. The one-on-one creates a father-son, teacher-student, mature-immature relationship. As appreciative as a Timothy might be, the one in the receiving position likely will not be able to see himself in the giving position. The gulf between a Paul and a Timothy is accentuated when the relationship is between pastor and parishioner. The pastor is a trained professional who has biblical knowledge that some laypeople cannot see themselves achieving.
  3. The one-on-one approach limits the interchange or dialogue. I compare the one-on-one discourse to a ping-pong match. In this back and forth dialogue, the discipler is under continuous pressure to advance the interchange to a higher plane.
  4. The one-on-one method also creates a one-model approach. The primary influence on a new disciple is one person. The parameters of the discipling experience are defined by the strengths and weaknesses of one individual.
  5. Finally, the one-on-one model usually does not reproduce. If it does, it is rare. Only self-confident, inwardly motivated people can break the dependency and become self-initiating and reproducing.4

We have inadvertently held a hierarchical, positional model of discipling that is nontransferable. As long as a person senses that another person is over him because of spiritual authority, however that is measured, he will not see himself as qualified to disciple others. We may tout the one-on-one model as a multiplication method, but it contains the seeds of its own destruction.

From my own experience, I commend a nonhierarchical model that views discipling as a mutual process of peer mentoring.5 To avoid the dependency trap, the relationship needs to be seen as side-by-side, rather than as one having authority or position over the other.

An alternative practical model of disciple making (triads/quads)

Why are triads/quads energizing, joy-filled, and reproductive?

  1. There is a shift from unnatural pressure to the natural participation of the discipler. When a third or fourth person is added, the discipler is no longer the focal point; he is a part of a group process. The discipler in this setting is a fellow participant. Though the discipler convenes the triad/quad, he quickly becomes one of the group on their journey toward maturity in Christ.
  2. There is a shift from hierarchy to peer relationship. The triad/quad naturally creates a mutual journey. The focus is less on the discipler and more on Christ as the One toward whom we are to point our lives. As a pastor, I found the relationship may have started with a consciousness that I was the Bible expert because of my title and training. Within the first few weeks, though, the triad/quad allowed me to be one of a group of disciples who were attempting to follow Jesus.
  3. There is a shift from dialogue to dynamic interchange. In my initial experiment with triads, I often came away from discipleship meetings saying to myself, What made that interchange so alive and dynamic? The presence of the Holy Spirit seemed palpable. Life and energy marked the exchange. As I have come to understand group dynamics, I learned that one-on-one is not a group. A group is made when you add a third person. (Think trinity.)
  4. There is shift from limited input to wisdom in numbers. Wisdom comes from many counselors (Proverbs 15:22). Often those perceived as younger or less mature in the faith have bursts of great wisdom, a fresh spark of life, or just great questions. In a current quad, one of the men at our initial gathering said, “I have never opened the Bible.”

I had observed an eagerness and hunger in Mick, so I was sure I had misunderstood his comment. I responded, “You mean you have never studied the Bible seriously.”

“No, I have never opened a Bible.”

Since that first session Mick has demonstrated a veracious appetite for Scripture. His perceptive questions have led to engaging dialogue and deeper exploration.

5. There is a shift from addition to multiplication. For me there is no greater joy than to see a Christian reproduce. One benefit of the triad/quad model is empowerment. For more than two decades I have observed an approximate 75 percent reproduction rate through the triad/quad model of disciple making.

In summary, a smaller unit encourages multiplication because it minimizes the hierarchical dimensions and maximizes a peer-mentoring model. Providing a discipleship curriculum specifically designed for this intimate relationship creates a simple, reproducible structure that almost any growing believer can lead. Leadership in these groups can be rotated early on since the size makes for an informal interchange and the curriculum provides a guide to follow.

Discipling must create intergenerational multiplication. But this is only one aspect of growing self-initiating, reproducing disciples.

Disciples Are Made in Relationships, Not Programs

Making disciples places priority on an invitation to relationships, not an invitation to programs.

Disciple making is not a 6-week, 10-week, or even a 30-week program. Our efforts to make disciples are often conducted through programs, not through the relational process.

Biblically, disciples are made in relationships. When I am forming a new triad/quad, I approach someone personally. First, I ask the Lord to guide me to those who are spiritually hungry and teachable. When I have a settled conviction as to whom the Lord would have me approach, I ask, “Will you join me and walk with me as we grow together to become better disciples of Christ? I would like to invite you to meet weekly with me and one or two others so we can become all the Lord intends us to be. As I was praying about this relationship, I sensed the Lord drawing me to you.”

How does this relational approach differ from a program?

Discipling relationships are marked by intimacy, whereas programs tend to be focused on information

Programs operate with the assumption that if we give someone more information it will automatically lead to their transformation. In other words, right doctrine produces right living. Filling people’s heads with Scripture verses and biblical principles leads to a change in character, values, and a heart for God.

Alicia Britt Chole captures this difference between program and relationship, “Program was safer, more controllable, and reproducible — less risky, less messy, less intrusive. It seemed easier to give someone an outline than an hour, a well-worn book than a window into our humanity. How easy it is to substitute informing people for investing in people, to confuse organizing people with actually discipling people. Life is not the offspring of program or paper. Life is the offspring of life. Jesus prioritized shoulder-to-shoulder mentoring because His prize was much larger than information; it was integration.”6

Discipling relationships require the full, mutual responsibility of the participants. Programs have one or a few who do ministry on behalf of the many

Most programs are built on an individual or a few core people who do the hard work of preparation. The rest of the group are passive recipients of their work. However, this is less true of a more egalitarian small group than it is of a class where one-way communication dominates. Though such a program may provide tremendous benefit to the one who has done the preparation, the result is usually enormous amounts of unprocessed information. As much as I believe preaching produces conviction and decision, I would be naïve to believe that preaching alone produces disciples. If preaching could produce disciples, the job would have been done.

In a discipling relationship, the partners share equal responsibility for preparation, self-disclosure, and an agenda for life-change. This relationship is not about one person being the insightful teacher while the others are learning from one whose wisdom far exceeds their own. Maturity levels in Christ will vary, but the basic assumption is that in the give and take of relationships, the one who is the teacher and the one who is taught can vary from moment to moment.

Discipling relationships are customized to the unique growth of individuals, whereas programs emphasize synchronization and regimentation

Most programs cannot take into account the uniqueness of individuals. This uniqueness is essential to growing disciples. A program usually has a defined length. You commit to 10 weeks, and you are done. Churches often follow the academic calendar. They start a program in September when school starts, and complete it in June in time for summer vacation. Once the cycle is completed, Christians are supposed to be discipled. Completing the program is equated with making disciples.

Discipling relationships vary in length of time because no two people grow at the same speed. Therefore, discipling cannot be a forced march through a curriculum. Discipling relationships require an individualized approach that takes into account the unique growth of those involved.

Discipling relationships focus accountability around life-change, whereas programs focus accountability around content

Discipleship programs give the illusion of accountability. But the accountability is more focused on completing the assigned curriculum than on changing or transforming into the Christlikeness expected of a disciple of Jesus.

Growth into Christlikeness is the goal. The gauge of accountability in these programs tends to be easily measurable and observable behaviors. These include Scripture memorization, completing the required weekly reading, and practicing spiritual disciplines. In a discipling relationship, the accountability focuses on learning to “obey everything I [Jesus] have commanded” (Matthew 28:20). For example, there is a huge difference between knowing that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and loving our enemies. Discipling relationships are centered on incorporating the life of Jesus into all we do.

The Environment of Transformation: The Three Necessary Ingredients

Without question, the setting where I have seen the most accelerated transformation in believers has been in triads/quads or small, reproducible discipleship groups. I call these the hothouse of Christian growth. Hothouses maximize environmental conditions so things can grow at a rate greater than would exist under normal circumstances; conditions are ripe for accelerated growth. This is what happens in a triad/quad.

Why is this? What are the conditions in a discipleship group of three or four that create the hothouse effect? Three ingredients, when exercised in a balanced way, release the Holy Spirit to bring rapid growth toward Christlikeness: These ingredients can be summarized in the following biblical principle: When we (1) open our hearts in transparent trust to each other (2) on the truth of God’s Word (3) in the spirit of mutual accountability, we are in the Holy Spirit’s hothouse of transformation.

Let’s examine each of these elements that create accelerated growth and reproduction.

Transparent trust

We return to the fundamental truth that has been repeated throughout this article: The foundation for growing in discipleship is intimate, accountable relationships with other believers. Why is transparency a necessary condition for change? The extent to which we are willing to reveal to others the areas of our life that need God’s transforming touch is the extent to which we are inviting the Holy Spirit to make us new. Our willingness to enter into horizontal or relational intimacy indicates our willingness to invite the Lord to do His makeover in our lives.

The small size of a triad/quad means the discipling relationship is close. There is little place to hide. In an environment of increasing trust self-revelation is drawn out. Trust does not happen instantaneously; it is earned and developed. To get to the deep end of the pool we must go through the shallower waters of affirmation. These include encouragement, support through life’s difficulties, and prayerful listening to help our partners hear God’s voice in life’s decisions. Only then are we likely to venture in over our heads by confessing our sin to one another.

Few believers have the regular habit or the safe context in which they can reveal to another person what lurks inside their hearts. Until we get to the point where we can articulate to another those things that have a hold on us, we will live under the tyranny of our own darkness. James admonished his readers, “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (5:16, NASB).7 James makes a direct connection between confession and healing. In this context, healing appears to be of a physical nature. Yet James believed that one’s spiritual health directly affected one’s physical health.

What is the connection between confession and freedom? Bringing the shame of our guilt into the light before trusted members of the body of Christ can have a liberating effect. Once sinful behavior is admitted before others, it begins to lose its power to control. Sin loves darkness, but its power weakens in the light.

To learn to swim in the deep waters of transparent trust is a necessary element for accelerated Christian growth. Learning to swim can be a scary experience, especially when you are in over your head. But once you learn to trust the water to hold you up, you can relax and experience its refreshment.

Truth in community

The second of three environmental elements that creates the conditions for the hothouse of accelerated growth is the truth of God’s Word in community. I started with relationships because the context in which God’s Word should be studied is in community. A great failing today is that we have separated the study of God’s Word from transparent relationships. We have been more concerned about correct doctrine than correct living. Having knowledge and right doctrine is important, but it is not enough. The goal is to incorporate truth into our being. This happens as we process it with others.

A disciple must have opportunity to cover the essential teachings of the Christian life in a systematic and sequential fashion. We are living at a time when the average person has a minimal foundation for his Christian faith. A generation ago Francis Schaeffer and Elton Trueblood warned us in prophetic voice that we were one generation away from losing the memory of Christian faith in our culture. We are the next generation of which they spoke.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno seems an unlikely place to find evidence for this loss memory. One night Leno took to the streets to question people about their biblical knowledge. He approached two college-age women and asked, “Can you name one of the Ten Commandments?”

Quizzical and blank looks led to this reply, “Freedom of speech?”

Then Leno turned to a young man and asked, “Who according to the Bible was eaten by a whale?”

With confidence and excitement, he blurted out, “I know, I know, Pinocchio.”

The memory of Christianity has been lost.

One of the participants in a discipling triad I led was a woman about 10 years my senior. She had been raised in the home of a Congregational pastor. After we had completed our time together, she said, “Greg, I have something to confess. When you asked me to join this group, I didn’t think I had much to learn. After all, I have been studying the Scriptures all of my life having been raised in a home where the Bible was central. But I discovered as we covered the faith in a systematic and sequential order, that my understanding was much like a mosaic. I had clusters of tiles with a great deal of empty space in between. This approach has allowed me to fill in those places where tiles belong. I now see in a comprehensive fashion how the Christian faith makes sense of it all.”

Life-change accountability

The third environmental element that contributes to creating the right climatic conditions for accelerated growth is mutual, life-change accountability — the covenantal relationship between those on the discipleship journey. What is a covenant? “A covenant is a written, mutual agreement between two or more parties that clearly states the expectations and commitments in the relationship.”8 This definition implies that the covenantal partners hold each other accountable to keep the covenant.

Yet for most Westerners, to willingly give others authority to hold us accountable to what we said we would do is a violation of what we hold dear. Robert Bellah’s groundbreaking research, Habits of the Heart, is a sociologist’s search for the core of American character. He found that freedom from obligation defines what it is be to an American: We want to do, what we want do to, when we want to do it, and no one better tell us otherwise. We want to be in control of our own choices, life direction, character formation, and schedules. Everything in us grates against accountability.

Yet, accountability brings us back to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. A disciple is one under authority. Disciples of Jesus leave no doubt that Jesus is exerting the formative influence over their lives. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, ESV).9 To become serious about this truth we need to practice coming under authority in our covenantal relationships in Christ.

Conclusion

“The crisis at the heart of the church is a crisis of product.” I challenge every pastor to schedule a 90-minute time slot into his week to meet with two or three others for discipling for multiplication. Imagine the impact on the quality and quantity of the product when we began to see an organic multiplication of these reproducible groups over the next 10 years. George Barna would be giving us different statistics about the difference between believers and nonbelievers in America.

GREG OGDEN is executive pastor of discipleship at Christ Church in Oak Brook, Oak Brook, Illinois.

 

Endnotes

1. Bill Hull, The Disciple Making Pastor (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1988), 14.

2. Mission Statement of Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois.

3. Greg Ogden, Discipleship Essentials: A Guide To Building Your Life in Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998).

4. These generalities are not meant to demean the positive and powerful experiences that a one-on-one relationship has meant to many. When it comes to the multiplication of disciples, my experience teaches me that this generally does not lead to reproduction.

5. Ogden, Discipleship Essentials, 17. “Discipling is an intentional relationship in which we walk alongside other disciples to encourage, equip, and challenge one another in love to grow toward maturity in Christ. This includes equipping the disciple to teach others as well.”

6. Alicia Britt Chole, “Purposeful Proximity — Jesus’ Model of Mentoring,” Enrichment journal [Internet]; available from http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200102/062_proximity.cfm; accessed April 2, 2007.

7. Scripture quotation taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)

8. Ogden, Discipleship Essentials, 14. Provided is an illustration of what a mutual covenant might look like.

9. Scripture quotation taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, copyright © 2001, Wheaton: Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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