Disciple Making for Changing Times and Changing Churches

As I stand on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean near our home in Southern California, I watch lines of waves forming far out on the horizon. These waves that finally break near shore are much larger today than normal.

The weather is sunny and calm where I stand. But when I checked the surf report, I found that these waves were generated many days ago and thousands of miles away by a ferocious hurricane-force storm off the tip of New Zealand.

To surf these waves effectively, I need to know as much as possible about their size, power, direction, and speed.

Waves on the Ocean and on the Church

In the first decade of the 21st century, waves of various practices, fads, and styles continue to break over the church. Like ocean waves, forces far away and long ago often generate the waves of church issues that impact us today. If we are to ride them effectively, we need to know as much as possible about the forces that brought them about and how they will impact us.

Following World War II, the parachurch movement spawned various organizations — the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. These organizations revolutionized campus and evangelistic mission. During the 1960s and 70s, the Jesus movement transfigured traditional ways of expressing worship. The 1980s and 90s saw the arrival of the seeker movement with megachurches that reached out to people who had never darkened the door of conventional churches. In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, we are witnessing the spiritual formation movement. This movement transcends ecclesial lines to impact mainline, charismatic, Bible, and emergent churches with the quest for meaningful spirituality.

Each of these movements generated power that impacts today’s church. We find different waves of discipleship and disciple making breaking over the church. Disciple making is not a recent or unique phenomenon. It was initiated nearly 2,000 years ago when Jesus called out to men and women, “Follow Me.”

But other forces impact disciple making as we know it in the church today. The terms discipleship and disciple making are related expressions, referring to growing as a disciple of Jesus and helping others to grow as Jesus’ disciples. Each of us has various conceptions of discipleship and disciple making that are influenced by our experiences.

Discipleship and Disciple-making Traditions

The waves of discipleship materials that have swept over the church in the past 60 years have, in many cases, caused people today to be more confused than ever when they consider what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. These traditions developed out of a desire to be more like the disciples of Jesus in the New Testament. Yet, they often became so rigorously focused on their particular practices that only an elite few could adhere to them.

The learner. Some emphasize that a disciple is dedicated to intense Bible study. A disciple is actively involved in personal devotional time, Bible memorization, and Bible study as a regular habit of life. This implies that a Christian becomes a disciple when he is dedicated to learning the Word of God and applying it.

The committed. Others emphasize that a disciple is committed to Christ. He has rejected a worldly lifestyle. This means that a Christian is a disciple when he truly denies himself, takes up his cross, and actively follows Jesus every day.

The worker. Still others declare that a disciple is actively involved in Christian service. His service distinguishes him from nominal Christians who simply attend a group or church. This implies that a Christian becomes a disciple when he is an active worker for Christ.

The mentor. Some are involved in one-on-one relationships in which an older, more mature Christian disciples them. This is often called mentoring. Many people believe that those involved in such relationships can say they have experienced true discipleship.

The small group. Small groups are one of the most effective means of facilitating growth in Christians because we can learn from the examples of others, open our lives to others, and are accountable by others to the growth we desire. Many suggest that because Jesus discipled a small band of followers, true discipleship occurs when a person is involved in a small group.

A Definition of Discipleship

There is truth in each of these because each promotes growth in the Christian life. They have, however, often been mistakenly advocated as ways that an individual becomes a disciple. It is often advocated that once a Christian’s life is characterized by one or more of these commitments he becomes a disciple.

The root of much of the confusion today about discipleship is the implication that discipleship is a second stage in the Christian life. An expression found among some goes: “All disciples are Christians, but not all Christians are disciples.” In this view, discipleship is for an elite, more committed, or more specially trained group of Christians.

But this is not what Jesus’ intends for us to understand about discipleship and disciple making. A more accurate conception is seen in the Great Commission where we understand that a person who believes on Jesus becomes a disciple at conversion. Jesus said that we are to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20), not to make disciples out of Christians. So at the moment a person believes in Jesus and receives eternal life, he becomes a disciple of Jesus. The ongoing Christian life for all believers is discipleship.

Therefore, all true believers are disciples of Jesus; the point is whether or not they are obedient disciples. Furthermore, in this more holistic understanding, disciple making is not only one aspect of the church’s mission; it encompasses all the church does. Disciple making is the church’s ministry to help believers grow in discipleship to Jesus.

The prevalence of elitism in many of our traditions explains why some people are frustrated in their Christian life. A two-level conception of the Christian life promotes apathy among those who have not yet chosen to be committed. This suggests that the higher level of commitment is optional. In the daily world of most Christians this means that commitment to Christlikeness is optional.

Discipleship and disciple-making emphases of the past 60 years have focused on isolated discipleship passages of Scripture or particular biblical discipleship themes to provide specialized ministry. This specialization, however, often comes at the expense of a full biblical portrait of discipleship. A more complete definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ follows:

Discipleship means living in union with Jesus Christ, growing in conformity to His image as the Spirit transforms us from the inside out, being nurtured within a community of disciples who are engaged in that lifelong process, and helping others to know and become like Jesus.

Essentials of Discipleship for a Disciple-making Church

With this definition in mind, we can explore the following essential features of biblical discipleship and disciple making that must characterize our attempts to develop a disciple-making ministry.

Discipleship must be grounded in a personal, costly relationship with a seeking Savior

The new life that comes at regeneration cost Jesus, and it costs us. Although it is not something we can buy, it is costly nevertheless. The cost is life: Jesus’ life and our life. The cost of Jesus’ life was given in His death on the cross. He came to make those who were spiritually ill fit for His kingdom. This initiative could only be accomplished through the penalty He paid for our sins in His loving act of redemption on the cross. He gave His life so we might have life (1 Corinthians 6:19,20; Mark 10:45).

The cost for us is also our life. While Jesus’ death on the cross is unique, we also lose our life through taking up our own cross (Matthew 16:24–26).

Disciple making begins with intentional evangelism that challenges people to count the cost of accepting Jesus’ call to life in the kingdom of God, which prepares them to engage in and expect personal transformation as the normal Christian life.

Discipleship must begin with and strive toward a transformed identity in Jesus

From the moment of salvation, God views us differently. We are born into a new identity as His children (John 1:12,13). We are new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are being transformed into (2 Corinthians 3:18), and conformed to (Romans 8:29), the image of Christ, as Christ is being formed in us (Galatians 4:19).

Our identity as a disciple of Jesus affects all that we are, including the way we see ourselves, the way we relate to God, and the way we relate to others. Disciple-making churches must help new and older Christians find their identity in being Jesus’ disciples in their relationships at home, in the workplace, in the community, and in the church.

Discipleship must be initiated and empowered by the Spirit of God

The Spirit of God initiates the spiritual life that accompanied Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God (John 3:5,6). This phenomenon is described from different perspectives by different New Testament authors: “regeneration” (Titus 3:5, NASB);1 “new birth” and “born again” (1 Peter 1:3,23); spiritual resurrection (Romans 6:13; Ephesians 2:5) and “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10); and God’s “seed” in us (1 John 3:9).

We are different persons once the Spirit gives us new life. The supernatural work of God deep within our soul implants new spiritual life in us, and from that moment the direction of our lives is placed Godward as the Spirit begins to produce new life — the life of Jesus — in us.

John’s gospel gives us three characteristics of Spirit-empowered discipleship that give direction to our disciple-making ministries:

1. Being set free from the lies of the world by Jesus’ truth(John 8:31,32). This freedom is the Spirit-empowered ability to do what is right and good, the ability to choose God, and to be liberated from sin’s bondage. Disciple making means to help disciples reject the lies of the world about our values and goals. It also helps us find the freedom to live life the way God intended it to be lived by continually hearing Jesus’ truth about reality.

2. Being loved by Jesus means to love like Jesus (John 13:34,35). This love is shown when we make an unconditional commitment to imperfect people to bring our relationships to God’s intended purpose. Disciple making helps disciples express this love in their marriages, their parenting, and their relationships within the church and world. Helping disciples experience Jesus’ love enables them to love others.

3. Bearing the fruit of being united to Jesus (John 15:7,8). Our ongoing transformation into the image of Christ comes through the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23). The Spirit of God is the central empowering agency of our discipleship to Jesus. Disciple-making churches teach people how to walk in the power of the Spirit so their lives exude the fruit of the Spirit and the fruit of godly righteousness (Philippians 1:11; Colossians 1:10).

Discipleship must be continually guided by God’s Word

Disciple-making churches help people adopt radical commitments to the authority of the Word of God as the absolute truth about reality. This is not simply the acquisition of truth, but the internalization of truth so it expresses our worldview, characterizes our values, and conveys our entire lifestyle.

As we teach people the Word of God, we equip them to compare God’s Word to the world’s values so they can follow Jesus obediently in all circumstances (Matthew 28:20).

Discipleship must be a lifelong process whereby we become more fully human

Because people are created in the image of God, they are like God and represent God in a way like no other creature (Genesis 1:27–31). The image of God is in our nature. It is what we are — mentally, morally, spiritually, relationally — rather than something we have or do. Sin distorted the image of God in us by affecting every aspect of our likeness to Him, yet restoration begins with our redemption in Christ (see Colossians 3:10).

Therefore, disciple-making churches help believers develop in every area of their lives by helping them transition intentionally through life’s dimensions and stages so they continually grow into His image. Disciples of Jesus are intent on becoming more fully a disciple in every area of their lives.

I had a radical conversion to Jesus and turned from a life of drugs and pleasure seeking. I discovered that my life as Jesus’ disciple helped me become what I was intended to be — a person created in God’s image. My commitment to Christ continues to affect every area of my life, including my marriage and family, my enjoyment of God’s creation as I surf or hike a mountain trail, or in my growth in serving Jesus in my profession.

Discipleship must be nurtured in communities of faith

Each disciple enjoys a personal relationship with Christ that facilitates transformation into His image. This personal relationship must be nurtured within two primary communities of faith — the spiritual family and the biological family.

The spiritual family is the church. Entrance into the church is based on experiencing the new birth (Matthew 12:46–50; John 1:12,13; Matthew 16:18). Brothers and sisters in Christ need each other — a spiritual community of faith — to stimulate their growth as well as the Body as a whole (Ephesians 4:11–13; Hebrews 10:24,25).

The biological family continues to play a major role in God’s program. Marriage is a relationship in which husbands and wives mutually nurture each other’s transformations. The parental role is designed to nurture children to know God’s will for their lives and help them grow as whole persons reflecting the image of Christ (Ephesians 5:22 through 6:4).

A disciple-making church accepts its responsibility to equip families so husbands and wives can nurture each other and so parents can nurture their own children. In turn, the responsibility of the family is to train the next generation of leaders within the church (see 1 Timothy 3:4,5; Titus 1:6,7).

Discipleship is developed within the spiritual family and the biological family. Disciple-making churches unite these two families and help them work to support and strengthen each other.

Discipleship must be carried out by sojourning in our everyday, watching world

In this life, a Christian is a sojourner, a resident alien (Psalm 39:12). Creation awaits its renewal, and it groans under bondage to sin and decay (Romans 8:19–22).

Regenerated disciples, however, have been set free from death and sin; our transformation has already begun. Therefore, we are not of this world; our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), and we are aliens and strangers in the world (1 Peter 2:11).

Nevertheless, our purpose is to advance the gospel that has redeemed and transformed us, to be salt and light in a decayed and dark world, and to live as God intends for us to live before a watching world (see John 17:15–21).

Communities of faith are places where believers gather to be strengthened and equipped. The growth and transformation we experience enables us to live effectively as Jesus’ disciples in this world. Our transformation enables us to live as sojourners in the world, and “live such good lives among the pagans that ... they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:11,12).

Disciple-making churches help transformed disciples bear and exemplify the gospel in their everyday activities, offering the life of Jesus’ kingdom to a world that is dying without it.

Disciple Making Is Not Just Another Program, but a Transformation

The tremendous privilege we have as Christians is to walk as Jesus’ disciples and to be continually transformed into His image as we grow in Him. The Holy Spirit is still at work calling people to follow Jesus today. Our joyous task is to fashion our ministries to serve Him to that end.

This is not just another optional program (see sidebar, Disciple Making and Discipleship Programs). Disciple making is central to all we do. Disciple making is the expression of how God equips and transforms Christians for this life through the ministry of the church. As a new, powerful wave of discipleship breaks over the shores of our churches, we have the privilege of helping people know how to surf it effectively. Disciple-making churches help everyday people who are being transformed as Jesus’ disciples to be a light in the darkness and to be living examples of the hope of transformation that our world desperately needs.

Disciple-making churches help disciples of every age and stage of growth learn how to walk with Jesus and to be transformed by Him in every area of their lives.

Disciple Making and Discipleship Programs

Discipleship programs can be helpful because they provide tangible methods and outcomes. When programs are proven effective in helping people gain knowledge, or in solidifying behaviors, or in producing desired leaders, they can be used repeatedly with a variety of people in diverse settings.

But programs can also entice pastors to substitute methods and forms for people. Programs often focus on external behavior as a means of evaluating growth. This cookie-cutter approach to disciple making expects everyone to look exactly like the model laid out in our particular program. We expect people to perform according to what our program lays out.

If programs help, we should use them. But we need to be careful not to use a program that might destroy the uniqueness of people, or serve as a substitute for the living example of Jesus in the lives of people.

Michael Wilkins, San Clemente, California