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What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, Go and Make Disciples?

make disciples

When Jesus said, Go and make disciples He gave the church a clear mandate to spread the gospel and bring people into the Kingdom.

Over the last 20 years, pastors have been wrestling with many questions about how to make disciples. There have been discussions about discipleship definitions, pathways, and communities.

Let’s explore some of these questions and consider some answers.

What is discipleship?

For me, being a disciple has 3 primary components:

  1. Walking with Jesus as your Lord and being transformed into His image.
  2. Walking with believers in a community of faith.
  3. Revealing Jesus to our community.

Here are what leading Christian thinkers describe as discipleship.

“Discipleship is not an option. Jesus says that if anyone would come after me, he must follow me.”

Tim Keller

“The Christian life is the discipled life and the discipling life.”

Mark Dever

“To be a disciple is to be committed to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and committed to following Him every day. To be a disciple is also to be disciplined in our bodies, minds, and souls.”

Billy Graham

“Christian discipleship is a decision to walk in his ways, steadily and firmly, and then finding that the way integrates all our interests, passions, and gifts, our human needs and eternal aspirations. It is the way of life we were created for.”

Eugene H. Peterson

make disciples

“Discipleship is the art and science of helping people find, follow, and fully become like Jesus.”

Brandon Cox

“Discipleship is a daily discipline; we follow Jesus a step at a time, a day at a time.”

Warren W. Wiersbe

“Discipleship is based solely on devotion to Jesus Christ, not on following after a particular belief or doctrine.”

Oswald Chambers

What is the C.O.R.E. of discipleship?

When pastors ask me about discipleship, I talk to them about the C.O.R.E. of discipleship.

Chaos

Discipling people is never tidy and clean. If you want to disciple people then you must embrace the chaos and the mess.

If you think about the discipleship needs of a teenager compared to a young mum compared to a businessperson compared to a pensioner compared to an engaged couple. Their discipleship needs are different and that is why it is chaotic discipling a church.

Organic

Most pastors have tried to organize discipleship pathways which primarily ends up as courses. 

In this process, pastors discover that discipleship is organically non-linear. It is a tangled web of connections, experiences, and transformations.

Relationships

I see relationships as the essence of discipleship. Without active relationships with Jesus and His community of faith, we will never be discipled.

Encounters

My good friend Jim Yap took my COR framework and added encounter. Superb work Jim! Change comes through supernatural encounters with the Word and the Holy Spirit.

I think this is the C.O.R.E. of discipleship.

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What was Jesus’ approach to making disciples?

Jesus’ approach included insightful teaching, relational closeness, accountability, coaching, and empowerment. He was never afraid to challenge and rebuke. His approach was typical of first-century rabbinical methods which shows us discipling principles rather than a methodology to be adopted.

Can you create discipleship pathways?

Pathways produce clarity but I think there’s a limitation to their usefulness around discipleship. I think they are superb for assimilating new people, connecting people into small groups, mobilizing people to serve, and moving people into mission.

Savvy pastors are helping grow healthy churches by thoughtfully outlining the next steps for their church members.

Churches are creating clear pathways into the church, into leadership, and a small group.

However, if you reduce discipleship to a pathway, you can be seduced into thinking, ah we are discipling now.

The brutal reality I discovered is that I was just trying to get people into courses. Pathways have limited effectiveness in discipling.

make disciples

What is the process of making disciples?

I believe a primary task for pastors in discipleship is creating spaces for discipleship to occur.

These spaces are rows and circles.

In your weekend services, people are in rows, worshipping, singing, hearing God’s Word, connecting, giving, listening to 8 announcements, and drinking bad coffee! Just kidding about those last two but maybe not!

In your small group gatherings, people are in circles.

They are face to face, around a table, or in a family room. Interaction is central as people talk, discuss, share, pray, and love one another, fostering deep spiritual growth and commitment.

Pastors are called to create effective living spaces, rows and circles.

In these spaces, discipleship happens in organic and chaotic ways, as the unique combination of the Word, Spirit, and people transform us to be like Christ.

How does the Bible say to make disciples?

An interesting word study analyzing the use of the word disciple in the NIV NT is a fascinating study.

I ran a couple of social media polls and the results are fascinating.

Disciple appears 31 times in the gospels and Acts.

Disciples appears 266 times in the gospels and Acts.

Discipleship does not appear in the NT.

And none of these words appear after Acts. They do not appear in any of the letters of Paul, John, James, or Jude, nor in Hebrews or Revelation.

Paul prefers holy people (saints) and believers which appear 60 times.

Why does the word evaporate from the NT?

We can only speculate so let me add my speculation.

  • Maybe Paul wants us to focus on who we are in Christ (saints, holy people, believers) rather than who is our teacher.
  • Maybe Paul didn’t want us to get too hung up about the concept and rather focus on the journey of walking with Christ and His people.
  • Maybe Paul makes the switch to reach Gentiles to whom the concept of discipling was foreign.
  • Maybe Paul is endeavoring to avoid the pitfalls of excessive control of people in a teacher/disciple relationship.

Another interesting highlight is that “disciples” is used 9x more than “disciple”. Surely this is a pointer to how true discipleship occurs. It occurs in the context of relationships within a community of faith.

And this is my big takeaway from the usage of disciples in the NT. Ultimately, relationships are the central essence of discipleship.

What are some practical ways to make disciples?

Practical ways include intentional focus, strong Bible connection, genuine worship, coaching, Holy Spirit moments, accountability, and ultimately fostering a community that stimulates spiritual growth.

Here are 8 ways I utilized to make disciples:

  • Intentional Focus – I believe pastors must intentionally focus on creating those living spaces for their church. It’s often in the mundane repetition of everyday church life that disciples are formed.
  • Small groups – my conviction is that a church without small groups will fail at discipleship.
  • Solid Bible connection – sermons that lack a strong element of the Scriptures will not produce followers of Christ.
  • Worship songs – songs that focus on my needs must be balanced out with songs of high praise that focus on magnifying God. Every generation grapples with the challenge of getting this balance right.
  • Mentoring relationships – everyone getting married in our church was partnered with an older couple for 2 years in a mentoring relationship. This is discipleship in action.
  • Accountability – we grow when we are in genuine relationships where we answer, and ask tough questions.
  • Encounter moments – I think it’s vital to make space in our gatherings for the Holy Spirit to apply the Word and speak to people. Slow down. Create space. Encourage encounters.
  • Empower others – make discipleship a church-wide experience.

What is the goal of making disciples?

The goal is to nurture believers who walk with Christ as Lord, apply biblical teachings, and share the gospel with others. This is all achieved within a community of God’s people.

Is today’s church making disciples?

Yes, we are.

I think most churches are doing better at this than they often realize. I see many churches providing spaces every week for people to follow Christ and know Him.

Can we do it better? I think that’s an unhelpful question. Here’s a better one – what’s one thing we could improve this month as we make disciples?

What’s your answer?

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John is a wellspring of information, experience and advice in all things church. His responses were often out of the box of what's been said before.
Ps Christie Blaikie
Oasis Church

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