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The following post was written by Scott James and originally published on October 22, at Canon and Culture.

Christians within secular academic institutions have always had to navigate varying degrees of hostile waters as they seek to live out an active faith. While it is certainly a fertile harvest field, the pluralistic university environment can also pose a real hindrance to open Gospel proclamation. Add to that the recent trend of creedal Christian student groups losing campus privileges under the pretext of non-discrimination policies and it’s easy to see why many followers of Christ perceive an antagonistic climate within their universities.

Having spent the better part of my adult life on university campuses as either a student or faculty member, I can attest to the intimidating nature of this environment when it comes to religious expression. The new tolerance has shown itself to be decidedly intolerant if you intend to hold your beliefs tightly. Sadly, I cannot say that I have always responded to the challenge in faithful obedience. Fearing man more than God, the outward expression of my faith has at times been remarkably silent. Under the guise of professionalism and prudence, I convinced myself that a bold witness was simply not possible in the hallways and courtyards of my university. In doing so, I built an artificial barrier between sacred and secular, compartmentalizing my faith and ministry into a realm distinct from academic life.

But God has proven Himself faithful despite my reticence. As He has patiently worked in me, there is one thing in particular He has used to catalyze my understanding of what it means to be an authentic witness in an adversarial environment: global missions. I have had the privilege of being a small part of God’s work in countries that are closed to the Gospel, teaching and evangelizing in contexts with very real restrictions and very real consequences. And yet, through dependence on His Spirit and application of some basic cross-cultural strategies, I was able to boldly proclaim Christ and fuel the long-term disciple-making efforts in these countries. But despite seeing God’s astonishing work on these trips, when I returned home to my university appointment I would slide right back into a spirit of timidity. One day, the absurdity of the situation struck me—I was willing to fly to the other side of the world to proclaim the good news in an incredibly difficult context, yet unwilling to do it on my own campus! God used this fresh (and painfully obvious) conviction to show me that it was indeed possible to live out a winsome faith in a hard place.

So, if you are a Christ follower living, studying, or working within the increasingly difficult context of secular academic institutions, I offer 5 ways of applying the cross-cultural framework of global missions in the hope that it will help you as you seek to make disciples:

  1. View your campus as a mission field to which you have been sent

Mission fields are not limited to places abroad. The simple fact is that if you do not perceive yourself to be on mission at your university, it’s unlikely that you will consistently engage in disciple-making efforts there. Take ownership of your school’s community as a people group to which you have been sent to serve. In your daily interactions with classmates and colleagues, you have the privilege of being a part of a diverse community filled with lost people in need of a great Savior.

It’s important to realize that God has placed you where you are for a reason. No matter how gifted an evangelist your pastor may be, he will not normally have access to the classrooms, laboratories, departmental offices, and hospital wards in which you spend your days. God has given you this unique sphere of influence—use it for His glory. Pray for and engage your people group.

  1. Be sensitive to where God is already at work

I once attended a faculty orientation in which an administrator made a very practical request. She said, “Walk with your eyes up.” You see, our campus is sprawling and can be a difficult place for visitors to navigate, so her simple appeal was that we not walk around campus with earbuds in and noses buried in a book, oblivious to the needs of people around us. In essence, she asked us to serve our visitors by having a heightened awareness of opportunities to help people in need. As Christians we should also be attentive to what is going on around us.

Part of being an effective cross-cultural worker is simply having the spiritual sensitivity to see what God is doing and the willingness to set your agenda aside to join in with His work. Even if your environment is openly hostile to expressions of Christian belief, trust that God is at work under the surface and be on the lookout for where that might be. Much in the same way that missionaries pioneering gospel proclamation among unreached people groups will often find evidences of God already moving within the hearts of the people, we are likely to find that He is already stirring in unexpected ways within our university communities. Be alert to opportunities in which He is calling you to be a part of His work. As you go about your campus activities, walk with your eyes up, sensitive to where those opportunities might be.

  1. Live and work with excellence, as to the Lord

Even in settings where verbal proclamation of your faith is unwelcome or restricted, you are still able to express real and true things about God through the way you live.  In Titus 2:7-10, Paul says that we should “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” by the way we carry ourselves in society. He prescribes things such as good works, integrity, dignity, sound speech, submission to authority, and living with a general respect for those around us. In short, Paul is exhorting us to be good students and good employees. Strive to be excellent in everything you do because it commends the Gospel and because, ultimately, we are working as to the Lord (Colossians 3:22).

But what are we really trying to accomplish with our excellence? Are we seeking to earn the respect of others so that they’ll want to follow our God? Is this merely lifestyle evangelism? No, we strive for excellence in all of our interactions with others because it honors God and because we love people. In love, we build friendships with classmates and colleagues and it is within those relationships that we are truly able to serve them well (including the ultimate service—pointing them to Christ).

  1. Look for persons of peace

When you think about sharing your faith on campus your mind might immediately populate with the faces of antagonistic persons with whom religious talk is a non-starter. It’s that thought process that so often paralyzes our witness, and understandably so! Approaching a person like that can be quite daunting. But even in a setting where many people are known to be hostile to Christianity, not every person is equally so. There are always people who remain open to spiritual conversations, even if they are not followers of Christ. Identify those persons of peace within your campus circles and begin developing safe relationships with them.

One benefit of engaging persons of peace is that it lowers the threshold for having spiritual conversations. It’s an open door to Gospel conversations in a difficult place. Not only is it of direct benefit to the person with whom you are conversing, but it also creates a splash-over effect on those around you as they hear you openly discussing the things of God. It’s not that you are sneaking the Gospel to them, but it can lead to future conversations in which a person approaches you and says, “I heard you talking the other day and I was wondering about something you said.” In this way, people with whom I’ve had difficulty engaging in spiritual conversations have actually approached me on their own to discuss Scripture. When we cannot see a way in, sometimes God opens the door for us.

  1. Sew Gospel threads every chance you get

At some point, Gospel demonstration must lead to Gospel proclamation. Unfortunately, evangelism is often relegated to a presentation event, as if an uninterrupted 5-minute monologue is a normal thing in adult conversation. Viewing evangelism primarily in this way creates an unhelpful barrier in closed environments where proclaiming the Gospel is already difficult. But while the prospect of cornering a person to present a Gospel spiel may not seem feasible, we must also avoid choosing silence as the alternative. This is where the concept of sewing Gospel threads is particularly useful.

Rather than waiting for the perfect opportunity to uncork a presentation on someone, seek to build healthy relationships and allow the themes of the Gospel saturate your normal conversations. The basic concept of Gospel threads is that we are swimming so deeply in these glorious Biblical themes that they can’t help but overflow into our everyday language. If we are tuned in, we will see opportunities to weave Gospel threads all around us. Thinking through a classic framework such as God–Man–Christ–Response or Creation–Fall–Redemption–Consummation can also help you keep the big picture in mind (the whole tapestry, so to speak) as you underscore particular threads of the Gospel. Even in a highly secular environment, themes of creation, beauty, brokenness, yearning, salvation, and hope are pervasive. God has placed these refrains in each person’s heart. In our everyday conversations, we can resonate with these longings and, even better, we have the privilege of pointing people to their Author.

Now, in making this comparison to ministry in a closed country, I do not want to minimize in any way the persecution of our brothers and sisters living in those difficult places. My pluralistic university atmosphere is not on par with the threat of imprisonment and death that many believers face every day. My prayer, rather, is that as you seek to make disciples amid the very real obstacles in your setting it will fuel your awareness of their persecution all the more. Let the example of their sacrificial service compel you to pray for and support them, but also let it lead you to trust that God can work through the adversity you face at your university. He is faithful.

Scott James is as an Elder at The Church at Brook Hills, a Research Fellow with the ERLC Research Institute, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” So the saying goes, overused as it may be. But when it comes to studying the Bible, the “teach a man to fish” mentality has much to offer

Equipping people to self-feed is part of your goal as a disciple-maker. It’s also John Piper’s goal in the latest initiative from Desiring God – Look at the Book. In their creative introduction video, Piper explains that during Look at the Book teaching sessions, you’ll see the text instead of the teacher. While this is literally the format (the words of Scripture on your screen) it’s also the goal–to see, firsthand, the treasure that’s in the Bible. As you watch his pen circle, underline, connect, dissect, and “plunder each line for all it’s worth,” the man teaching fades in the glorious light of the truth being taught. The hope is that you walk away from each short session with skills that will assist you, as a student of the Word, in discovering more of God each day through your own study of the Bible.

Watch below to see Luke 12:32 come alive (your heart along with it) as John Piper leads you to look at the Book.

Click HERE for an outline of the Look at the Book session on Luke 12:33, as well as for some study questions.

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Recently, we posted a link to an article by Trevin Wax titled “The Great Commission Means Sharing Christ’s Story, Not Yours.”  In it, he cautions us against the popular tendency to emphasize what Christ has done in our lives at the expense of sharing what Christ has done in history, namely, his death and resurrection. This notion that evangelism cannot be equated with sharing your personal testimony received some pushback. However, it seems to us that Wax’s article is appropriate and timely. Here’s why:

  1. The gospel we are to preach is not essentially the good news of how you have been changed. Rather, it is the good news of how God saves. If we are to proclaim the gospel throughout the world (which we are), then we ought to be clear on what the gospel is … and it is not ultimately about you. Jesus is the object of our faith, and thus, the focal point of the gospel. As the article pointed out, the apostles’ witness primarily dealt with who they saw Christ was and what they saw Christ do. That’s why when Paul wrote about delivering what was “of first importance,” he centered on Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15: 3-5), not his Damascus Road experience.
  2. Only the gospel call confronts someone with their need to repent and trust in Jesus for salvation. Good stories may make people feel good. Accounts of personal change can inspire others to be more moral. Sharing how Jesus has saved you may even show someone a good example of repentance and faith. But we must also call people to it. J.I. Packer says that “evangelism is the issuing of a call to turn, as well as to trust; it is the delivering, not merely of a divine invitation to receive a Savior, but of a divine command to repent of sin. And there is no evangelism where this specific application is not made” (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 43-44).

If we are clear on what evangelism is (and isn’t), it is easy to see that Wax was dead on when he said sharing your story must not be confused with sharing Christ’s. Don’t mistake this for an academic exercise in semantics, though. This article needed to be written. It shows many of us that we may not have had as good an understanding of evangelism as we may have thought, or else hits at the heart of our own sinful tendencies to shy away from proclaiming the whole gospel.

Isn’t it easy, when it comes down to it, to share your story as a mere alternative to someone else’s? “Thanks for sharing your experience and resulting worldview; now let me share mine” … the Great Commission is not a call swap ideas. It isn’t fun to confront people with a message that says: “You’re wrong and headed to eternal punishment because of it. You need so stop what you’re doing and start trusting in Jesus.” But at the end of the day, ignorant non-swimmers headed to the deep end of the pool won’t care care if you embarrass or offend them when you stop them from diving to their death … and for that matter neither will you. Yet in evangelism, it’s all too easy, whether through a story or some other approach, to fall short of warning people of the danger they’re in because it would be uncomfortable to do so.

You may use your story to give some handles to what repentance and faith looks like. You may use your story to segue into Christ’s. But your story in and of itself is definitively not evangelism. So to close, here are some good summary statements of what evangelism is:

“Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.” J. Mack Stiles, Evangelism, 26

“According to the New Testament, evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel. It is a work of communication in which Christians make themselves mouthpieces for God’s message of mercy to sinners.” J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 45

“Evangelism is telling people the wonderful truth about God, the great news about Jesus Christ.” Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, 82

To sum it all up…

“The content of our message is Christ and God, not our journey to faith. Our personal testimony may be included, but witnessing is more than reciting our spiritual autobiography. Specific truths about a specific person are the subject of our proclamation. A message has been committed to us–a word of reconciliation to the world (2 Cor 5:19).” Will Metzger, Tell the Truth, 55

 

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Note from the editor: This blog post by Thabiti Anyabwile originally appeared here at Pure Church on May 1, 2013.

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I wonder if others observe a phenomenon I think I see in many churches: people clustering with others in their generation? The 20-somethings spend their time with other 20-somethings talking about 20-something concerns. The young families hang out with other young families, hosting play dates and trading parenting tips. It seems to me that 60-somethings tend to flock together with other 60-somethings. There are notable exceptions, of course. There are those older men and women who become pillars in the church by investing in younger men and women. And there are the younger persons who seek to serve young families or older members. But by and large, people seem to spend the bulk of their spiritual energy and time with other people in the same stage of life.

There’s much that can be said about this–its scope, causes, benefits, and so on. But one thing that strikes me today is that segregating into enclaves based on age and life-stage tends to weaken the future of the church. What do I mean?

Well, it’s clear that God intends the faith to be taught and passed down from the older generation to the younger. Paul’s words to Titus are perhaps the most well-known words to this effect:

You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. (Titus 2:1-8)

But what happens when this vision of body life doesn’t materialize in a widespread way because we cluster into our demographic groups?

Well, 20-somethings tend to learn mostly from other 20-somethings. They’re cut off from the perspective and wisdom gained by being a generation or two older. They develop 20-something solutions to what will likely either be 40-something foundations or problems. They make courtship and dating decisions that look really cool at 20 but turn out to be short-sighted at 40. They make purchasing decisions that seem life-giving at 20 that turn into major burdens at 40. I think I see lots of 20-somethings (guys in particular) running the race without self-control, self-control that older members could and should help them gain.

Meanwhile, the 40-somethings work through marriage, parenting, and career issues without the longer view of 60-somethings. As quiet as it’s kept, knowing how to be a husband, wife or parent doesn’t come to us by osmosis. We have to be taught how to love a wife, how to respect a husband, and how to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And sometimes those callings get as nuts-and-bolts as learning how to cook, how to discipline, how to argue and how to make up. During this period, our 30- and 40-somethings develop or continue habits that either help or hurt. Sadly, many will do so without the wisdom that comes from more seasoned experience. Consequently, they take the same lumps others could have helped them avoid. Or they “make it” through that middle-age season via a series of trial and error experiments.

This, of course, affects the temperature and vitality of the church. We have congregations of people “trying to figure life out” largely alone. Great amounts of time get invested in helping young people negotiate the choppy waters of early adulthood, middle-aged people work their way through challenges of marriage, family, and career, and older persons figure out meaning late in life sometimes without much-loved spouses, declining health, and shrinking numbers of living peers. Pastors and elders mistakenly think they must become masters of each stage of life, counsel people through every opportunity and difficulty, and be there in every circumstance. But, actually, the Bible instructs the pastor to teach the congregation to be there for one another and does so by tying the generations together so that the built-in expertise of old age gets leveraged for every younger generation. It’s a beautiful thing.

In this way older members of the local church become the front line of discipleship and care. They brighten the future of the church by teaching younger members how to live out the faith, how to avoid mistakes, seize opportunities, practically apply the word of God to their lived realities. As that store of wisdom, maturity, and experience gets passed on and received with humility, the spiritual, emotional, and volitional maturity of the congregation rises considerably. The more mature the young persons in the body the brighter the future of the church. We sometimes act as if older members have no role vital to the future of the church. But actually they are absolutely essential, indispensable.

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Thabiti Anyabwile is a church planter in Washington D.C. and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition.

Note from the editor: This blog post by Jeremy Carr originally appeared here at The Resurgence on July 22, 2013.

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Jesus uses Scripture to unravel our misconceptions of discipleship and center us on him, propelling us into true disciple-making.

“You don’t value discipleship.”

That’s what a young man told me recently as he sat down to inform me of his intention to begin looking for another church.

He explained that over the years at our church, he had grown in his faith and in his relationships in community, but that for this next season he needed “more discipleship.” The conversation progressed from criticisms of our discipleship method to the summary accusation “you don’t value discipleship.”

No pastor or church planter wants to hear this. After all, our prime motivation in church planting is to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:16-20). The Great Commission fuels our methods of discipleship. In my case, this young man was someone I had personally invested in for many years.

DO YOU VALUE DISCIPLESHIP?

His accusation left me with the question: Do you value discipleship? As I evaluated my personal discipling of others and our church’s discipleship method, I was reminded of the story in Mark 7:1-13. Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees who question certain practices. They refer to “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:35) and “many other traditions” (Mark 7:4), equating their oral law with the authority of the written Law.

Our prime motivation in church planting is to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:16-20). The Great Commission fuels our methods of discipleship.

In so doing, the Pharisees were promoting cultural traditionalism at the expense of extending the gift of God’s word. Moreover, they question Jesus on his method of discipleship: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?” (Mark 7:5). In essence, they were accusing Jesus of not valuing discipleship.

DISCIPLING BY THE BOOK

When questioned on his discipleship method, Jesus quotes Isaiah and Exodus, packing a one-two punch of Prophet and Law. He draws the Pharisees’ attention back to Scripture, displaying the Scripture’s role in discipleship as supreme over their religious traditions. The Book of Mark, like all the Gospels, reveals for us the truth that Jesus himself fulfills the Old Testament prophecies and meets the Law’s demands on our behalf. Furthermore, Jesus states, “‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45).

The resurrected Jesus then charges his disciples, who are “witnesses of these things,” with the mission that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [Christ’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47-48). Jesus uses Scripture to unravel our misconceptions of discipleship and center us on him, propelling us into true disciple-making.

JESUS VALUES DISCIPLES

Jesus did not die for your method of discipleship. Jesus died for disciples. He did not come to shape people into methodological conformity. He came to rescue us by his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension so that we may be transformed to be like him.

Jesus did not die for your method of discipleship. Jesus died for disciples.

With this in mind, I said farewell to this young man because I realized he had different needs for his season of life. I chose to value him as a disciple more than I valued his discipleship. Trusting the Holy Spirit’s work in and through this young man, I can rest assured that his identity as a disciple is not compromised by his transition to a different context for discipleship.

Scripture reveals the good news of Jesus. This good news shapes how we love, serve, and teach others as disciples making disciples. Rather than asking, “Do you value discipleship?” perhaps we should ask, “Do you value disciples?” How we answer this question will shape our approach to discipleship, calling people to Jesus, unpacking the truths of Scripture, and providing the environment for the Holy Spirit to shape them and empower them for obedience.

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Jeremy Carr (M.Div, Th.M) is lead teaching pastor and co-founding elder of Redemption Church, an Acts 29 church in Augusta, GA. He is author of the book Sound Words: Listening to the Scriptures.

Note from the editor: This excerpt by Joe Thorn originally appeared here at JOETHORN.NET on August 22, 2007.

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As we are developing ministries for our new church in the Chicago suburbs we are starting from scratch. From leadership development, to worship, to mercy ministries, to discipleship we are not buying pre-packaged material or simply using someone else’s system. There are a lot of reasons for this that I will get into later, but one of the things I have been thinking a lot about is the issue of making disciples.

For many Christians, the idea of making disciples boils down to a kind of intellectual development. I have been a part of churches that considered themselves “strong in discipleship” which meant they took theology seriously and taught their members everything from the nature of God, to the ordo salutis. While I believe this is a foundational component of discipleship, it is not the whole. And even when this emphasis on doctrine is present, there is often a disconnect between theology and experience; between knowing and doing. This obviously is not true of every church that emphasizes doctrine, but it is a common problem. The reality, of course, is that doctrine is necessarily connected to what we do and feel.

Dr. Richard Pratt teaches that our theology should establish orthodoxy (the truth about God and the gospel), orthopraxy (a life lived in harmony with God’s law) and orthopathos (religious affections). Others have said that the aim of theology is doxology, or worship. These are helpful and biblical ways of explaining the connection between Christian thinking, doing and feeling. How does this connect to making disciples? We cannot make disciples apart from teaching sound doctrine, but simple indoctrination is not enough. Our theology should give life to godly living and real affection. Jesus makes it very clear that discipleship is more than what we know. His disciples are those who know the truth, love genuinely and live obediently (Jn 8:31; 14:18-24; 13:34-35).

But how do we go about making disciples? I would suggest three simple principles.

1. Instruction. God has given us his word, which is the tool by which the Holy Spirit sanctifies us (Jn. 17:17, 2 Thess. 2:13). From preaching in the puplit, to the the class room, to small groups, and informal discussions with believers who can guide others on their way, instruction is a foundational element in making disciples. Theological instruction is fundamental to this task, as are instructions in keeping the commands of Jesus. A better understanding of theology will always produce a greater fervency in love and obedience. To make disciples we must teach. This is one of the primary tasks of our pastors/elders, but is also, in different ways, the responsibility of every Christian.

2. Observation. One of the more critical, and yet overlooked aspects of making disciples is that following Christ must be modeled. It cannot be fully taught theoretically. It is not enough to see one another merely in the church-classroom context to amass a knowledge base. We must see one another in the context of real life, where joy and sorrow, fear and courage, faith and failure can be seen. Paul spoke of the value of learning through the observation of the godly when he said,

You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 1 Thess. 1:5-7

Making disciples demands that we get involved in each others’ lives, and allow people to see us work through life, ministry and faith. Opportunities for this will only be available as we intentionally create them. Just today I read an interview with Pastor Josh Harris on his blog abut his experience being discipled by CJ Mahaney. There he said,

CJ brought me into his life. So many things can’t be passed on through a book or a sermon. They have to be seen. They have to be modeled. Living with CJ’s family for over a year gave me an up-close look at his faithfulness as a husband and father. I witnessed his purposefulness in every situation. I learned from him the importance of taking initiative. How leading was serving and it required a willingness to expend energy and set direction for others to follow. CJ spent time with me. (Read the whole thing, it’s fantastic.)

3. Practice. Just like with almost anything, we need to practice. To learn anything new requires us to work it out practically. Making disciples demands that we provide opportunities to get out to work, serve, and sacrifice, or to stay in to pray and fast. Consider the commands of Jesus. They encompass belief and behavior in private and public matters. They relate to work inside the church and outside of it. A church that is serious about discipleship will create the contexts in which Christians can practice, or work out, their faith.

It should be clear that making disciples is something that can only happen within the church. Sure, it is possible to grow in our understanding of theology apart from a church. And one can find opportunities to serve without belonging to a particular fellowship. But this is less about making disciples and more about some kind of personal development. Discipleship is not about doing for one’s self, but following another. And outside of the local church discipleship will fall short because of the absence of covenant and authority. Ligon Duncan recently wrote a post on the T4G blog titled, “The Local Church, the place Jesus chose for discipleship.” In it he wrote,

Jesus wants us to be discipled in the context of the believing community where the vows of baptism are taken and where a whole fellowship of Christians is committed to mutual encouragement and accountability…

Making disciples must happen in the church because we need a community that is not only agreed on the gospel, but has covenanted together and can hold one another accountable for our confession and our conduct. If church discipline cannot be practiced, discipleship will necessarily be weakened.

Discipleship should be active and largely intentional, but not all of it needs to be rehearsed. Instruction, observation and practice should happen through both formal teaching, and informal experiences. For this to be a reality, the church has to become more than the place where we sing and listen to preaching together. It must be the family we are adopted into that shares the greater goal of loving God and neighbor.

Do you have a plan to make disciples at your church?

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Joe is the founding and Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL, and the author of Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself (Crossway/ReLit) and Experiencing the Trinity: The Grace of God for the People of God (Crossway, 2015). He was a contributor to The Story ESV Bible and The Mission of God Study Bible.

Note from the editor: This blog post by Godwin Sathianathan originally appeared here at The Gospel Coalition on February 26, 2013.

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I owe a significant debt to four men and three churches who, over the years, became my spiritual fathers and families. These wonderful people walked alongside me through troubling and joyful times. They prayed with me, mentored me, and laughed with me. They celebrated my victories and wept with me when my dad unexpectedly died. They counseled me when I began to explore pastoral ministry and spoke the Word to me when I became discouraged. They reminded me not to take myself too seriously, and they lovingly pointed out sin in my life. God only knows where I’d be and who I’d be without his grace working through them.

Today I am a pastor and long for my church to grow in this kind of intentional disciple-making. Discipleship at its core is the process of growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ. That sounds simple. But what does it actually look like? And how do pastors lead their churches in discipleship? A good place to begin is Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “go . . . make disciples . . . baptizing them . . . and teaching them” (Matt 28:19-20). Three contours of discipleship culture emerge from this passage.

Clarifying the Contours of Discipleship

1. Disciple-making is an intentional process of evangelizing non-believers, establishing believers in the faith, and equipping leaders. 

“Make disciples” implies intentionality and process. Disciple-making doesn’t just happen because a church exists and people show up. It is a deliberate process. Considering the modifying participles of “going . . . baptizing . . . teaching” help us recognize this process. It must include evangelizing (going to new people and new places), establishing (baptizing new believers and teaching obedience), and equipping (teaching believers to also make disciples). How does your church evangelize, establish, and equip?    

2. Disciple-making happens in the context of a local church

It’s a community project, not just a personal pursuit. And that community must be the local church, because Jesus has given her unique authority to preach the gospel, baptize believers into faith and church membership, and teach obedience to Jesus. Disciple-making doesn’t just happen in coffee shops and living rooms. It also happens in the sanctuary where the Word is sung, prayed, read, preached, and displayed through communion and baptism. Jesus didn’t have in mind maverick disciple-makers; he had in mind a community of believers who, together and under the authority of the local church, seek to transfer the faith to the next generation. Does your church view disciple-making within the context of the church, or only as a solo endeavor?

3. Disciple-making is Word-centered, people-to-people ministry. 

When Jesus said “make disciples” we cannot help but remember how he made disciples: three years of teaching twelve men on the dusty road. Disciple-making, then, is the Word of God shaping men and women within life-on-life relationships. It’s demonstrated in Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonian church: “being so affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess 2:8). This is gospel-driven, Word-saturated, intentional one-anothering. It is men and women regularly teaching one another to obey what Jesus commanded. And it goes well beyond watching football and having inside jokes with Christian friends. How would you evaluate your church’s Word-centered people-to-people ministry?

Creating a Culture of Discipleship

If these three contours are essential ingredients for a discipleship culture, how do pastors lead their churches in growing that culture? Here are seven ways:

1. Preach disciple-making sermons. Pastors are not called to preach convert-making sermons or scholar-making sermons. They are called to preach disciple-making sermons. This means that they must craft sermons that will evangelize, establish, and equip. This means that they are teachers, pleaders, and coaches from behind the pulpit. Sermons also disciple through modeling careful exegesis, keen application, and prayerful responses to the passage. After we preach, congregants should understand and feel the text at such a level that they long to be more obedient disciples.

2. Shape disciple-making worship services.

Every church has a liturgy, whether you call it that or not, and every liturgy leads the people somewhere or disciples the people toward something. The question is where. The non-sermon elements of a worship service—songs, prayers, scripture reading, testimonies, and tone—contribute to the formative discipling of your congregation. Does your worship service lead people in thanksgiving for God’s gifts and goodness? Does it disciple people in confession and repentance? Is there an element in your worship service that offers assurance of salvation? Does your service lead people in celebrating our future hope? Thinking through these components with your worship director will strengthen your disciple-making services.

3. Invest in a few disciple-makers.

We’ve heard it before, but let me say it again: Jesus and Paul ask their disciples to invest in a few who will in turn invest in others (Matt. 28:18-192 Tim 2:2). Pastors, choose a few men you can pour your life into and intentionally disciple for a period of time. Create a simple but effective format to accomplish this task. For example, meet with a few men twice a month to discuss sections of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, confess sin, and pray for one another. Keep it relational. At the end of your time together, ask each man to choose a few men with whom he can do the same. The benefits are manifold. You are obeying Jesus’ disciple-making command, you are cultivating a disciple-making culture through strategic multiplication, and you are investing in those who may become your future elders.     

4. Make small group Bible studies central to your disciple-making strategy

Many churches offer small groups like a side item at the buffet, but few offer it as a main course. While Sunday school and other teaching venues certainly disciple people, small group Bible studies are unique in that they achieve multiple discipleship goals. After your corporate worship gathering, consider making small groups ministry your next priority. This means identifying and training mature leaders to shepherd and disciple their members. It also means providing a clear vision for your small groups ministry. For example, our church asks our groups to commit to three disciple-making values: Bible, community, and mission.

5. Raise the bar of church membership

Unfortunately many Christians don’t realize that joining a church is a vital step of discipleship. When you join a church, you are not joining a social club; you are publicly declaring your faith in Jesus and joining yourself to a group of Christians in life and mission. In view of this, pastors should view membership as discipleship and accordingly bolster their membership process and expectations. Instead of making it easy to join your church, make the process more involved. Get your elders teaching multiple sessions on the gospel, central doctrines, the importance of church membership, and your church’s operating convictions (baptism, for example). Broach tough subjects such as divorce and past church history during membership interviews. Finally, ensure membership actually means something for members. What unique privileges, roles, and responsibilities do members have in your church? Are your members actually joined together in Word-centered people-to-people ministry, as they promised when they became members?          

6. Confront sin and practice church discipline. 

Like church membership, discipline is neglected by some churches. Much like encouragement and affirmation are key components of disciple-making, so too are exhortation, confrontation, and if necessary more elevated measures of corrective discipline. God uses all of the above to make disciples and protect disciples within local churches.

7. Read disciple-making books with your leadership. 

Let me recommend four books for your disciple-making arsenal. The Trellis and the Vine by Tony Payne and Colin Marshall outlines a practical vision for disciple-making. One-to-One Bible Reading by David Helm will equip you with the motivation and tools to read the Bible regularly with others. Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman is the best lay-level book on the subject I’ve read and will help you understand how membership rightly practiced is discipleship. And The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer calls elders to lead the way in disciple-making.  

Growing a disciple-making culture at your church might sound daunting. It’s hard enough to make disciples within a small group Bible study, but a church with all its complexities, systems, and baggage? Yikes. Here’s a piece of advice: start small, keep it simple, and focus on areas where a little investment will go a long way. For example, you may want to invest in a few who will do the same with others. Start with your elders. Or perhaps you want to focus on ramping up your small groups ministry. Start by training your current and new leaders around key biblical values that encapsulate discipleship.

Whatever you decide to do, may you find tremendous energy and courage to make disciples from the bookends of the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . . and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

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Godwin Sathianathan earned an M.Div. with emphases in Pastoral and New Testament studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and is an associate pastor at South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts.

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