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?
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.