After serving as a pastor for over thirty years, I can safely say that the majority of pastors want to have a disciple-making ministry in their local church. I am not referring to some type of church program or a list someone can follow. What I am addressing is a church culture; where relational discipleship results in Christ-followers who in turn produce Christ-followers. This is what we see take place in the early Church.
Jesus made his mandate very clear. ‘Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20 NLT). According to author Bill Hull, “Churches throw the word disciple around freely, but too often without a definition.”
When one studies congregations across America, it is evident where effective discipleship is taking place; discipleship is well defined, and the congregation has developed a culture that models the definition. In the December 2015 issue of Outreach Magazine, Thom Rainer penned an excellent article entitled “6 Characteristics of Disciple-Making Churches.” Rainer states,
There is a common pattern in churches that are more effective in making disciples. The attendance rate of members of those churches is higher, and the dropout rate is lower. This is contributed to six traits:
- The church has an entry point class that all new members attend.
2. Members are expected to attend an open group Bible study.
3. Members are expected to be involved in one or more deeper studies throughout the year.
4. Members are expected to attend a corporate worship service each week.
5. Members are expected to be involved in at least one ministry or mission activity a year.
6. Members are expected to read and study the Bible daily.
I am fairly certain that many readers may object to the six traits that Rainer gives, stating that this is too rigorous for the average church member. Their view may or may not be valid, however, my point is more about the discipleship culture rather than a quick-fix experience. By the way, is there a quick-fix experience? I will leave that for you to deal with, but, these traits definitely exemplify a discipleship culture within the framework of the church body.
Discipleship is a subject that I have devoted much time and study to, in particular as it relates to ministry for men. There are two things I have learned, and am in fact still learning. Discipleship happens in the context of time, and discipleship happens in the context of a relationship. In the gospel of Mark, we have the record of four fisherman called to discipleship.
And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him (Mark 1:16-20).
Jesus was saying to these men, if you will follow me, I will equip and empower you to catch more than fish. You will catch people, whose lives will be changed forever. The convincing call of Christ speaks loudly in verse 19; “They immediately left their nets and followed Him.”
Within this passage, there are three components of discipleship that I can see.
- The Call – Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow Him. A discipleship culture embraces the idea that calling people to be disciples is normal, not an occasional invitation. To my readers, especially pastors, when was the last time you taught or preached on making disciples?
- The Decision – In Mark’s record of the calling of the fisherman, twice he uses the word immediately. The decision to follow was instantaneous. These men left all to follow Christ in discipleship. Pastor Rick Warren says, “Discipleship is the process of becoming like Christ, and it always begins with a decision.”
- The Process – The fisherman left all and followed Christ. Where did they go? The decision to follow became the entry point into the process. For the next three years of their lives, they were in relationship with Christ, being coached on the principles of what it means to be a true disciple. They experienced a culture much different than their previous environment and occupation. These experts in baiting a hook to catch fish, became experts in baiting hooks to catch people. Eventually, they became known as world changers who were the first to receive the mandate of Jesus Christ to go and make disciples.
Developing a discipleship culture is not an easy task. It requires not only change, but a strategy; two challenges that are difficult for both leaders and churches. If the transition is possible for your local church, it will not be church as usual. However, lives will be eternally changed and effective discipleship will be the pathway that leads to growth. Go and make disciples!
Bill Terry is the National Director for Men’s Ministries and the Assistant Director for Discipleship Ministries. Bill resides in Oklahoma City with his lovely wife Rita. He is the proud head of an extended family that includes two sons Gregory and Rodney, daughters-in-law Holly and Brec, granddaughters Grace, Annie, Emily and Elena and grandson Adam Gregory.