I’ve never met a pastor that said “Discipleship…Yeah, we don’t really do that. We’ve got more important things to do around this church than making disciples.”
Now some pastors, in their more honest moments, may acknowledge that their churches are not very good at making disciples, but almost everyone affirms that they should be doing it.
We know that Jesus commanded his church to make disciples and promised that he would accompany them in this great work until the very end of the age. According to Jesus this process of disciple-making requires Christians to go, baptize, and teach people to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18-20).
Most pastors and church members will declare the value of disciple-making, yet we must ask deeper questions to assess whether this is simply a stated goal or a defining mark of the churches we lead.
Are disciples being made? How do we know? And if they are not, what can we do to change this reality?
Keys to a Culture of Relational Discipleship
Gospel Clarity- A disciple-making ethos emerges from a church that consistently stands in awe of the grace of God demonstrated in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Stunned worship propels disciple-making intentionality because people long for others to become captivated by the splendor of the gospel. A culture of relational discipleship does not emerge from religious professionals but from obedient worshipers (Eph 2:1-10).
Intentional Focus- Churches that make disciples have a clearly articulated bulls-eye. They know that they exist to declare and demonstrate the gospel so that men, women and children are brought from death to life and increasingly made to reflect the glorious image of Christ Jesus. Churches that make disciples are not aiming at 100 things, but at one, universally acknowledged goal (Gal 4:19-20).
Mobilized Membership- Members of disciple-making churches take personal responsibility for this task rather than an over-dependence on the pastors or programs of the church. Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, estimates that it takes 20 percent of the church pursuing the same goal in order to change a church culture. This provides a healthy baseline for the fervency of relational discipleship in the church. However, churches with a pervasive disciple-making culture will see a majority of their church entering long-term, discipleship relationships with those far from God (1 Pet 2:1-10).
One-on-One Relationships- Disciples are made in the context of personalized, one-on-one relationships over an extended period of time (at least one year). These discipleship-pairs are the basis of a disciple-making culture in the church. At first this may require challenging mature Christians to pursue younger church members or attendees. Churches can also ensure that anyone who professes faith and is baptized in the church is immediately paired with a mature Christian for an intentional, discipleship relationship. This is not the sole goal, however. Instead, the church should look outside of its gathering—to neighbors, co-workers, friends and family—who are disconnected from God and the church and do the hard work of forming disciple-making relationships there (2 Tim 2:2).
Streamlined programs- Church programs can serve as a great obstacle to relational disciple-making. Those who embrace a disciple-making culture will ruthlessly eliminate programs that do not produce disciples and streamline even the ones that do. Every hour spent in a church program that does not lead to disciple-making is an hour taken away from the time people have to give to one-on-one disciple-making. The pace of modern culture necessitates that churches carefully evaluate everything they do using the metric of disciple production (Eph 5:16).
Strategic Leadership- Pastoral leaders see to it that they equip the church for the task of disciple-making. The mission of the pastor must extend beyond preaching biblically-sound sermons, running ministry programs and motivating their people to bring more people to the weekly gathering of the church. They must work tirelessly to extend their influence by equipping their people to understand and apply the gospel to their lives and the lives of others in these one-on-one relationships. Not only that, they must model relational discipleship by investing personal time in one-on-one relationships themselves. If pastors do not buy in to the process then the congregation will not either (Eph 4:11-16).
Replicatable pathways- If this is going to happen, pastors must create replicatable pathways for disciple-making in the church. Certainly no person’s path of discipleship will be identical, but pastors must work to provide a discernable path for others to follow. We cannot continue to call people to the task of disciple-making without showing them how. Tools, such as my recent book Aspire, are meant to provide a customizable way to develop this path in your church.
Exemplary Models- Pastors must take personal responsibility for making disciples themselves. Sadly, many pastors may have served under great men or received top-level theological education, but may have never had the joy of personal discipleship under a godly mentor. This leads them to an over-reliance on programs, sermons and classes to do all the work. Pastors cannot call others to do something that they are not doing themselves. Pastors should strive to commit to meeting with at least two individuals each week (ideally someone far from God and not simply one of their staff members) for the purpose of disciple-making. If they do, the culture of relational discipleship becomes both taught and caught.
Long-term commitment- Finally, churches should make a long-term commitment to disciple-making. The fruit of such a church philosophy may not be readily apparent. Making disciples takes time and perseverance. There are no short-cuts. It is surely easier to measure how many people show up at the next church program or indicate a decision to trust Jesus during the next church invitation. These measures, while easier, may cause us to neglect the vast potency of strategic disciple-making.
Let’s build churches that do not simply say they value disciple-making but that also do the hard work to create a culture that proves it.