How do you make disciples?

We use the word disciples, but what does it actually mean and how do we make disciples a major part of how we do church? Gary Gibbs unpacks discipleship.

Historically, we have often measured the success of our churches in terms of ‘bodies, buildings and bucks’.

Even though there is nothing necessarily wrong with these markers (in fact there is much that’s right with them!), they cannot be the main way in which we evaluate how well we are doing as a Christian community. If we are to multiply our effectiveness, then our capacity for disciple-making must be the spiritual bottom line.

If my maths is correct, there are 294 uses of the word ‘disciple(s)’ in the New Testament. ‘Christian(s)’ is used 3 times. Strange, then, that even though we are commissioned to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20), there is still little understanding both of what the term means and how we should be doing it.

At a foundational level, to be a Jesus follower is to be one of his disciples. But there is plenty of biblical evidence suggesting that we need discipling by others who are ahead of us either in ministry or in maturity. John the Baptist, the Pharisees and Sadducees, Paul and, of course, Jesus all had disciples.

So what do we mean? One good definition might be, “…the yoking of one immature to one more mature as an effective means of impartation and learning.”

Still today in some parts of the world, an experienced ox can be yoked together with a young ox so that the ‘newbie’ can learn how to pull a plough. In a similar way, discipleship entails a friendship yoke so that the one who is less mature in their gifting or their Christian life can be shaped, developed, challenged, provoked and adjusted.

There’s so much to say, but as we begin to unpack the need for this, here are a few foundational headlines.

Discipleship is relational

Jesus chose the Twelve to be ‘with him’ (Mark 3:14). Going forward through the Gospels it’s obvious that he ‘does life’ with these guys and there are strong friendships built. It’s not clear in the Gospels at what point these disciples are born again, which suggests that the process of discipleship can begin even before a person says the ‘big yes’ to Jesus.

Discipleship is missional

The first call to discipleship was a call to fish for people (Matt 4:19). If our training of believers does not equip them to be actively outward-focused, we will be constructing a closed monastic community of Pentecostal Christians.

Discipleship is vital

Mike Breen makes the incisive comment “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.” Let’s be careful that we are not deceived into thinking that the most important issue we have is to fill all the seats in our church buildings on Sunday.

Discipleship is intentional

The Commission remains to ‘…make disciples.’ This does not happen accidentally but should be a purposeful activity in the local church. A good example of how this is supposed to work in practice is when Paul instructs Timothy

“…the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2Tim 2:2).

Paul is saying that Timothy is to replicate in others what has been deposited in him as he has been with the Apostle. In this case, it was specifically to do with his teaching, but the same principle applies in whatever area we are being discipled.

In the light of this, there are two important questions worth asking yourself: “Who is discipling me?” and “Who am I discipling?”

Discipleship is parental

This is the purest metaphor. The case could be made that Jesus was discipled by his Father in Heaven (John 5:19). Then we have the Paul/Timothy relationship where there is clear spiritual fatherhood. There is a great pleasure for a parent if the child outperforms them!

Discipleship is sacrificial

The call is to come and die! (Luke 9:23). Of course, the words disciple and discipline are from the same root, so the call to live as a disciple means we say ‘no’ to our own ways and desires and ‘yes’ to the way of Jesus. There is little room in a disciple-making church for Consumer Christianity.

Discipleship is supernatural

Living out the Christian faith is not difficult…it’s impossible! The great news is that the Lord doesn’t leave us just to get on with it. Paul writes “…I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:13).

So we have heavenly input by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, but we also have access to earthly encouragement and supernatural impartation from those to whom we choose to make ourselves accountable.

Where to from here? Well, what area of your life do you need training, adjusting, equipping in? Who is ahead of you in that area? Can you submit yourself to a process of being apprenticed? Are you willing to go through some stretching? If so, why not ask the person if they are willing to give you input over the next period of time?

If you are a mature believer, why not pray that the Lord would show you someone or a few people who you could serve in helping them develop either in character or gifting over the next, say, 12 months?

Let’s make disciples!

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