Indeed, the criterion of successful churches in the future is not how much Bible knowledge their people have, [or] how strong their pastor is in the pulpit….While content and pulpit expertise aren’t to be minimized, the biblical measure of success is whether they’re making disciples.
-Aubrey Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches For The 21st Century (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 30
The Practical Discipleship Plan of Attack aims to take in a disciple and produce a discipler. The following chart gives an overview of the whole process.
To recap: the discipler instructs his disciple in doctrine, illustrates truth in daily practice, involves the disciple in the work of the ministry, helps the disciple improve his effectiveness, and inspires the disciple when he’s discouraged. These five stages of development span the Biblical Discipleship Bulls-eye from evangelism to edification to equipping. Disciplers labor to help new coverts grow in Christ and train them to make disciples in fulfillment of the Great Commission. Maturity and multiplication are beautiful things.
As we wrap up this series, here are some final thoughts on disciple-making.
We learn about discipleship from Jesus!
Jesus already walked the road ahead of us and all we need to do is follow Him. As I mentioned before, The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman traces Jesus’ steps and is must read material. Jesus called disciples, lived and associated with them, taught them, modeled for them, partnered with them, delegated assignments, did follow-up, and then He left. We are here, not because Jesus filled stadiums with hundreds of thousands of people and preached great messages, but because He focused on twelve ordinary men (Yes, this is a shameless reference to John MacArthur’s book by the same name.). Apparently making disciples like Jesus it is effective (not to mention biblical).
Though not complex, discipleship is not easy.
In fact, discipleship may be the toughest thing we’ll ever do. It’s so easy to focus on other things. It isn’t always pleasant having other people look into our lives and it’s often messy when we get involved in theirs. But no matter how difficult, making disciples is our Lord’s commission.
Discipleship is all about the people and not about the program.
The best curriculum cannot guarantee growth. There are no checklists to complete or shortcuts to maturity. Some structure (like organized small groups) may be helpful, but the best program with the wrong people won’t make disciples. On the other hand, the right people with the worst program–or even no program at all–will move forward.
You are missing out if you just partake and don’t participate.
I changed the person of the pronoun on purpose. If you come and soak and don’t give you won’t grow like you should. Your joy will be half of what it could be if you’re not using your spiritual giftedness and pouring back out into someone else’s life. Besides, it would probably help you stop whining about your own life.) There is always someone who knows less than you. You can encourage someone. You’re ready. Every believer has a responsibility to reach out to someone else and make a disciple.
What stage are you in? What will it take to get you to the next level? My prayer is that God would give us all a passion for discipleship, that not just the pastor or the youth staff or parents, but that all of the saints would take ownership. May He give us a vision and burden for others and keep us from sitting on the sidelines. Let us commit to make disciples of all the nations until everyone is complete in Christ.
This is the final stage in the practical discipleship plan of attack. In Stage Five the disciple exits the process as a discipler.
The disciple has been taught. He’s watched how it’s done. He’s rolled up his sleeves in the work of the ministry alongside his discipler. He’s received constructive criticism to help him get better. By now the bulk of his training is complete and he’s ready to be on his own. So the fifth TASK of the disciple-maker is to inspire. This is probably my least favorite word, but it fits (for more than just alliteration). The PURPOSE is encouragement. Making disciples is hard work. Difficulties and heart heaviness are regular occurrences. Sometimes disciples need a shot in the arm.
The ROLE of the discipler becomes that of a resource. The need for constant interaction diminishes, but the disciple turned discipler may run into something he hasn’t encountered before. Maybe an unusual circumstance or knotty theological question surfaces. Maybe he needs seasoned counsel, wisdom from experience, or just someone to pray for him. But he has access to advice whenever he asks. Therefore the discipler utilizes the MOTTO of “Keep it up.” and is always available for assistance.
The PRINCIPLE is spiritual reproduction, much like the proper goal of parenting. Good parenting isn’t about providing or doing everything for the children. It aims to train kids how to be adults; how to accept and fulfill responsibilities. That doesn’t happen if dad always builds the Soap Box Derby car or never lets his son make a decision. Mom hinders growth by always being the one to braid her daughter’s hair or by constantly defending her. Yes, kids need more care at the beginning and it may be a slow train to maturity. But parents find out whether they were successful when their young person leaves the house, not by them living at home forever. Even then, however, they provide a different kind of attention when the kids are grown and have families of their own. So a discipler knows he’s succeeded when he sees and serves spiritual grandchildren.
Jesus was gone when the disciples took the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. He could do that because everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. (Of course, Jesus didn’t leave His disciples without a Helper). When we entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also the process continues even when we’re absent.
Our goal is to see every person complete in Christ. Another way to say it is, we work to see each person independently dependent on Christ. An independent person is one who looks for things that need doing and does them without someone else constantly looking over their shoulder. A mature disciple doesn’t need constant supervision though every disciple remains dependent on Christ. So a discipleship purpose statement might look something like this:
We labor to help every person establish godly habits, motivated by love for Christ, that will cause them to be independently dependent on Christ for the rest of their lives, while helping others do the same.
We don’t expect to complete this objective in student ministries, even by the time a senior graduates. But we do aim to equip students as much as possible in the six years we have them and hope they enter the next stage of life more like Christ in character and service than when we got them.
The relationship between a disciple and his discipler purposefully changes over time if discipleship is effective. But whether disciples move on to minister near or far, disciplers are always ready resources.
There are always more ways for a disciple to grow no matter how well instructed they are or how many examples they’ve observed or even if they’re heavily involved the process. That’s what Stage Four is for.
By this point in the process the disciple should be busy reaching out to others. He’s been pushed out of the comfort of the nest and is learning to fly on his own. If he’s normal he will suffer through at least a few crashes. So the fourth TASK of a disciple-maker is to help the disciple improve, not only in personal obedience but in ministry. The PURPOSE is to increase their effectiveness. Though no technique exists that guarantees spiritual success, the discipler can give guidance and encouragement even when it appears the disciple flopped.
As the disciple ventures out on his own the discipler takes the ROLE of a constructive critic. This evaluation isn’t for the sake of discouragement but for betterment. Maybe an evangelism exchange could have been more accurate or a counseling conversation could have been more gentle. But mistakes and failures are not the doom of discipleship, instead they provide platforms for development. In this stage the MOTTO is “I watch you.” and then help make it better.
Again, the Master lived with His disciples, taught them, trained them, modeled for them, sent them out, and then debriefed them. For example, in Mark 6 He sent them out with partners and gave them all the instruction they needed for their short term assignment. Later they returned to Jesus and told Him all that they had done and taught. This retreat was for rest and no doubt they also discussed their successes, setbacks, and what they could do better next time.
The PRINCIPLE is supervision; follow up for the sake of adjustment, correction, and encouragement. In order to make progress disciples need to make decisions and do the work without always having their hand held. But diligent and regular review will realign and reinforce where necessary.
Maturing disciples don’t always need their discipler present. But they do need faithful follow up in order to move forward with only one more stage to go.
The practical plan of discipleship starts with instruction and includes living illustration. In Stage Three the disciple develops even further toward becoming a discipler.
Teaching biblical doctrine and demonstrating how to follow Christ is fundamental to making disciples. But that’s not all we can do. Since we also want our disciple to make disciples of his or her own we must bring them in to the process. So the third TASK of a disciple-maker is to involve the disciple in service and ministry for the PURPOSE of giving them experience.
Explaining Scripture and being a Christian example isn’t necessarily the same thing as discipling. It is possible (though not as valuable) to watch someone from a distance and listen to good teaching on the radio. I assume there are probably people watching me who have little to no relationship with me. That’s okay because I can still model obedience for people I don’t know. And I can certainly instruct people without ever talking to them individually.
But disciplers get involved. They open the hood, take the engine apart (or put it back together), and get four hands dirty, not just two. The ROLE is more than teacher or example, it is partner. The MOTTO is “We do together.” The discipler says, “I’ve told you about it, you’ve seen me do it, now we’re both going to do it.”
Jesus lived with His disciples for three years. As they matured He increased their responsibilities. Jesus wanted His disciples to work side by side with Him. He assigned them to pass out the loaves and fishes. They listened to Him, watched Him, and worked alongside of Him. The Master’s plan followed the PRINCIPLE of delegation. No doubt there were discipleship purposes, not just logistical advantages, when Paul took young men along on his missionary journeys.
Discipleship Evangelism utilizes the same procedure. At the start, verses and the evangelism outline must be memorized. Then there are visits where the trainer does all the talking as an example. At a certain stage, the trainer involves the trainee in the discussion. Eventually the trainee is expected to do all the talking and the trainer is just a resource. But that’s an upcoming stage.
Practically speaking, Stage Three requires a focus on the few to reach the many. No one has enough time to be involved and be partners with everyone. Jesus Himself didn’t do that. He had 12 key disciples and three of them were even closer than the rest.
We cannot experience growth and ministry with everyone. Besides, will we have greater influence by spending 60 minutes with one person or one minute with 60 people? How will we maximize our investment? By pouring much time and energy into a small number of disciples (maybe only one at the beginning) the earlier they’ll be ready to pour into others, multiplying our ministry.
Working shoulder to shoulder exposes not only the disciples’ weaknesses and shortcomings, but ours too. Sometimes we can hide certain elements of our example. But we can’t work together very long before our partner realizes what we’re good at and what we’re not good at. It takes humility to involve someone else in our lives and in our ministry, but it is a necessary part of the development process. And it’s good for them to see our deficiencies because it isn’t about our perfection, it’s about participation.
Making disciples requires instruction, but verbal communication isn’t the end of the process. Now we come to Stage Two.
Teaching others the truth is crucial. So is practicing it in front of them. Therefore our second TASK is to illustrate; to put instruction on display. The PURPOSE is exposure to the difficulties and delights of being a disciple. Our Lord left us an example in order for us to follow in His steps. Likewise, we are to live as examples for our disciples to watch.
A master trains his apprentice both by telling him what to do and by showing him how to do it. We take the same hands-on, eyes-on approach. Therefore in Stage Two the ROLE of the disciple-maker is that of a model. Our MOTTO is “You watch me.”
At least two benefits come from disciples seeing their discipler’s personal obedience. First, they see how it’s done. But second, the teacher establishes credibility and underscores the believability of the truth. Expecting others to do what we won’t or don’t do undermines integrity. On the other hand, living out the truth corroborates our knowledge and love of the truth. People pay attention when we practice what we preach.
This presumes the “life on life” precept. We cannot make disciples remotely; it requires a relationship. We cannot effectively model–or watch for that matter–from faraway. Living rooms and waiting rooms supplement classrooms. Yes, truth can be taught in a living room. Yes, some life on life occurs in a classroom. But this component of training looks at a discipler’s lifestyle at work and play.
We must spend a quantity of quality time or else our disciples will be ill-prepared. We’re all busy, but Stage Two must be intentionally included at every opportunity. Dinner time isn’t sufficient for diligent parenting. Kids need car rides and late night conversations. Part-time shepherds put the sheep at risk. So discipleship is the product of many moments, but it is never momentary.
(Herein is the reason for every retreat we run, why we drive 20 hours to and from the Shepherds’ Conference and Preview Weekend at The Master’s College, why we have small groups, and why we work to schedule life “path crossings” like running errands, drinking coffee, or scraping gum off the gym floor: to be together.)
While Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the primary purpose of the incarnation, His life on life discipleship was part of the reason as well. God could have dropped a copy of His Word from the sky instead of sending His Son to earth for so long. Jesus called His disciples to follow Him and to be with Him. They watched Him in public and in private. They saw Him spend nights in prayer, respond to religious authorities, care for little children, teach the masses, heal the sick, and do all sorts of miracles. They observed Him when He was tired, hungry, interrupted, angry, and sorrowful. As the time of His crucifixion came closer He focused more personal attention on His disciples, not less.
The apostle Paul also understood the importance of being a living object lesson. He exhorted the Corinthians, Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I know some people are uncomfortable with the arrogance of asking another person to imitate us. Instead, they say, we should tell everyone just to follow Jesus. That’s fine as far as it goes, but exposing our lives and letting others see we’re sinners gives us an opportunity to repent and show how that works too. He told the Philippians to keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example and that they should practice what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.
This stage of discipleship is hardly flashy, not easily evaluated, and often unappreciated. But it is relevant, effective, and as we’ve seen, it was the Master’s plan.
For those who want to grow, listen to good teaching and find a good follower of Christ. Get in their back pocket. Make yourself available to serve them and hang out with them as much as possible. Watch how they respond to everything. Don’t isolate yourself from those who are further down the discipleship road than you.
Christ is life, not class. By this I do not mean the same thing as those who insist “Christ is life, not doctrine.” That’s bologna. I went out of my way to say discipleship depends on doctrine in Stage One. I simply mean that formal, corporate learning is only one slice of the discipleship pie, not the whole. Examples without teaching are useless without knowing what the example is for. Of course, instruction without personal illustration won’t have the same influence. Truth must be proclaimed, believed, and practiced to make disciples.
Each stage in our practical plan of attack includes the Task, the Purpose, the Role, the Motto, and the Principle (as the table below shows). In Stage One we insert a disciple into the very beginning of the process.
To make disciples we start by proclaiming good news, specifically the gospel of Christ as revealed in Scripture. Our first TASK is to instruct and our PURPOSE to educate. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. Therefore, Christianity requires communicated truth and discipleship depends on properly understanding doctrines of theology rooted in God’s Word.
We received a message from our Lord. Our responsibility is to pass that message on to the another person and the next group and the following generation so that they will do the same. Disciples aren’t made if the baton of truth is dropped anywhere along the way.
The apostle Paul explained that all believers–those who are no longer slaves of sin–have been committed to the standard of teaching. Disciples are delivered into a form of truth, into principles and teaching that mold their lives. Christians are those shaped more by doctrine than by sin.
So our foremost ROLE as disciple-makers is teacher; we explain and defend the truth. Jude called us to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. “The faith” is the objective, fixed body of truth, not personal belief (since it makes no sense to say any particular person’s faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”). Trustworthy servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God love, protect, and pass on the truth.
The core of disciple-making includes teaching [disciples to observe all that Jesus commanded. We can’t be faithful to our commission without knowing and instructing. That’s why our MOTTO is “I tell you.” Paul explained the process in a similar way: what you heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
Jesus modeled this better than anyone. He regularly preached in front of large crowds and instructed His disciples in private. Whether by sermons or conversations, teaching was at the heart of our Lord’s disciple-making plan.
And every Christian can follow His example. The teacher typically knows more than his student. Most of the time the educator is also the elder, that is, they are older. Titus 2 describes a pattern of the older teaching the younger and more maturity brings more responsibility to disciple. But anyone who knows more truth than someone else can and should participate. You can always find someone who knows (at least a little) less than you do. Just because you’re learning from someone doesn’t mean you can’t also be passing that on to someone else.
This Stage incorporates a few PRINCIPLES from The Master Plan of Evangelism such as Selection (of faithful men just as Jesus chose His disciples), Association (being with people just as Jesus appointed disciples to be with Him (Mark 3:14), and Impartation (giving what has been received to others).
Disciples never move beyond the need for instruction. Though Stage One could be done independent of the others (resulting in delayed growth and therefore a defective plan), the other stages depend on teaching for effectiveness.
Making disciples is job #1 for every Christian. So far we’ve identified the three target levels of discipleship: we evangelize unbelievers, we edify all believers, and then we aim to equip believers to make disciples themselves. Those are the goals of discipleship, or where we’re going, but how do we get there? How do we make a disciple? What is the process?
Many Christians simply don’t know. Even if making disciples is on the radar they have no instruction or training for it. No doubt there are other believers doing a lot of the right things but who couldn’t define their approach or pass it on to someone else. That’s why we need to outline a practical discipleship plan of attack.
There are (at least) five stages for developing a disciple. The stages overlap; they are not entirely exclusive, but isolating each phase in our discussion should be helpful in the equipping process. Just as everyone fits somewhere on the bulls-eye, so everyone is found at some stage of development.
It is also important to say (again) that this is not new or original. I’m simply trying not to drop the baton that’s been handed to me. In particular, the seed of these stages grew in the soil of The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman.* It is the classic study on discipleship and a must read. I believe every Christian should own a copy and it continues to be one of the most influential books on me. It traces the Master Himself, Jesus, as He modeled the most effective method for making disciples.
* I had the privilege to hear Dr. Coleman in person when I was in high school along with my youth pastor who, not coincidentally, was my first real discipler.
The Great Commission sets our sights high; we are to make disciples of all the nations. The apostle Paul also emphasized the broad scope of his ministry, teaching every man and warning every man in order to present every man complete in Christ. Everyone falls in one of the three circles on our disciple-making bullseye. Either they are spiritually dead and need the gospel, they have been made spiritually alive and need to grow in the gospel, or they have demonstrated faithfulness and are ready to do the work of the gospel. But everyone is somewhere on the target.
The target may represent an entire country, a city, a local church, a particular ministry within a church, or small group within a ministry. Each sphere includes those who need salvation or sanctification and training for ministry. So here’s a recap of the three target levels:
Evangelizing. In order to make disciples among the spiritually dead we must reach out for Christ.
Edifying. To help believers obey everything Christ commanded we must build them up in Christ.
Equipping. To help the faithful become disciple-makers we must train them up and send them out for Christ.
I believe disciple-making is best facilitated by some form of small groups. Though you can be discipled or make a disciple without being part of a one, small groups provide a place for thorough and concentrated evangelism, for accountability relationships and mutual edification, as well as for quality (controlled) equipping and an obvious place to practice the “focus on the few to reach the many” principle.
As I mentioned in the last post, Jesus is the ultimate example of making disciples. He not only paints the target but demonstrates how to reach it. In upcoming posts we’ll see the practical stages of development that help us hit the center of the disciple-making bullseye.