Making and Multiplying Disciples
Church planting is ultimately a revolutionary call for the universal church to return to serious and intentional discipleship! Making disciples is the call of every Christian and ultimately the call of every new church. The word disciple comes from the Greek word mathetes, which is found 269 times in the New Testament and means an “apprentice, learner, or a pupil.” In the ancient times of the Bible, a disciple was a person who left everything that they had to follow the teachings of a master. The word “disciple” implies much more than a learner or a pupil; it is someone who has totally committed his or her life to the training and teaching of a master or a school of thought. According to the New Testament, a disciple is a born-again believer who is obedient, bears fruit, glorifies God, has joy, loves others, denies themselves, and is committed to fulfilling the Great Commission (see John 3:3–8; 15:7–17; Luke 9:23–25; and Matthew 28:19).
So what is discipleship? Discipleship is simply answering the call of Christ to, “Go and make disciples.” Discipleship is an organic process of helping others become and continue to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is not a program that has a beginning and an ending point. We should spend as much, if not more, of our time, resources, and energy focusing on discipleship as much as we do on evangelism. Christians need to reevaluate the New Testament model of discipleship for twenty-first-century ministry. Likewise, individual churches should seek to develop organic discipleship models that are biblically faithful and culturally relevant to their particular context of ministry.
The beauty of church planting is that it is all about making and multiplying disciples. This is the result of selecting, training, and empowering leaders who will, in turn, reproduce themselves in others. This begins locally with the church and then can take place on a larger scale through the reproduction of church plants regionally and internationally. Just think, through a faithful commitment to investing in others, you can be a part of a twenty-first-century, disciple-making movement that can change our postmodern world for Christ!
But how do we accomplish this goal of reproductive discipleship? Naturally, the most powerful paradigm for forming disciples is the discipleship methodology of Jesus. In The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman told us that Jesus’ plan of reproducing disciples “was not with programs to reach the multitudes but with men whom the multitudes would follow . . . [people] were to be His method of winning the world to God. The initial objective of Jesus’ plan was to enlist men who could bear witness to His life and carry on His work after He returned to the Father.”11 If we are to be like Jesus, we must invest our lives in faithful followers who will in turn invest themselves in others.
The Master Plan of Evangelism has been used by millions of Christians around the world to make disciples. The book is especially helpful for new churches that are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. In fact, it was the foundational text that we used when we planted our church in North Carolina. Coleman’s watershed book offers the following eightfold way Jesus trained the twelve disciples: selection, association, consecration, impartation, demonstration, delegation, supervision, and reproduction. In this section, I will summarize Coleman’s analysis of Jesus’ training of the twelve disciples and apply it to reproducing disciples and building teams in a new church plant.
It all started when Jesus called a few men to follow Him. Jesus did not choose everyone He met to be His disciples. He took very seriously the selection of men He trained. Rather than focusing on the multitude, He only chose twelve. The reason for His selectivity was intentional. He chose twelve men to instruct and train, who would, in time, reproduce themselves in others. A few good men were Jesus’ master plan of reproducing disciples.
In a similar way, we too must be selective in whom we choose to disciple. We should look for people who are faithful, willing, and able to continue the chain of discipleship. Discipleship does not require a degree or Bible college education, but simply obedience and investment. We should seek to find men and women who have a passion and a hunger for Christ, because willingness to answer the call to follow Jesus is the only requirement to be a disciple of Jesus.
Jesus was intimately involved in the lives of His disciples as they followed Him. His training method was spending time with His disciples in order to build deep relationships with them. Coleman pointed out that Jesus had no formal training or education. He was His own school and curriculum. This is a radical concept for those of us who live in the twenty-first century. Whenever we find someone who seems called into ministry, we send them off to let someone else train them. However, the New Testament model of discipleship was homegrown, natural, and organic. In reality, discipleship happens as men and women spend time with their spiritual mentor.
In a similar way, we should be present in the lives of the people we are seeking to develop. We should schedule time with people whom we want to disciple outside of normal church functions. This time can include times of play, prayer, and sharing meals together. This means that discipleship will require something of us. As with any worthwhile investment, discipleship costs us something. We must sacrifice our time, energy, and emotion for the sake of others if we are to fulfill the demanding task of making disciples. I believe this is one of the number one reasons that churches don’t disciple anymore: for many, discipleship demands too high of a price. But this is a price we must pay if we are going to build healthy and thriving churches that serve the Lord faithfully.
When Jesus called His followers, He expected them to obey Him. He sought to create in His disciples a lifestyle of consecrated obedience. Discipleship is about a total consecration to the Lord. As disciples, we need to submit and obey God’s Word and plan for our lives. However, many of us have trouble submitting, and we instead return to a lifestyle that models an individualistic culture where people do not want to submit to authority. That is why submission and obedience to God is so hard as well as important. When we become obedient to God in every area of our lives, we will experience victorious Christian living. God can only use men and women who are willing to obey Him above all else.
Jesus gave Himself away to His disciples by imparting to them everything that the Father had given to Him. He gave Himself freely by not only imparting Himself, but also spiritual truth about life and ministry. He taught them about the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit through both His words and His actions. Just as Jesus imparted Himself to His disciples, we must seek to give ourselves to the men and women that we are called to serve. We must be conduits through which God can transfer His wisdom and character as true discipleship takes place. As leaders, it is important for us to grasp that we have a spiritual responsibility to impart ourselves to others if we are going to make disciples.
One reason Jesus had such a lasting impact on His disciples is that He lived the message before them daily. He was the message and the method. By walking with Jesus, they saw how He lived His faith in the real world. He prayed before them. He fed the poor. He had compassion on the multitude. He healed the sick. In other words, He lived the life that He wanted to reproduce in His disciples. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, He expected His disciples to say and do what He said and did, and the book of Acts tells us that they did just as He modeled.
It is important that we practice what we preach, because the people we are training will follow our life and example. It is not enough to preach the gospel; we have to practice it daily. Our personal walk with God is one of the most important factors in developing godly leaders. We will reproduce what we are. The most powerful message is a life lived for God. Make sure that the life you live is worthy for others to follow.
Jesus assigned His disciples work. He developed His disciples by delegating ministry responsibilities to them. He sent His disciples out and gave them ministry responsibilities where failure was a real possibility. Hands-on experience was a vital part of Jesus’ discipleship curriculum. It is funny that churches make people do things that even Jesus did not do. Some churches make people go through a yearlong process before they can even serve in any capacity in the church. Likewise, some people spend years in college and seminary with little if any real ministry involvement. Churches need to rethink delegating spiritual responsibility to people, especially new believers. Is it any wonder our discipleship is often anemic? Sadly, most people think the pastor is supposed to do everything in the church. We must not forget the power of involving people in ministry.
Supervision is important in helping others improve and grow in their service. Jesus supervised His disciples and whenever they returned from a ministry trip, they would report to Him what they had done. This allowed a time for the disciples to reflect, review, and to receive instruction from Jesus. Supervision is an important part of leadership development, especially when dealing with new believers. We want to delegate and empower people to act, but we also need to help supervise them to make sure they stay on track. Many times, people will get into trouble without proper supervision. Supervision is ultimately an art. On the one hand, if we are not careful, we can micromanage people. On the other hand, we can be so loose that we don’t supervise people at all.
Jesus expected His disciples to reproduce His likeness in others. He imparted His message and mission to His disciples so that they would reproduce themselves in others and make disciples of all nations. The Great Commission implies that the followers of Jesus will reproduce themselves and “Make disciples.”
Reproduction is how the Christian movement was born. Today, what has become a 2.1 billion-member movement started with only twelve disciples. I want to return to the analogy of the Vine in John 15:1–17. The purpose of the Vine (Jesus) and the branches (us) is to bear fruit. Christians are to work for and expect a harvest (see Matthew 9:37–38; Luke 10:2). Let us commit our lives and our churches to reproducing ourselves in others in order to make and multiply disciples of our communities and our world.
Becoming a Disciple-Making Church
I want to end this chapter by offering some practical examples and ways for how new churches can develop discipleship processes that can be tailored to fit unique contexts. New churches need to think critically about creating a discipleship process that leads people from conversion to becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ from the very beginning. There is no greater model for discipleship than that of Jesus Christ himself, and, as seen above, the Master Plan offers great insight that we can tap into. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend that you take your church leadership team through the Master Plan and develop a unique discipleship process for your new church that seeks to connect new believers to the church and grow them into disciples who will reproduce themselves by making future disciples. If you do not start your church doing the hard work of creating disciples from the very beginning, your church will be in jeopardy of being ineffective. Or worse yet, you will end up making consumers, not disciples. Let us fight against this norm of Western Christianity and answer the call of Jesus Christ to “go and make disciples” in and through our new churches.
There are several primary ways in which your new church can make disciples. First, train leaders in the art of one-on-one intentional discipleship. As we have seen from the Master Plan of Evangelism, Jesus focused most heavily on the few and not the multitude. The beauty of this approach is that one-on-one discipleship is simple and doesn’t require a curriculum or seminary degree, it just takes time and a commit to building relationships. This can take place by meeting in ordinary places like coffee shops and office break rooms. As leaders of the new church, one-on-one discipleship allows you to model disciple making as Jesus did for his disciples.
One-on-one discipleship takes time to build trust and relationships and can’t be rushed but it takes into account a trend that few contemporary Christians grasp: discipleship begins not with conversion, but oftentimes precedes it. Think for a moment about when you became a Christian. What events, people, or circumstances led you to that point? Who shared their faith with you? How long did the process take? In chapter one I introduced you to Adam, who came to faith in our church. The real story wasn’t when he came to faith, but the countless hours of one-on-one discipleship that began before and continued after he came to faith. The reality is, very little of his discipleship took place in a church building. We spent time together in the coffee shop, at the beach surfing together, and at dinner with our families. Through perseverance and commitment, one-on-one discipleship lays a firm foundation for those seeking to devote their lives to Christ.
Small Group Discipleship
Secondly, every new church should begin by starting and multiplying small groups. Small groups are an important way to help people build authentic gospel-centered disciples by offering accountability and community. Small groups provide ways to connect and grow disciples with the gospel through Bible studies, pathways to serve, and teaching spiritual disciplines. Small groups consist of ten to fifteen people who come together regularly for prayer, Scripture reading, accountability, and fellowship. As with the various types of church plants, there are all kinds of groups because there are all kinds of people. There can be small groups for married couples, single adults, blended groups, men’s groups, and women’s groups just to name a few. Groups can be designed for new Christians or for those who want to really dig deeper into a book of the Bible. There can be a small group for just about everyone and everything. These intimate settings of community are the place where the real ministry of the church should take place as we study God’s Word communally, while supporting and sharing our lives with one another.
There are several specific benefits for being a part of a small group. First, small groups are a place for believers to live together in community. The Christian faith is a social religion, not a solitary one, and God uses those around us to grow and shape who we are. Second, they are a place for believers to pray for one another. Prayer is one of God’s greatest gifts that He has given the church and is the key to understanding and implementing the will of God. Third, small groups are a place to hear and learn from the Word of God through group study. Finally, small groups offer a place for disciples to be under the spiritual protection of godly leaders who will help them grow (see Hebrews 13:17; Acts 20:28–29). In today’s culture that undervalues deep relationships, small groups offer a great blessing of being a part of a family of believers united by the same mission.
Finally, the call to make disciples begins in the home. While the church should offer a place of worship and discipleship, it should also equip families to grow outside the walls of the church. Faith is not just something that we do once a week, but it is something that should be a part of our daily lives. I fear that, for many families, the church is more like a baby-sitting service than a community for whole families. While church is important, the Bible tells us that the home is primary place of learning the Word and moral instruction. If we want a revolution of discipleship in our nation, our churches must empower families to own the call to discipleship. When this happens discipleship will spread organically through our neighborhoods and into the communities where we live. If every family in every church took seriously the call to make disciples in the home, our world would be turned upside down!
Growing people through intentional discipleship is essential for new churches from the very beginning if we are going to see ongoing multiplication of disciples. For many churches, the back door is as big as their front door, and they lose as many people as they gain. Over a long period of time, a new church will slowly die if it cannot close the back door and connect new people in deep and meaningful relationships with Christ and with others. Therefore, we need to be intentional about making disciples of Christ in our new churches through one-on-one, small group, and family forms of discipleship. To be effective, new churches must prioritize discipleship from the very beginning. As you think through what it will take for your church to reach its community, make sure the discipleship plan you develop lies at the very heart of your church’s identity.