A Better Way to Make Disciples

Jim Putman, the senior pastor of Real Life Ministries, discusses what it takes to plant a church that develops leaders from day one.

Real Life Ministries of Post Falls, Idaho, (a 2011 Outreach 100 church, No. 52 Largest) launched out of a small group in 1998. Since then, Senior Pastor Jim Putman has focused on small group discipleship as a catalyst for leadership development. About 90 percent of Real Life’s almost 8,500 attendees participate in a small group. To date, the church has raised up seven autonomous, thriving churches from its small groups, and most of its leadership is homegrown, Putman says. In his upcoming book, DiscipleShift (Exponential Signature Series with Zondervan), he points to several shifts the church needs to undergo to begin to make biblical disciples who disciple others and reproduce leaders.

In this interview, Putman shares why he believes the church’s current discipleship model isn’t working and the changes Real Life made to be a discipleship-driven church and plant churches with that DNA.

Jim, you say that how we’re currently doing church isn’t making disciples. I doubt many would argue with you. Why isn’t that happening?

Because it’s not Jesus’ methodology. We’ve been handed a box historically, and we’re just trying to live within that box, rather than ask if it was the right box to begin with. But the box doesn’t make disciples. So we have to look for what’s different about the way we’re doing things and how Christ did things. A lot of these young guys planting churches know the old model doesn’t work but they think, If I were in charge, then it would. And they’re taking these new big words and then the new fads, and it sounds good.

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At the beginning, it’s kind of like Vegas. As you drive in, you see all the great-looking buildings and flashy lights. It’s so inviting. But when you really go down that road, so to speak, you find only glitz, and you’re left with empty pockets. It starts out well but doesn’t end well. And it’s because these planters think their solution is to look at people’s perceived needs rather than at the needs God says people have. He is the great designer of people and of the church—God knows that His church done His way will produce what people really need. When people are truly given new life, the world notices the difference and wants what we have.

So for me, it’s about looking at the biblical design and model of the church we see in Acts. Live out that model, and you will see it actually works for all people in all cultures for all time.

What about the way we’re doing things isn’t the way Jesus intended the church to be?

When Jesus told His disciples, “Go and make disciples,” He didn’t mean for them to do it any way they wanted. He had just made disciples, and He said, “What I’ve done with you, now you go do the same.” And they did that! And it worked! Because Jesus’ ways met the needs of real people.

In Acts 2, you see that the people lived in relationship, and in that relationship, they’re devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to breaking bread and fellowship, to caring for the hurting, even being willing to sell what they have and give it away. Jesus taught them to do all of these things.

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We should be attractional—attracting the world—but that by itself leads to a group of people who were converted into infants but cannot change the world. We leave them with no real relationships that guide and protect them and inaccurate copies of Jesus. So the world doesn’t like the Jesus we have shown them and rightly so. That Jesus isn’t very attractive.

The missional guys are asking, “What are we missing?” They say we’re missing turning people into ministers who care for the hurting, and that is true. We are missing that, but it’s because our people were not shown what it looks like to love like Jesus loved. They were attracted and were handed a Bible, and told to come back next week. That doesn’t work—Jesus didn’t do it that way.

Many leaders want to rally their people to a great cause, but they often don’t teach their people to do this in real relationship. So they burn out quickly. My point is that we focus on one aspect of the design for the church and then the pendulum swings all the way over, and now we’re missing something else! God’s church is organic, attractional and missional, and organized. All of this is tied together in relationship because love is to be what we are known for. It’s not only one of those things; it’s all of them.