A Return to Making Disciples

Prior to 2020, when I would be training church leaders, I would often ask, “If for some reason the church you lead was no longer permitted to gather together in a building, how prepared are your people to go and be the church on mission, making disciples without attending a weekly gathering?” 

I had always had some kind of religious persecution in mind when I asked this question. Then COVID-19 happened. It was a wake-up call to the church, as we discovered how prepared (or unprepared) we were. 

Some churches thrived during the pandemic. People engaged in serving their neighbors, they met regularly in smaller groups (in whatever size was allowed), and they shared with others the reason they served and loved people like Jesus had served and loved people. COVID-19, like the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, propelled many people on mission like never before. It was a catalyst that released followers of Jesus to step more fully into their calling. I heard many stories from church leaders about how their people stepped out and up in their obedience to Jesus’ call to make disciples. 

And yet, I also listened and watched many other leaders panic and rage, as they had very little hope that the people they led would continue to follow and obey Jesus faithfully without a regular weekly gathering. And sadly, many of them were right. 

Disciples vs. Consumers

We witnessed people leave the church and their faith. We also observed Christians become more divided than ever as they fought and rejected one another. Sadly, the world watched far too many Christians become more known for criticism and hatred than grace and love. 

Most churches were not prepared. The church was not very mature, according to how Jesus measured disciples—by their love for others, including their enemies. We were found wanting when it comes to making disciples of Jesus who would be known for their love.

My leading assumption is that many Christians did come to realize that we have dropped the ball on making disciples of Jesus who can in turn make disciples who resemble the life and character of Jesus. COVID-19 was a check-up visit to the divine physician’s office for church health. I believe the Spirit of God revealed to us that many churches and ministries had not made disciple-making disciples. 

It seems we may have done a better job creating consumers who showed their true cards when the goods and services they were used to consuming had been taken away. We had become proficient at creating gatherings, leading musical worship, preaching compelling sermons and designing attractive programs. And people were gladly attending and taking what they wanted. But when what they wanted was taken away, they went away. What could have been one of the greatest opportunities for the church to display the good news of Jesus to their neighbors was lost on people who had not been trained and prepared for such a moment. Ironically, although making disciples is the clear mission of the church, when asked, most churches say that making disciples who make disciples is still their biggest weakness.

How can this be, if making disciples is the core mission of the church? 

Turning Things Around

In 2024, I’m joining with my friends at Exponential to cultivate a national conversation in hopes of better equipping new and existing churches around five critical shifts that can help us all return to the core mission of the church. Here’s an overview of the five shifts I have seen in my own ministry that have led to effective disciple making, and I am convinced they will catalyze the same for you:

  1. We need to shift from just reaching people to making disciples. 
  2. We need to shift from merely informing disciples to equipping disciple makers. 
  3. We need to shift from calling people to attend programs and events to leading people to truly attach to God and others. 
  4. We need to shift from unhealthy striving to thriving as spirit-empowered disciples and emotionally healthy leaders.
  5. We need to shift from merely accumulating people in our buildings and programs to deploying disciple-making disciples to the ends of the earth. 

These five shifts are for anyone who wants to get back to what Jesus called us to be and do. Some of you presently pastor a church or lead a particular part of the church. It’s time for you to lead a return to disciple making. Just start with one of the shifts above. 

Some of you have become disillusioned with the church because Christians seem so far away from what Jesus called us to be. Don’t give up. Jesus promised he would build his church, and the gates of hell (and our past mistakes) will not prevail against his work. 

Some of you have wondered whether you have a role to play in this work. You do. The church is the people of God saved by the power of God and filled with the presence of God for the purposes of God in this world. If you have come to Jesus and received the Spirit, you are part of Jesus’ body, the church. 

It’s time for all of us who love and follow Jesus to get back to what he saved and called us to be: disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus. Let’s lead in making the five shifts and chart a new future for the church together.

Jeff Vanderstelt will be helping to lead the conversation at Exponential’s Global Conference in Orlando, Florida, March 4–7.

Jeff Vanderstelt
Jeff Vanderstelt

Jeff Vanderstelt is executive director of Saturate and founding leader of the Soma Family of Churches.