What are the marks of effective disciple making? Hint: It’s not about the program.
The world is changing for the church. Honesty requires us to acknowledge that much of what happens in church does not change lives. Preaching plays an important role, but sermons alone do not change people in deep and lasting ways. Big events can be encouraging, even inspiring, but people need more than what is found in most church programs.
As the culture changes, we are finding it to be harder to lead nonbelievers to Jesus (evangelism) and believers to full obedience (spiritual formation) than it used to be. So how can we be more effective in obeying the Great Commission? Bobby Harrington, CEO of Discipleship.org and Renew.org, shares his thoughts on returning to Jesus’ method of making disciples.
I was a student at the University of Calgary when I made the life-changing decision to become a disciple of Jesus. Before I took that step, however, I had many questions.
I found out that my French professor was a follower of Jesus, so I asked him about his faith. He not only started answering my questions, he also invited me into an ongoing friendship. He moved from being Dr. Jacobs to being Mac. He moved from being my professor to becoming a mentor, a friend and a life coach.
Mac didn’t just help me to believe—he entered into the fullness of my life in a way that showed me what it meant to trust and follow Jesus. He was there the day I got married and on so many other days that set the direction of my life. God used him to change my eternal destiny—and through me, the eternal destiny of family members and countless others. Mac was intentional, relational and formational in his approach to discipleship; this Jesus-style disciple making changed my life.
The New Testament’s favorite word to describe God’s children is disciple. A derivative of this word is used about 270 times, while the word Christian is used only three times. A disciple is someone who is following Jesus, being changed by Jesus and is committed to the mission of Jesus. How did Jesus make this kind of disciple? He was intentional, relational and formational.
• Intentional: Jesus was deliberate and guided by a master plan.
• Relational: Jesus was personally engaged, guided by love (John 13:34–35).
• Formational: Jesus guided the disciples by teaching, coaching, challenging and forming them so they could engage in the greatest mission of all time.
Jesus’ method of disciple making compels us to connect with people in a deeply personal way. It is a life-on-life model. It is motivated by love, fueled by the Holy Spirit and the result is dramatic transformation. Jesus’ method shows us that disciples are handcrafted, one life at a time, not mass-produced in a weekly church service or class.
Remember, disciple making is for everyday people. Every disciple, compelled by love and modeling themselves after Jesus, should follow the Great Commission. Too many Christians assume that disciple making is for pastors or professional Christians. If the ministry of Jesus teaches us anything, it’s that anybody—no matter who they are—can become a disciple maker.
For example, I know a man who serves Jesus in operating rooms in an orthopedic clinic. A few years ago, Jesus rescued him, through the help of an older Christian, from the bondage of pornography. He and his wife were on the brink of divorce, but at just the right time, Jesus scooped them up and turned a story of destruction into a story of redemption. Now this man leverages his influence with the medical staff and in the church to disciple dozens of men into obedience to all the teachings of Jesus.
WHERE TO START
Numerous disciple-making models that are intentional, relational and formational are available. I have the privilege of leading Discipleship.org, where we aggregate over 30 disciple-making ministries, all with models that can help.
But as the challenges of meeting in person linger, pastors need to jump in and make disciple making a reality in their church. The pastor is best positioned to help your church embrace Jesus-style disciple making. Here are steps a pastor can take:
1. Fast, pray and find a good model. This first step is crucial. Notice the order: fast and pray, then search for and adopt a model.
2. Personally live the model. I have spent 15 years helping church leaders to shift their churches to a disciple-making focus, and the biggest lesson is clear: The church will never adopt Jesus-style disciple making until the lead pastor first embraces and practices it personally.
3. Live the model with your leaders. The pastor must lead the church’s leaders so that everyone on the leadership team personally practices disciple making. You can’t lead where you don’t go; you can’t teach what you don’t know; and you can’t give to others what you can’t show in your own life.
4. Create a churchwide disciple-making system. Everyday disciples need leaders to show them how to make disciples and to give them a practical microsystem for making disciples. Adopt a disciple-making model that is simple, effective and reproducible.
MAKING DISCIPLES IN A PANDEMIC
How can we make disciples when we are having trouble even gathering with the church? For many churches, the answer is phygital disciple making. Phygital is the concept of using technology to bridge the physical world with the digital world. Here is the basic idea: Create disciple-making groups that combine smaller in-person gatherings (with social distancing) with regular digital gatherings (through Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.).
In the ideal, a disciple-making leader will initiate and lead the process.
• Form a group of 3 to 5 people. This is a specific group size, ideal for the phygital environment. A same-gender group is best. Hold the formation meeting in person, with social distancing protocols in place, and establish a group agreement.
• Meet weekly online. The regularity of the meeting is important (for relationships and spiritual formation) and, if you are careful to keep it to one hour, it is not too difficult. Our men’s group met every Tuesday night. They helped get their kids in bed and then easily joined the group without the loss of travel time.
• Meet monthly in person. As a part of your holistic model, meet in person. Observe social distancing, utilize masks and meet to serve those in need or to have a meal.
Group size can vary, as can meeting schedules, but I personally field-tested this phygital approach long before COVID-19. It worked well because it combined the key elements of effective disciple making. I led the men in my group on an intentional path, exploring the teachings of Jesus. We enjoyed good relationships (the monthly face-to-face meeting is crucial for relationships), and there was significant spiritual formation.
By the way, I believe phygital describes our cultural future. With advances in technology, we will soon have new ways to disciple people. For example, Facebook is planning to open virtual reality rooms in 2022. Soon virtual in-person meetings, with all the elements of virtual reality, will be as common as Zoom meetings became in 2020.
With tighter budgets and shifting ministry schedules, many church leaders are finding themselves reassessing their church’s most basic priorities. The chaos from COVID-19 and other 2020 disruptions is an invitation to get back to Jesus-style disciple making. In the end, the goal of the gospel and disciple making is allegiance to King Jesus. Personal disciple making is the method.