The church’s assignment to create disciples is clear. In what’s commonly become known as the Great Commission, Jesus instructs us:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20, New International Version).
Here Jesus charges the apostles to follow his example. As he made disciples out of them, they’re to make disciples of others. This is a pattern that’s to continue until He returns.
But how do we make disciples? From Christ’s own words, it must entail instruction that eventually leads to obedience—but how is that accomplished? Is discipleship something that we can attain by attending a few classes?
Just like we see in the lives of the apostles, Christian discipleship should change people. It should transform the way they think about God, themselves, and the rest of humanity—until they are “conformed to the image of the Son” (Romans 8:29).
Here are six things disciple-makers should keep in mind about the disciple-making process.
1. Begin with the End in Mind
When thinking about discipleship, the first (and often the only) question we usually ask is, “What does a disciple need to learn?” And while this is an important consideration, it’s only the beginning. The discipleship process is more than developing a cognitive understanding of Christianity—it’s about seeing, processing, and interacting with the world in a new way.
By using Jesus’ example as our model for discipleship, we can learn quite a bit about the discipleship process. Jesus didn’t scrimp on the intellectual development of his disciples. He spent a lot of time teaching them—but he didn’t stop there.
He instructed them with parables that they needed to work to understand. He challenged their presumptions and pushed them beyond their comfort zones. He even sent them to get their hands dirty before they were entirely prepared (Matthew 10). Jesus recognized that transformation demanded more than mental assent to certain facts and maxims. It required an emotional connection to the truth and lots of firsthand experience.
He did more than read a couple scrolls with his disciples and meet them once a week for coffee and discussion. They needed to spend time with Him doing everyday mundane things, and they needed to open themselves up to new experiences and challenges.
The first questions that any discipleship program or relationship should start with are, “What does a disciple of Jesus look like? What are they able to do? What makes them different from anyone else?”
Once you have an idea of what discipleship looks like, then you can begin asking questions like:
- What biblical understanding do they need?
- What questions will they need answered?
- What fears will they need to face?
- What kind of experiences will they need to have?
2. Teach them to love Scripture
In a 2015 Christianity Today article, Ed Stetzer addressed the problem of biblical illiteracy in our churches. He shared some startling statistics:
- Only 45 percent of people who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week.
- More than 40 percent of church attendees read the Bible only once or twice a month.
- Almost one in five churchgoers admit to never reading the Bible.
If the church’s goal is to create disciples but most people in church aren’t interested in reading Scripture, we need to wonder where the disconnect lies. After all, we have Bible studies, Sunday schools, and biblically based messages. Why isn’t this translating into a love for the Bible?
Part of the problem is that we tend to approach the Bible as a textbook. We pull truths out of it and apply it to various situations and scenarios, but on their own people struggle to understand how to do it for themselves. They don’t entirely comprehend that becoming intimate with Scripture is what empowers it to be applicable, and that it requires a personal investment.
The people in our churches know that the Bible is important for their faith, but they still haven’t been able to personally connect with it. This means that we need to do more than communicate its importance. We need to demonstrate our own passion and dependance upon it.
In order for potential disciples to connect with Scripture, they need to understand what it is and how fits together. We need to help them understand how to read its various genres, and how the Spirit uses it to transform us. Once they fall in love with the Bible, they’re well on their way to their own personal transformation.
3. Teach them why spiritual disciplines are important
As we look at the gospels, we see that spiritual disciplines were an integral part of Jesus’ life. Throughout Christ’s life we see Him:
- Fasting (Matthew. 4:2)
- Praying (Luke 3:21)
- Serving (Matthew 9:35)
- Practicing solitude (Luke 5:16)
If Jesus needed to partake in these sorts of practices, how much more do his disciples? It’s not enough to tell Christians to pray. They need to understand why disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, worship, and service are critical for their spiritual development. While we call them “spiritual disciplines,” they are legitimate physical activities which require an investment of time and energy.
Think about it like this: a professional guitarist has a regimen of disciplines that she must execute in private. She practices scales, works on her relative pitch, focuses on chord construction, and runs through various exercises to keep her fingers limber and improve their muscle memory. Now why does she do those things?
No one wants to pay to see a musician play scales or do tuneless exercises. But it’s the musician’s dedication to these things that enables her to operate at peak efficiency and give people the best performance possible. In fact, the more time she spends practicing in private, the better prepared she is to deliver a beautiful performance in public.
It’s the same way with spiritual disciplines. We don’t pray in private in order to become better at public prayer. We pray in private so that we can create a personal dependency upon God that empowers us to rely on his presence and power in trying times. We don’t fast for public benefit; we fast so that we can learn to deny our own desires in order to more perfectly focus on God.
We shouldn’t just give disciples a list of disciplines to practice. We need to help them understand how disciplines are transforming them.
4. Teach them to walk in the Spirit
The Christian life is about empowerment. Christians aren’t called to strain themselves toward becoming more like Christ. In our own power, it’s impossible. It’s like training people to will themselves taller.
Jesus explained it this way:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:1–8).
Disciples aren’t transformed by trying really hard to change. They’re transformed by maintaining a connection to Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even the spiritual disciplines we addressed earlier should enable us to overcome the obstacles to daily reliance on Jesus.
Paul explains it well in his letter to the Galatians:
“So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” Galatians 5:16-17) NIV.
If we want to live opposed to the flesh, we need to submit ourselves to the Spirit. And it’s these things that lead to the Spirit’s fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
5. Teach to them to discern good teaching from bad
From the very beginning, there were individuals in the church misleading God’s people with false teachings and prophecies. Paul gives the Thessalonian church some important advice:
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:20–21).
He didn’t want them to get so carried away that they threw out everything they heard. Instead, he wanted them to develop the ability to test the things they were taught and dismiss what was bad. John offers a similar admonition in his first epistle:
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Discernment is the ability to tell truth from falsehood. For the believer, it represents an ability to see everything through a lens of biblical understanding and spiritual wisdom. Because it’s through these things that we understand what Peter tells us in his second letter:
“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:3–4).
6. Teach them to do what the Lord requires
The prophet Micah tells us exactly what the Lord requires from us:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
If we want disciples to grow into people who do what God requires of them, they will also
- Act justly
- Love mercy
- Walk humbly with God
What does it mean to act justly?
We wouldn’t be wrong to notice that Micah’s first encouragement spurs us toward integrity and justice. But we’d miss the point if we ignored that it’s a call to action. God expects us to act impartial and fair.
This means that a disciple makes decisions in their personal and professional life that are even-handed and honorable. We’re to love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves (Mark 12:31), and Jesus defined our neighbors as virtually anyone in need. This means that we can’t show partiality to people based on their status or personal worth (James 2).
It also means that our own lives reveal a sense of wholeness, righteousness, and transparency. A disciple not only knows the difference between right and wrong, but they do right when they know that no one’s paying attention—even when doing so comes at a personal cost.
Throughout Scripture, we see justice often paired with righteousness:
“Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness” (1 Kings 10:9).
“The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love” (Psalm 33:5).
“The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress” (Isaiah 5:7).
God intentionally links the two principles together. If we’re righteous, we’ll place a premium on justice.
What does it mean to love mercy?
In the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable of a king who wanted to settle his debts and called for a servant that owed him about 20 years' worth of wages. The servant fell to his knees and begged for the king’s patience. The king took pity on him and not only showed patience, but forgave the debt entirely.
Immediately upon leaving, the servant ran into another person who owed him a day’s wages. The servant began choking him, demanding to be repaid. When the man begged for patience, the servant had him thrown into debtor’s prison.
When the king heard about this, he was furious. He had shown an incredible amount of charity to the servant, but the servant couldn’t find it in his own heart to show any compassion to the man who owed him such a paltry amount.
The obvious lesson is that the mercy we’re called on to show others is nothing compared to the mercy we’ve been shown.
But Micah doesn’t simply call us to show mercy; he admonishes us to love mercy. If we want disciples to walk closely with God, they’ll relish mercy. They’ll look for opportunities to demonstrate it and share it with others.
What does it mean to walk humbly with God?
It’s interesting to note that God’s original intention for a relationship with mankind was communicated as God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the garden (Genesis 3:8). Throughout the Old Testament, we see intimacy with God depicted as walking with Him:
“Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took Him away” (Genesis 5:24).
“This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6:9).
“I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:12).
It’s intimate relationship that God desires from his people, and that intimacy grows from a right relationship with Him—a relationship built upon understanding our place and maintaining that divine connection. Walking humbly with God is the key to acting justly and loving mercy. As we walk in that relationship, we breathe in God’s goodness and exhale justice and grace.
In order to walk humbly with God, disciples need to become more aware of their own shortcoming than the flaws of others, and choose the way of Christ: not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45).
Growing the kingdom through discipleship
Discipleship is the kingdom’s force magnifier. When we turn a believer into a disciple, they become someone with a sense of personal responsibility for discipling others. This is how the church grows and the gospel transforms lives.