I read an article last week that hit me hard. I won’t intro the article very much, because I really just want you to read it. J.D. Greear (Pastor at Summit RDU & SBC President) blogged about how to judge the success of a local church. His take is that the ultimate metric of success is whether or not that church makes disciples. The hard-hitting truth for me was that sometimes I can spend so much time strategizing about the best ways to make disciples that I sometimes end up failing to even begin making disciples. I often over-complicate disciple-making and I don’t think I’m alone. Read on and I hope you are challenged and encouraged!
Many skills make for effective ministry. Great leadership. Great vision. Entrepreneurial grit. Disciplined execution. But all of those skills mean nothing if we aren’t making disciples, one by one. Apart from that, all the money we raise, buildings we build, ministries we organize, sermons we preach, and songs we write don’t move the mission forward. Without that mission, we’re wasting our time.
Thus, everything we do in ministry should flow from or lead toward making disciples. Disciple making is, after all, the key component of Jesus’s Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20), and it ought to be the standard by which we judge every ministry in the church.
In his classic book The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman said, “The Great Commission is not merely to go to the ends of the earth preaching the gospel (Mark 16:15), nor to baptize a lot of converts into the name of the triune God, nor to teach them the precepts of Christ, but to ‘make disciples’—to build people like themselves who were so constrained by the commission of Christ that they not only followed his way but led others to as well” (104).
Everything we do in ministry should flow from or lead toward making disciples.
Coleman points out that in the verses that comprise the Great Commission, there is only one real imperative verb: “make disciples.” Everything else from Matthew 28:19–20 that we translate into English as a verb is actually a participle. I know you’re about to pull up Wikipedia right now to remember what a participle is, so let me just jump ahead to the point: it means that Jesus saw everything else he commanded in those verses—baptizing, going, teaching—as pursuant of the primary thing: disciple making.
This means the criteria upon which any church should measure its success is not how many new names are added to the roll, nor how much the budget is increased. Not even close. The success of the church is in how many Christians are actively making disciples and training them to win the multitudes.
Sheep Stealing ≠ Disciple Making
How many of our members can look around on a Sunday morning and point to someone (outside of their family) who is there because they brought them to Christ?
How many can point to someone who is there because someone they brought to Christ brought that person to Christ?
Maybe that’s not fair.
After all, we can’t control how many people come to Jesus. Okay, how many of our fellow members have been inside the home of one of their unbelieving neighbors in the last month?
If you told the people in your church to pull out their phone and text a non-Christian they were on close enough terms to that they could arrange a spontaneous coffee for later in the afternoon, how many could do it? How many of the people in your church who read their Bible daily have made an attempt to read it with an unbeliever some time in the past year?
One more: if God answered, in one fell swoop, all the prayers members in your church prayed last week, how many new people would be in the kingdom?
The uncomfortable reality is that many of the fastest-growing churches in America aren’t growing because they’re winning and discipling new believers but because they are importing them from other churches.
A familiar scenario unfolds in many of our big cities: some new hot church with great music comes into town, and everyone flocks there. That church boasts “New Testament-level” growth, but the total number of people in church in that city on any given weekend doesn’t actually increase.
Of course, this isn’t disciple making.
If anything, it’s sheep stealing.
Swapping members is not advancing on the gates of hell; it’s reshuffling soldiers into new platoons. And then hanging out in the barracks.
Life on Life Discipleship
For many years we wanted disciple making to be the priority in our church, but our college ministry finally led the way. Each year they launch about fifty students into ministry, most of whom come from non-Christian backgrounds. A couple of years ago they sent a full-time church planting team to Southeast Asia that consisted of eight college graduates, seven of whom had become Christians at our church during their time in college. The next year fourteen interns joined our staff to help reach more college students in the area, all fourteen of whom had become Christians at our church during college.
What are they doing right? They’re playing on flag football teams with lost people. They’re eating meals with lost people. They’re reading the Bible with lost people. They’ve taught us what the word discipleship means. It was simpler than we imagined. Life on life. Real friendship. Hard conversations. Intentionally missional.
As one of our college pastors says, “Seventy-five percent of all our discipleship is informal. We teach our students that almost every step of their Christian life is to be shared with someone else. When they get to whatever finish line they are headed toward, they should look around and see three or four people they have brought with them.”
To reach more people, we don’t need better gathering techniques; we need a more intentional focus on discipleship. This takes an entirely new way of looking at relationships.
Read the Bible as You Go
I asked one of the most effective disciple makers I know to share with me his discipleship method. I was expecting a fancy curriculum with a silver-bullet technique. Instead, he sent me a scanned list of thirty-one Bible verse references he had typed out on a word processor back in the ’80s. He told me that he gives this list to someone and asks them to take one verse a day and write beside each of the references what God might be saying to them through it. He meets with them weekly to discuss their answers. After that, he said, he asks them if they want to read a book of the Bible together and do the same thing.
That was it.
No secret sauce, no electrifying jolt of discipleship genius, no magic formula, no Jedi mind tricks. Yet just about every time our churches had a baptism service, that disciple maker had somebody represented in the lineup—either from him directly or through someone he’d led to Christ bringing someone else to Christ. Just last weekend I met a guy who had been led to Christ by a guy who had been led to Christ by a guy who had been led to Christ by a guy who had been led to Christ by a guy who had been led to Christ by a guy who had been led to Christ by this guy. If you’re counting, that’s six generations. That means he is a spiritual great-great-great-great-grandfather, and he’s not even fifty years old yet!
Oh yeah, he’s not seminary trained.
What about you?
As you go through the normal rhythms of life, invite someone to travel alongside you and read the Bible together along the way. Let the pressures of life, God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit carry the heavy load. You’ll be amazed at the results.
You may be good at many dimensions of the Christian life, but are you good at making disciples? Can you point to others serving in the mission now who weren’t believers when you met them? Are you reproducing yourself?
What a tragedy if we spend our whole life busy doing good things but overlook the one thing Jesus told us was paramount, the one thing he identified as the Great Commission!