Disciplemaking 101


“Are you guys really sure this is what Jesus told you to do?” That question was posed by an atheist named Matt Casper who had been hired by Jim Henderson to visit several well-known American churches with him. Henderson wanted to get a fresh look at church through the eyes of an unbeliever. Casper’s question came during a debriefing session after their visit to one of America’s well-known mega-churches. I think it’s a good question.

After all, Jesus didn’t tell us to build big churches. He didn’t tell us to build any kind of churches. (I seem to remember Him saying that He would do that.) He told us instead that we should “make disciples . . . 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” (Matt. 28:19–20).

But after nearly 45 years of ministry, I have sadly concluded we are not terribly proficient at doing that. Our churches are busy places full of life and activity. Some of them are large churches doing many good things and serving both believers and a host of men, women, and children who have not yet decided to become Jesus followers. But we are not producing very many fully devoted “disciples” of the sort that were to be found in the first-century church that Jesus left behind—people who identify with Christ in baptism, who obey His commands, who share His values and priorities, and then proceed to change their world for God by reproducing themselves in the lives of others.

I have no special methodology to propose. In fact, I am fairly certain that “one size” does not “fit all” in this business of making disciples. But I can perhaps offer a few preliminary observations that may in part explain why, despite all the advantages that our North American churches possess, we have not done a better job of carrying out Christ’s last command.

 You First

First, to be effective in the task of making disciples of others, I must be a fully devoted disciple myself. It is, after all, difficult to lead someone else to a place that we have never ourselves visited.

Effective disciplemaking begins with becoming a fully devoted disciple yourself.



Two of the most challenging verses in all of the New Testament are Luke 6:39–40 in which Jesus says: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student [disciple] is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” If the people I disciple do not look as much like Jesus as they ought, the likely reason is because they look too much like me.

My son is a graduate of West Point, and I well remember my shock as a parent when he entered the academy for his first (“plebe”) year. For that entire year, his responses to all upperclassmen and officers on the campus were limited. When addressed, he could answer in only one of four phrases: “Yes, sir (or ma’am),” “No, sir,” “I do not understand, sir,” or “No excuses, sir.”

This rule seemed unnecessarily restrictive to me as a parent, so I asked an officer about it. His answer was revealing. “Our job here,” he explained, “is to produce leaders of character for the nation. But before you can learn to be a leader, you first have to learn to be a follower.”

If there are areas of my own life in which I have found it difficult to obey the commands of Christ or perhaps even refused to follow Him, I will never be able to say to those whom I have been called to lead: “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

Focus on the Few

Second, it’s possible that in my preoccupation with building a healthy (and a larger) church, I have neglected the more important task of making disciples. Growing a church, at least in our North American context, is essentially a “large group” activity, but making disciples is, by its very nature, a much more selective process. In Robert Coleman’s book The Master Plan of Evangelism, he makes the important point that while Jesus never neglected the masses, He clearly focused on the few.

Until men and women read and learn the Scripture for themselves, they can never become mature disciples.

That observation runs counter to almost everything I was taught in seminary and in the culture of the American church at the end of the 20th century. My seminary education taught me to think that preparing a 30-minute sermon was the most important task of a competent pastor. And the leaders of the church-growth movement taught me to see myself not as a “shepherd” (an image rooted deeply in the soil of both the Old and New Testaments) but as a “rancher.”

Discipleship is all about dynamic life transformation. The most obvious and lasting “fruit” in terms of changed lives that I can point to in my nearly five decades of ministry are the years my wife and I spent planting new churches. As I reflect upon those years of blessing, I now suspect that one reason for this is that there was no “crowd” to distract us from the primary task of making disciples.

Please understand that I am not opposed to large and growing churches. I am merely suggesting that the focus that Jesus Himself placed upon making disciples must be retained as primary even in the face of the demands of ministering to the “crowd.”

Two Tools

Third, I have come to understand that even though my focus as a shepherd needs to be on the great task of making disciples, the transformation of a human life is a task that requires a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit. In the end, He is the disciplemaker, not me. I cannot effect the changes God wants to make in people’s lives, but I can teach them how to use the two most powerful tools that the Holy Spirit uses to form them into the image of Christ. Those tools are the Word of God and prayer.

Discipleship is all about dynamic life transformation.



There are other tools that God uses to shape our lives—special experiences that He sovereignly brings into our lives and people who arrive at just the right moment with just the right messagebut the primary tools the Holy Spirit uses to shape and form us are the Word of God and prayer.

My primary role as a disciplemaker is then to get men and women into the Word of Godthe supernatural Word that is “living and active [and] sharper than any doubleedged sword” (Heb. 4:12). I firmly believe that when men and women engage the Word of God with open hearts and open minds, it always changes them.

My primary goal as a disciplemaking pastor will always be to get my people into the Word of God. Then I can count on the Holy Spirit to do something supernatural in them. There is more to being a fully devoted follower of Christ than simply knowing what the Bible says, but until men and women read and learn the Scripture for themselves, they can never become mature disciples.

It is likewise a certainty that they cannot become “like” Christ until they learn how to pray. That will not happen if I teach them about prayer, and it won’t happen even if I pray for them, though that too must be a part of my task.

In the end, they will learn to pray as I pray with them both corporately and individually. I have learned in recent days to ask myself and other pastors some rather telling questions: How much time do you spend praying for your people? And how much time do you spend praying with your people?

Perhaps we need to spend some time answering the atheist’s question: “Are you guys really sure this is what Jesus told you to do?”

4 responses to Disciplemaking 101

  1. This is one of the most important articles that I have read. It is unfortunate that an important concept like making disciples is seldom emphasized in churches today. As a result, many of our youth grow up and leave active participation in the faith by the time they get to college. Making disciples is the commission of the church. It was some of the last words spoken by Jesus while he walked the earth before his ascension. That alone places His words on a level of importance that we should take note of and follow after.

    Simple concepts like learning how to pray, study the Bible, be a servant, lead others to Christ, developing relationships, using your gifts….etc. get left behind as the church today follows after new fads, new practices, new teachings…..that may be popular but may not be biblical and fall short of being a disciple, making disciples….etc. That is the core of the Great Commission.


  3. I’ll never forget when you shared about your son at Council. Here again is another great reminder of getting the foundation right and then building on that foundation John what a great reminder that we are to make disciples and then a disciple doesn’t look like us no they look like Jesus. Thank you

  4. Challenge accepted– I will re-examine my own life of discipleship. I will re-commit myself to reading God’s Word and prayer.

    Especially important in the overseas mission field– Bangkok

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