January 23, 2023

by Justin Gravitt

What is disciple making, precisely?

It’s a question worth slowing down to answer. Because it takes time to be precise, and because the consequence of cloudy thinking is misunderstanding that leads to misnamed, or worse, misaimed ministry. So, what is disciple making, precisely? NOT discipleship, but disciple making? Consider the following shortlist of options:

• Is disciple making simply, “Doing deliberate good to help someone follow Christ,” as one pastor suggests?

• Is disciple making “Everything the church does,” as another pastor told me?

• Is disciple making something that only God can do as a faithful Christ-follower once told me?

• Is disciple making simply helping Christians grow to maturity as a misreading of Paul might suggest?

• Is disciple making ministry leadership training as a  misreading of Jesus might indicate?

Perhaps the bigger, more challenging question is, “Is it possible to develop a robust definition that will capture the essence of what Jesus meant when He said to His disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations?”(Mt 28:19-20) Can such a description exist without denigrating other valuable, Kingdom work?

Let’s start by acknowledging three truths.

1. God has given us the job of making disciples (Mt. 28:19-20, Mk. 16: 15, Lk. 24:47, Jn. 20:21 Acts 1:8).

2. God is the one who causes disciples to grow (cf. 1 Cor. 3:7, Phil. 1:6, 2:13, Mk. 4:27-29).

3. Disciples can be made in many ways. This is true whether we use the dictionary definition of a disciple or the one used by discipleship.org, “someone who is following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and is committed to the mission of Jesus.”

The challenge of reaching disciple making clarity revolves around these three truths. Taken together we can conclude several things.

First, since God has given us the job of making disciples, we can do it if we abide (Jn 15:5). This is clear because God wouldn’t give us a task that’s outside our ability to accomplish.

Second, even if we don’t abide, we can expect mature disciples to emerge from every church or ministry. This is the result of the Spirit’s work in the life of faithful believers. So then, the mere development of mature disciples does not necessarily indicate effective disciple making. These mature disciples could be because of me (and God), in spite of me, or unrelated to me.

Third, careful thought must be given to how to make a disciple. This is especially important because disciples go in the same ways they have grown in. So the task of making disciple makers requires attention to more than just whether or not one disciple grows.

To simplify everything let’s anchor our exploration in one assumption: Jesus’ way of making a disciple is the best way. We start there because the Bible teaches that Jesus’ life and ministry are to be an example for us (Lk. 6:40, 1 Jn. 2:6, 1 Cor. 11:1, 1 Pt. 2:21). As Jim Putman so succinctly put it, “We cannot separate the teachings of Jesus from the methods of Jesus and expect to get the results of Jesus.”

Jesus’ way of making disciples provides a fixed point from which to consider all possible (& potentially effective) ways to make a disciple. When Jesus’ way is best then our goal isn’t simply to make a disciple, but to make a disciple in a manner consistent with Jesus’.

In twenty-five years of disciple making, I’ve yet to meet someone who travels around with twelve disciples following them day and night from place to place. I point this out to show that it’s not the exact form or method of disciple making that we seek to emulate, but rather the principles that undergird His method. We don’t have space to look at that here, but the principles have been repeatedly identified and explored in books such as “The Master Plan of Evangelism,” “Training of the Twelve,” “The Lost Art of Disciple Making,” and “Disciples are Made, Not Born.”

Our goal then is to make disciples that fit Jesus’ disciple making style.

Again, when answering the question, “What is disciple making, precisely,” we cannot simply look at effectiveness, but we must consider the whole picture of why a disciple is being made, how a disciple is being made, and what type of a disciple is being made.

So finally, then, we are ready to answer the question, “What is disciple making, precisely.”

1. Disciple making is a specific type of relationship that is carried out by individuals whose primary motivation is Christological (being like Jesus), covenantal (taking part in the Abrahamic promise), or missional (reaching the nations / expanding the Kingdom).

Motivation makes a difference because why we do something sets up how we will do it. Each of these motivations puts God and His plan at the center but also incorporates a strong personal reason that the individual is discipling.

2. Disciple making must be carried out with methods that are relational, intentional, and missional. This must be the case because Jesus’ way is the best way. We can expect the disciple making relationship to become warped when we do not align our methods to His.

These methods are most often replaced by academic, consumeristic, or programmatic.

3. Disciple making always leads to fruit that multiplies. Specifically, the multiplying fruit of disciple making is:

A. New disciples (converts). If disciple making never reaches the lost then it isn’t Jesus-style. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10) and the disciples embodied that as they went.

B. New disciple makers. If disciple making doesn’t make new disciple makers then it misses the essential element in becoming like Jesus in a holistic sense.

C. Three-Dimensional Momentum. Jesus-style disciple making produces a momentum that freely moves across social, racial, economic, or political boundaries. This momentum always moves outward toward the lost, in towards the Church, and downward in the life of the individual believer. The Body of Christ is built up and expanded by this momentum (Eph. 4:12).

To sum up, disciple making is a specific type of relationship that is carried out by people who are primarily motivated by Christological, covenantal, or missional aims; they use Jesus’ methods that are relational, intentional, and missional, and it leads to fruit that multiples in the form of new disciples, new disciple makers, and three-dimensional momentum.

This definition is broad enough to distinguish disciple making from other forms of valid, Biblical ministry (e.g. caring for widows & orphans, preaching, teaching, etc.), but specific enough to provide a guide and a framework from which to assess whether something is really Jesus-style disciple making or not.

What about this definition is helpful to you? What about it makes you uncomfortable? Why? As a disciple what does it bring out from you? As a disciple maker, how does it move you forward?

You can find more helpful blogs and resources @ justingravitt.com


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