January 18, 2024

by Justin Gravitt

Picture this: You and a friend meet a couple of times a month for lunch, golf, or just to grab coffee. This meeting is a priority for both of you. You both love Jesus and enjoy talking about family, the Bible, and shared interests. Every time you walk away feeling refreshed in your life and encouraged in your faith. You are so thankful for the relationship. But what would you call it? Is it a friendship, a disciple making relationship, or both? Is there even a difference?

Does it even matter? It does if you want to make disciple makers, where clarity is crucial.

Just like the words Christian and disciple, there’s a lot of overlap between Christian friendship and disciple making. Both friendship and disciple making are relational, often result in spiritual growth and encouragement, and both are commanded in Scripture (Matthew 28:19-20, Hebrews 10:24-25).

As much as they have in common though, they are not the same. Here are three significant differences between friendship and discipleship.

1. Difference of Primary Aim

Friendship, even Christian friendship, is primarily aimed at enjoyment. The connection is made and maintained around common experiences, interests, and perspectives. The enjoyment formed by these things holds friends together. This isn’t a bad thing. Friendship is one of God’s gifts to us. When Christian friends come together we are encouraged in our faith and spurred on to follow God more closely.

Disciple making is primarily aimed at maturity and reproduction. The tighter focus is unique. Friendship can (and should) be a part of disciple making, but if it only rises to the level of friendship then it hasn’t accomplished its true purpose. In disciple making enjoyment takes a back seat to purposeful growth towards maturity that leads to reproduction.

2. Difference in Environment

Friendship exists in a solidly relational environment. As we just saw, the connection is formed around social enjoyment. Such a connection upholds the entire friendship. From within that environment, friends listen to one another, encourage one another, and challenge one another. That’s not to say that focused teaching and learning can’t happen within a friendship, but if it does, it happens with added (explicit or implicit) permission.

Disciple making exists in a relational environment that’s both relational and intentional. The intentional part forms around the commitment toward purposeful development. Disciples and disciple makers come together around a vision to become more like Jesus. Social connection and enjoyment is not required for a disciple making relationship to go well. Instead, the relational environment is pointed toward growth that leads to spiritual maturity and reproduction.

3. Difference in Durability and Duration

Since friendships are built around enjoyment and connection they are both more fragile and more durable than disciple making relationships. If enjoyment or connection wanes, most friendships crumble. However, some friendships can span the length of a lifetime. What a blessing these are! The duration of such friendships lasts way longer than any disciple making relationship should.

By contrast, disciple making relationships are more durable because they are built upon shared commitment to becoming. So, if enjoyment or connection lag behind, the relationship can continue. At the same time, they aren’t designed to last decades. Disciple making is focused to accomplish something specific that shouldn’t last a lifetime.

Why It Matters

Both Christian friendship and disciple making are good, healthy, and commanded. Developing them as distinct relationships really matters. It matters because if we engage our friends as someone we are discipling or someone we are discipling as just a friend then the result will be confusion. Your friend will wonder why you are asking them lots of intentional questions and expecting them to do certain things and the person your discipling will wonder how discipling relationships are different. In addition, they’ll never be able to effectively disciple someone else well.

Finally, just because friendship and disciple making aren’t the same doesn’t mean they can’t co-exist. Ideally, disciple making relationships grow into friendships. Jesus modeled this for us. His relationship with the Twelve disciples didn’t begin as a friendship. He began by inviting them to follow Him and to become like Him (Matthew 4:19-20). Only later did they become His friends (John 15:14-16). In most healthy disciple making relationships the same thing happens. Simply because friendship and disciple making aren’t the same doesn’t mean they can’t co-exist.

It’s also possible (and common) for a friendship to develop into a disciple making relationship. Since the trust is already there, adding intentionality to the friendship is easy in many cases.

So, disciple making and Christian friendship aren’t the same. What does that mean to you?

(The differences between disciple making and its near relatives are many. Previously Justin has distinguished disciple making from mentoring, leadership, accountability, shepherding, coaching, and membership.)

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also enjoy the podcast I host with my friend, Pastor Tony Miltenberger. Subscribe to The Practitioners’ Podcast and get disciple making insights wherever you get podcasts!


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