HOW TO MAKE DISCIPLES
Author: Richard Jones, Chief Operating Officer, Maritime Christian College
THE PROBLEM – DISCIPLESHIP MEANING DIFFERENT THINGS
Over six years ago our eldership was asked by a church consultant: what is our church’s definition of a “disciple”?
I remember our elder team’s attempt to answer that question – everyone had a different answer! Our answers weren’t incorrect, and we all emphasized different points of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The word discipleship in particular caused confusion, with discipleship meaning different things to each of us.
For me, it became a catalyst to explore what it meant to be an obedient follower of Jesus, a local church elder, the leader of several ministries, and a leader at Maritime Christian College.
My journey started with the words of Jesus in Matthew 28, the “Great Commission”:
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV)
Notice that I started with verse 16 and not verse 19. That’s because I want everyone to see the context of when Jesus makes this statement and to include the most incredible claim Jesus made after his resurrection. It is in verse 18, when Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”.
Think about it – Jesus declared to have all authority in heaven and on earth! He is clearly stating his position at the right hand of God after his time on earth. And then pay close attention to what Jesus says after making this claim to having all authority: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations”.
This directive, to go and make disciples, seems simple. But Jesus didn’t give us a lot of strict guidelines on how to make disciples, except that we were to baptize them and teach them to be obedient to the commands and principles Jesus demonstrated to his disciples when he was on earth with them.
So why is it that the overwhelming majority of churches in North America are NOT effectively making disciples of Jesus?
This question confronted the reality that my church wasn’t doing this effectively. There was a lot of misplaced effort that wasn’t producing much in the way of new followers of Jesus.
THE SOLUTION – HOW TO MAKE DISCIPLES FOLLOWING THE METHODS OF JESUS
My journey to becoming a disciple of Jesus focused on obeying Jesus’ command in Matthew 28 had three basic steps. This journey was not a solo effort, as it also involved the elder team at my church.
Step 1: Agree On The Definition of a Disciple
Our first step on this journey was to agree as an elder team on a common definition of a disciple. We leaned into material produced by several of the best organizations and leaders who were focusing on making disciples in North America, starting with these two resources:
“DiscipleShift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples”, by Jim Putman & Bobby Harrington, with Robert E. Coleman (Zondervan, 2013).
“Real-life discipleship training manual” by Jim Putman, Avery T. Willis, Brandon Guindon, Bill Krause (NavPress, 2010).
You can learn more about these resources and the people who wrote them by checking out www.discipleship.org.
So here is the definition of a disciple in one of the most famous sayings of Jesus, from Matthew 4:19: “And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (ESV). From these ten words of Jesus we get a definition of a disciple that has three parts. A disciple is a person who…
(1) Follows Jesus as Lord (“Follow me”)
(2) Is being changed by Jesus (“and I will make you” i.e., “I will transform you”)
(3) Is committed to the mission of Jesus (“into fishers of men”)
With this powerful and yet simple definition of a disciple, the elders at my church started to realize how much of the activity we were doing at our church was not directly related to making disciples. That’s when we had to move into the second step of the journey – figuring out how to be obedient to Jesus’ command in Matthew 28.
Step 2: Become an Individual Disciple Maker
How does one become a disciple maker? Consider in the past five years there have been thousands of leaders at local churches in North America who have realized the way their church is currently operating is not producing people who follow Jesus, or are being changed by Jesus, or even committed to the mission of Jesus. In other words, these leaders have figured out that their church isn’t making disciples. This has led to an outpouring of highly useful and valuable books and resources on how to become a disciple maker. Again, I would recommend consulting www.discipleship.org for an overview of some of the great resources available.
But here is the key: discipleship is not just knowledge, but also application of that knowledge in our lives. Let me express this in a slightly different way:
Discipleship = Becoming a disciple who makes other disciples
One of the greatest errors made today by churches all over the world is to use the word discipleship meaning “studying the Bible and learning more about Jesus”. Yes, this is absolutely essential if we are to become a disciple of Jesus. But stopping at the “knowledge level” presents a wildly incomplete definition, because that definition allows us to learn about being a disciple without us having to put much of it into practice. That is not what Jesus told us to do! He said to “go and make disciples”! Jesus didn’t say “go and learn about making disciples”. This is why the definition of a disciple is so important – a disciple not only follows Jesus and is being transformed by Jesus, but a disciple is committed to the mission of Jesus. That mission, of course, is what Jesus gives us in Matthew 28:19-20.
At Maritime Christian College we deliberately use the phrases disciple making, disciple maker, and how to make disciples when we are explaining our higher education resources to potential students. In fact, we probably over-use these terms! We do this because we don’t want to water down the Great Commission. We want our students to understand that discipleship is a powerful combination of knowledge PLUS application. This is the way we have designed our online courses as well – to not only impart knowledge but to initiate and sustain action as a disciple maker.
This second step on the journey challenged each elder to develop effective practices to become better disciple makers, and this gave the word discipleship meaning that was broader and deeper than just individual study. But there was one more missing ingredient that we did not focus on enough at the start.
Step 3: Become a Unified Elder Team That Makes Disciples
If you would have asked me two years ago if our church has a unified elder team, I would have quickly replied “yes”. The four of us, which includes our lead pastor as our only paid elder, got along well with each other, encouraged each other, met frequently as a team, prayed together, and followed disciplined personal discipleship practices.
But in my work at Maritime Christian College, I began to realize that just because our individual discipleship efforts were strong didn’t mean that we were doing a good job leading our church.
What our elder team started to notice is that although people in our church were getting great teaching on discipleship, there wasn’t the follow-through in applying that teaching. From what we could tell, people at our church were excited about being “hearers of the word” but not as excited about being “doers of the word” (see James 1:22-25). We were not making disciples who in turn were making disciples. To put it bluntly: we were not teaching people how to make disciples.
After discussing and praying about what our next steps should be to improve our church’s disciple making efforts, our elder team decided that we would commit – as a team – to study together what it meant to be a disciple making church and how to make disciples. Here we turned to Maritime Christian College and the online Disciple Making Church Leadership Certificate. In the fall of 2021, the four of us signed up for the first course in that program, Introduction to Healthy Eldership. Our online course instructor was Brandon Guindon, one of the authors of the “Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual”.
Taking the Introduction to Healthy Eldership course together was quite transformational to the way our elder team functioned. We all started using common language, with discipleship meaning something we could explain consistently with a more complete understanding of the term. We learned to be better at sharing what was going on in our personal lives in a more authentic and transparent way, and we learned how to deal with the inevitable pain of leading in a church in a way that made us stronger. Perhaps most importantly, we became more convinced that our path forward as a church was to spur on our members to apply what they were learning about discipleship. In other words, we became much more intentional about making disciples who in turn became intentional about making disciples themselves.
Our elder team and our church are still a work in progress as we continue to put more emphasis into our own individual and church discipleship efforts. There is a lot of hard work to be done to reach people in today’s society with the life-changing message of the Gospel and to lead a church that is single-minded in making disciples. But we are tackling this challenge now with a new focus and unity among our leaders that has been helped by our involvement with Maritime Christian College and the organizations it partners with.
Call to Action
Do your church’s elder team and ministry leaders need more resourcing about how to make disciples and to make the transition to a disciple making church? You can discover more about MCC's Disciple Maker Certificates here https://www.mccpei.com/disciple-making-church-leadership .
 “Real-life discipleship training manual”, p. 26