2 Ways to Solve Your Ministry’s Discipleship Problem

It is exceedingly common to hear pastors and church leaders say something like the following,

“I want to make disciples but I can’t find people who are motivated to learn and lead.”

It is equally common to hear church members say something that resembles,

“I want to be discipled but I can’t find anyone willing to invest in my spiritual growth.”

In other words, the average pastor is working hard to make disciples but isn’t seeing results while many of his church members want to grow spiritually but don’t see the opportunity. Though both perceptions appear contradictory, they can exist simultaneously because there is often a Sarlacc pit-sized gap between a church’s desire to make disciples and a church’s skill in making disciples. In my experience, there are two keys to bridging that gap that, if utilized, allow both church leaders and church members to experience the discipleship growth they desire.

@@There is often a Sarlacc pit-sized gap between a church’s desire to make disciples & their skill in making disciples@@

Key #1 You Have to Know What You Want to Make
Imagine walking into a kitchen pre-stocked with every delicious ingredient imaginable. You love to cook and are excited to use all of the resources at your disposal to make a magnificent meal. However, you’re not sure what that meal is called or what the final product will look like. Since you don’t have a specific end product in mind, you do what Buddy the Elf did and simply take a bunch of delicious ingredients and mix them together: spaghetti noodles, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, maple syrup, sprinkles, mini-marshmallows, M&M’s and Pop Tarts. Though each of these ingredients is good on its own none of them makes a meal in and of themselves, nor does mixing them all together as if a bunch of good ingredients automatically produces a good dish. As much as you love to cook, and in spite of having the freedom to use any ingredient in existence, if you don’t know exactly what you’re hoping to produce, in the end you will not produce anything worthy of eating.

Many church’s approach discipleship in this same way. They know they want to make disciples just as the person in the illustration wants to make a meal. But they could not tell you what the final product is supposed to look like. Instead, they become the pastoral equivalent of Buddy the Elf. They take a bunch of good things (like sermons, books, conversations over coffee, Bible studies, accountability groups) and mix them all together hoping that, in the end, a fully-formed disciple will come out. But, as with food, if you cannot describe the essential characteristics of what you are aiming to make, you will end up making something that is not worthy of the ingredients and efforts you poured into it. This is how church’s can pour so much money and time into discipleship and yet not see any notable results from their efforts.

Jesus and Paul are the most successful disciple-makers of all time. It should not surprise us, then, that neither of them made this error. Instead, Jesus and Paul both knew and made known what they were aiming to produce. Jesus told Peter and Andrew from the jump, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19, ESV). Similarly, Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that the disciple was someone who lived as he lived, and his ministry was directed toward that end. “I urge you to imitate me,” he told them, and “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1, NIV). Because they knew exactly what they were trying to make — and they explicitly communicated this to those they served — they were able to combine the right ingredients in the right way to achieve the desired result.

Key #2 You Have to Know How You’re Going to Make It
I can walk into the kitchen 100% committed to making a plate of Jamaican jerk chicken for my wife. I may have all the necessary ingredients, tools, and desire to do so. But if I don’t have a recipe that tells me step-by-step how to make jerk chicken I will end up making something that does not look nor taste like what I spent the whole night trying to make. I speak from real-life experience, and my wife can testify that the jerk chicken dinner I tried to serve her when we first married accomplished nothing more than make me look like the only jerk at the table.

Sadly, many church’s make this same mistake. Every church says, “we want to make disciples.” And they mean it. So much so that if a Christian church has a mission statement you can be certain that some form of “making disciples” is present in it. What’s more, most of them pour a mountain of human and financial resources into reaching this goal. Yet in spite of the time, money, and people spent, if a church doesn’t have a recipe for how they’re going to make the disciple they are aiming to make, they will produce the spiritual equivalent of my jerk chicken.

Jesus and Paul did not make this mistake. Instead, they were just as clear on how they were going to make disciples as they were on what type of disciples they were trying to make. Both employed the following four-prong strategy with those they were developing:

  1. I do and you watch
  2. We do together
  3. You do and I watch
  4. I give you feedback

Jesus allowed his disciples to watch him heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the kingdom of God (Mark 1). He then invited them to join him as they did such things together (Mark 3:13-19, Mark 5:35-43). Eventually, Jesus sent them out to do these things on their own (Mark 6:7-13). When they returned from their work, Jesus used their failures and successes to teach them even more (Mark 9:28-29, Luke 10:17-20). The Apostle Paul’s relationship with Timothy followed the same pattern. Paul invited Timothy to watch his manner of life and ministry (Acts 16, 2 Timothy 3:10-11), next he allowed Timothy to work alongside of him (Romans 16:21), before finally releasing Timothy to do the work on his own and receive feedback from Paul on his successes and failures (1 & 2 Timothy).

Most church discipleship strategies exclusively follow a small portion of phase 1 (I teach) or phase 3 (you fulfill a ministry need) while ignoring the other steps that are necessary for truly passing on beliefs, behaviors, and skills. Moreover, they tend to ignore the context in which Jesus and Paul used the four-prong strategy: a combination of both intimate relationship (what some call “life on life”) and public ministry (what some call “programs”). Both are necessary and neither is sufficient.

@@In discipleship, both programs and intimate relationship are necessary, and neither is sufficient@@

What Now? 
If you are a ministry leader and desire to make disciples you should first be able to describe in detail the defining characteristics of the disciples you hope to produce. What will they believe? How will they behave? What things will they be able to do? Once you know the specifics of the end product, it will be much easier to know how to best use the resources you have to arrive there.

You must also have the recipe that will help you get the desired result. How will you walk people through Jesus and Paul’s four-prong strategy in a way that will teach and reinforce the beliefs, behaviors and skills you are aiming for? What role will personal relationship play and how will space be made for relational intimacy? What role will programs play and which programs will be used?

I am aware that the above questions seem obvious, and that most of us assume we already have the two keys to discipleship locked down. But I can tell you, both from personal experience and from empirical data, that most of us have not answered the questions as specifically and carefully as we need to.

@@If we desire to make disciples, we must not only know what we are aiming to produce but how we plan to get there@@

If we desire to make disciples, we must not only know what we are aiming to produce but how we plan to get there. And we must know both in great specificity. I pray the Holy Spirit will guide you and your team as you think through these questions. Sometimes it can be helpful to have an outsider come in and guide your team through these questions. If that’s something that would be helpful for your ministry team, I’m only a click away.


Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. His book, Daddy Issues: How the Gospel Heals Wounds Caused By Absent, Abusive & Aloof Fathers, is now available. Connect with him on twitter or facebook.