by Bobby Harrington: A national disciple making movement in North America is starting to take off. Groups and networks are forming everywhere. Over 1400 pastors and leaders from around the country joined 17 networks/organizations at our second annual National Disciple Making Forum last fall. It is a big topic at many other gatherings, from the Exponential Conference to the Southern Baptist Convention, and beyond. We are really jazzed about this fact.
Here are 10 trends to watch in 2018.
1. There will be increasing calls for discipleship because our current ways of doing church are less and less effective
I heard that statement many times in the last six months. It is coming from diverse groups: the Gospel Coalition, missional leaders, pastors on the left, the right and down the middle. I am hearing it from leadership experts and church growth experts. They all intuitively know that our culture is discipling more and more Christians to reflect the values and practices of the world, and Christians need a counter-action plan. They know that the answer is discipleship, but they do not fully understand what that means (see below).
2. Discipleship is becoming a hot topic for all kinds of speakers
When something becomes a trend, many will put themselves forward as experts. Bill Hull calls these speakers “fill in the blank experts.” What he means is that a lot of people know how to speak on hot topics. Whatever the topic—you can fill in the blank—they will speak on that topic. But let’s be careful: there is a difference between discipleship-first people and fill-in-the-blank discipleship speakers. The difference is in depth of understanding, lifestyle, and track record. Discipleship-first people bleed discipleship and their lives have demonstrated it. They speak out of the overflow of their experience and knowledge. Watch for an increasing number of “fill in the blank” discipleship speakers and writers.
3. Look for increasing calls for discipleship—meaning education in Bible doctrine
Please read this point carefully. The word “discipleship” is not in the Bible. The concept is there—it is simply “the state of being a disciple.” But unfortunately many use the word “discipleship” as an umbrella term for knowing more doctrine or being more committed to Jesus. This mindset is the legacy of our emphasis on Sunday schools and doctrine. But true biblical discipleship is much more than just learning to study the Bible and assimilate better doctrine.
4. Look for an emphasis on disciple making—understood as something much more than education in Bible doctrine
More and more leaders are preferring the term “disciple making” over “discipleship.” Disciple making is more closely aligned with the words of Matthew 28:19 where Jesus told us to “make disciples.” And it more easily leads people to “obey all” that Jesus commanded, as he says in Matthew 28:20. Too often discipleship means education, knowledge, and lecture—not obedience. And disciple making includes teaching, but much more than that: coaching, encouragement, action, apprenticeship, etc. The emphasis on the expression “disciple making” is helpful and necessary. But we should not be too rigid in our use of the terms (what else can I say as the founder and executive director of Discipleship.org).
5. Look for a growing realization that disciple making must be relational to connect with millennials
This is an important pragmatic point that many will make. God made us for relationships and we all crave them, but as Thom Rainer pointed out at the recent National Disciple Making Forum, millennials really crave them. I am personally an advocate for a relational focus. As Jim Putman (coauthor of DiscipleShift) keeps reminding us, Jesus made disciples through a focus on relationships, the Bible focuses on relationships (Deut. 6:6-9; 1 Cor. 13:1-13, etc.,) and that is what Paul demonstrated. Christ-centered relationships are going to be a huge need for everybody, especially as technology, individualism, and egalitarianism continue to re-make our society in the West.
6. Look for those advocating Jesus’ style of disciple making
It was 55 years ago that Robert Coleman wrote The Master Plan of Evangelism, advocating Jesus’ style disciple making. It remains the gold standard for our movement. He simply describes Jesus’ method by looking at 8 reproducible principles. It is hard to argue with the logic that the principles of Jesus’ method are both divine and perfect. But another big argument in favor of a focus on Jesus’ style of disciple making is that many of us are also finding it to be the most effective, long-term approach to the spiritual formation of Christ-like people. (You can take the online course “The Master Plan” here or download and read the free eBook we wrote with Robert Coleman summarizing his work here.)
7. Look for new models that are relational, intentional, and educational
The combination of these three things seems to be emerging as the best practice of effective churches, ministries, and our partner groups at Discipleship.org (Discipleship.org seeks to aggregate the best disciple making networks and organizations). As pointed out earlier, the best practitioners know that discipleship or disciple making must be relational. The more skilled and seasoned have learned that intentionality is at the core of effective practice. And almost everybody realizes that we need to know the Bible better. Look for this triad in the books, blogs, and podcasts you will see this year.
8. Look for a re-examination of theology related to disciple making
The problem with disciple making, for far too many, is theological. The highly respected thinker Dallas Willard emphasized this point before he died (you can read his seminal article on this point here). Too many people believe that discipleship (defined as being a true disciple) and disciple making (the central task of church leaders) are optional. The good news is that several scholars and disciple making leaders are starting to bluntly speak up with a theology that requires discipleship. See Matthew Bates (Salvation by Allegiance Alone), Scot McKnight (The King Jesus Gospel), and Bill Hull (Conversion and Discipleship and The Discipleship Gospel [forthcoming]) to name three of the emerging voices.
9. Look for new tools that are simple and reproducible
Theology is important, but theology is not enough; practical tools are necessary. Randy Pope, lead pastor of Perimeter Church in Atlanta and founder of Life-on-Life Ministries, said it well: “Unless we give people practical tools, they will not be effective at making disciples.” Wherever you find a church or ministry successful at making disciples, you will find that they have simple and reproducible tools. These tools take disciple making from a nebulous exercise of good will into a repeatable process. They provide a path on which disciples can, in turn, replicate the process with other disciples. Look for an increase in good, usable tools.
10. Look for disappointment in disciple making as a tool for numerical growth
Not too long ago I had a talk with a senior pastor friend of mine who leads a very large megachurch with multiple campuses. He had been an early adopter of a disciple making focus, but he was no longer emphasizing it. So I asked him why? He described the three-year journey where they had made it a core focus of his church. He then described their evaluation of the three years: “It did not help us to increase the number of people we were reaching,” he said, “so we shifted our focus.”
Wow, I thought to myself, an immediate, pragmatic pay-off is not the right motive.
You can only evaluate an emphasis on disciple making based upon
a) what is right in God’s eyes,
b) the spiritual formation/depth it brings to individuals, and
c) the substantive impact over time
It will be both qualitative and quantitative, but it might take decades to fully mature. Look for disappointment in leaders who make it a focus for quick numerical growth.
We believe 2018 will be an exciting year. Disciple making will become a much bigger emphasis in many places. We hope this analysis will help as many of us as possible to make it a permanent change in the North American church and not just a fad. We believe that what Jesus did in making disciples and the way that he did it is the best way to help people trust and follow him—in any culture, in any place, and at any time!
Executive Director, Discipleship.org
P.S. Sign up for next year’s National Forum in Nashville October 25-26 by clicking here.