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Defining “Church” and a “Level 5 Disciple-Making Church”


by Bobby Harrington: Various Discipleship·org partners and I had a very challenging meeting last month as we sought to define some key terms that are crucial for disciple-making leaders to thrive. I wanted to share this challenge with all our readers, and that’s why I’m writing to you today.

The group of disciple-making leaders I mentioned above and I worked together to define the following:

A church
A disciple-making movement
A Level 5 disciple-making church (viral multiplication of disciple making within a church)

It is hard to define each of these terms because they represent complex, nuanced realities.

We tried to broach these definitions at a gathering of Discipleship·org leaders in 2018, but we got bogged down and had to stop. I knew we would need to come back to this important work early in 2019 and that’s what we did in early January. After praying about it and seeking counsel, we met in Phoenix. This article is a summary of our meeting and the working definitions that we plan to use with Discipleship·org.

Thank you for taking time to read through my brief summary of our definitions and for joining this conversation with your comments and prayers:

Who Was Present

I was pleased that we (myself and Discipleship·org’s Geary Tanner) were joined by Bill Hull (and Ben Sobels) from the Bonhoeffer Project, Jim Putman (Relational Discipleship Network), Dann Spader (Live Jesus Initiative, formerly with SonLife and Global Youth Initiative), Todd Wilson (Exponential), Justin Gravitt (Navigator Church Ministries), Steve McCoy (Small Circle) and several key observers and supporters. Roy Moran, an expert in Disciple Making Movements and the chairman of the board for New Generations, also joined us to provide subject expertise and to help us better understand Disciple Making Movements (DMMs).

1. Defining a Church

This might sound like an easy thing to do, but it is not.

We were fortunate to have Todd Wilson, CEO of Exponential, share with us their top learnings as they have worked on establishing criteria for a minimum ecclesiology (church) based upon the teachings of the Bible for a couple of years at Exponential. Exponential is the world’s leading church planting network, so the way they define a church is important for their ministry. Todd shared some of the work that he and Larry Walkemeyer had completed to help church leaders and denominations come up with a biblically responsible definition. You can read the chapter summarizing their work in the free eBook entitled The Mobilization Flywheel.

The conversations and debates around a definition were very difficult. We tried to reach a consensus on a definition a couple of times and then we came to an impasse and had to stop. We had a group of tough-minded and highly convicted leaders in the room. The last day, after working through several other topics and spending time understanding international disciple making movements, we tried it again. We were getting closer. And then, just before the end, we came to a basic, simple definition that everyone agreed upon. Here is our simple definition of a church:

A Church – A spiritual family growing in surrendered obedience to all the teachings of Jesus Christ who gather together regularly under Biblically recognized leadership for the purpose of fulfilling the great commission (making disciples) with a Great Commandment heart (loving God, loving people).

2. Defining a Disciple-Making Movement

A few weeks ago Discipleship·org published two articles by Roy Moran on Disciple Making Movements (often referred to as DMM for short). I refer our readers to these two blogs click here. Roy provided a brief history of these movements, the key issues involved and fundamentals of a definition. It is commonly believed that there are currently no clear disciple making movements in North America.

Here is the definition that Roy and I worked out after our meeting in Phoenix. It is now our working definition at Discipleship·org.

A Disciple Making Movement – exists when churches plant churches through gospel activity that has abundant fruit among the lost, that multiplies these disciples (people growing in obedience to all of Jesus’ commands) who in turn replicate themselves in others, so that we can see at least four generations regularly produced in multiple streams of disciple-making activity and these streams multiply consistently into churches.

3. Defining a Level 5 Disciple-Making Church

In 2017 Discipleship·org worked with Exponential to develop a model for individual disciple makers built around mathematics. That description can be tricky. And easily misunderstood. You can read the free eBook on the model and take the free assessment. All we are doing with the level 5 model is describing a factual snapshot in time of the impact of an individual disciple maker. Here in a summary fashion is the framework for the snapshot.

Level 1: Subtracting // Level 2: Plateauing // Level 3: Adding

Level 4: Reproducing // Level 5: Multiplying

Again, it is simply a mathematical snapshot and assessment of the impact of an individual disciple maker. At one end, there are individuals who lead people away from being disciples of Jesus (think of atheists or heretics involved in mentoring). Then at the other end, there are individuals who make disciples who individually make disciples – and those disciples make more disciples who make even more disciples – to the 4th generation. This is what the apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:2.

In a like fashion, Discipleship·org is working to develop a model of disciple making churches built around mathematics. Again, that model can be tricky. And easily misunderstood.

But all we are doing with the level 5 model is describing a factual snapshot in time of the impact of a church in terms of disciple making. Look again at the following mathematical framework and think of how a church is doing at disciple making (as a family of God’s people).

Level 1: Subtracting // Level 2: Plateauing // Level 3: Adding

Level 4: Reproducing // Level 5: Multiplying

Only a very small percentage of churches around the world are at level 5. Drawing upon our learnings from disciple making movements, this would be a church like the Jerusalem church as described in the book of Acts 2: 46-47.

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

So when we describe a level 5 church, we are describing what only God does through people in a local church. Stated differently, this kind of church is not something that humans can engineer. It is something that we pray that God’s Spirit would do through us again in our time. God is doing this in various parts of the world today as described in the ebook, Kingdom Unleashed.

Disciple making by, what feels like, almost all individuals within the church is viral (spreading rapidly and widely) and it feels almost unstoppable. Pretty much everybody is personally engaged in disciple making and they describe it as, “this is how we do things here.” A level 5 disciple-making church is where disciple-making multiplication is the norm.

A Level 5 Disciple-Making Church – individual disciple making is the core DNA and culture of the church, where the average church member makes disciples to the fourth generation and this disciple-making activity is regularly produced in significant and diverse streams within the church and these streams multiply consistently into new churches.

By Bobby Harrington

Bobby Harrington is the Executive Director of Discipleship.org, a collaborating ministry of disciple–making organizations, a host for National Forums, and a distributor of free content. It is a ministry that advocates for Jesus’ style of disciple making. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has a Doctor of Ministry degree in consulting and has spent years as a coach to church planters and senior pastors. He is the author of several books on discipleship, including DiscipleShift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman) and The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick).

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