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Think Disciples, Not Steeples


by Bill Hull and Bobby Harrington: The gospel and covenant commitment we wrote about in Chapter 1 of the free eBook, Evangelism or Discipleship: Can They Effectively Work Together? will ensure that evangelism more naturally leads to discipleship. The process takes us beyond a focus on decisions to a focus on entering into covenant relationships. We do not just think about converts, but about developing Christlike people. We don’t just focus on the cross, but on faithful living in light of all that King Jesus teaches.

We like to tell people to “focus on disciples, not steeples.” When you think of your community, your city, and your country and are describing the church, it’s probably natural to think in terms of steeples. For example, a denominational leader will tell you how many churches his denomination has in a state or the nation. We’ve all heard the stat that 20 percent of people in America go to church at least once a month. A national leader will say that only 4 percent of the population belongs to a church. Metrics like these are legitimate, but of only secondary importance.

We prefer to think of how many true disciples are present in any community, city or nation. I (Bill) recall Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate, answering a question about his church’s location. At the time, he was pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Halverson said that although his congregation owned a building at a certain address, his congregation was scattered through the tri-state area (Washington, D.C., and the nearby areas of Maryland and Virginia) with members nestled in homes, community centers, places of commerce and office buildings. He went on to say that the church had people everywhere; they had infiltrated the entire community.

This comes from the free eBook Evangelism or Discipleship, which you can download here.

Activated Disciples

For a more visual illustration, think of this “infiltration” as individual lights, each one representing the daily location of a disciple in a particular city. These disciples are present in virtually every domain of the culture.

This reality eliminates what so many in the church consider a problem. The church spends so much time and money marketing its services to the unchurched population hoping to break down barriers that would motivate seekers to visit a church-sponsored event. The irony, of course, is that we are already where we need to be, right next to those who need Christ. Our best strategy is to activate the already present disciples to show the love of Christ and make more disciples in the society. When we activate disciples, we find that the categories, church and state, secular and the sacred, are not true barriers; they all have less power in natural relationships. The church is confused about their real work. Many disciples are inactivated lights. Their light is off or just flickering now and then.

The nature of spirituality as Jesus taught it is that we are the lights of the world that will shine if we don’t snuff them out (Matt. 5:14-16). The real work of the church is to activate those lights through discipleship and unleash them for good works in Christ’s name and for evangelism.

Presenting a full gospel that calls for a total life commitment to Jesus and inviting people to a full covenant response will help us reunite evangelism and discipleship. Jesus is the gospel. We respond to His cross and His person with our whole lives. He wants to save us and remake us in His image. When Jesus is remaking us we become activated lights, outposts of His kingdom within our personhood and within our lives, every day, everywhere.

We like to tell people, the church is for discipleship, and discipleship is for the world. That means the church works to develop mature and healthy disciples who then reach others in daily life. Christlike people are the point, the primary strategy for reaching others and fulfilling the Great Commission. The Great Commission is the natural extension of why Jesus came. He came because the world needed saving, and that divine purpose as the focus puts all its supporting activity in perspective.

In the next installments of this blog series, we’re exploring two other implications of the tie between evangelism and discipleship. Two Scripture passages speak most plainly about activating the fullness of disciple making:

The call to make disciples in Matt. 28:18-20
The preparation of saints to be activated in Eph. 4:12-16


Written by Bill Hull and Bobby Harrington

Bill Hull is a Co-Founder of The Bonhoeffer Project. Bill’s passion is to help the Church return to its disciple making roots. He considers himself a discipleship evangelist. This God-given desire has manifested itself in 20 years of pastoring and the authorship of many books. Two of his more important books Jesus Christ Disciple Maker and The Disciple Making Pastor have both celebrated 20 years in print. Add a third in the popular trilogy—The Disciple Making Church—and you have a new paradigm for disciple making.

Bobby Harrington is the Executive Director of Discipleship.org, a national platform, conference, and 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).

Image Credit: NeONBRAND

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