By Bobby Harrington: When it comes to disciple making, how is the North American Church doing?
Every year, around the top of the year, Discipleship.org publishes an article covering the top disciple making trends we see currently happening, based upon the learnings of our team and the thirty plus organizations that work with us. A year ago, just before COVID-19 took center stage, Discipleship.org and Exponential.org published the results of a massive study on the state of disciple making in the American Church (click here to learn more).
That study showed that disciple making was trapped in a sort of tower of Babel, where “disciple,” “discipleship,” and “disciple making” meant everything and anything and nothing to pastors—and less than 5% of churches nationally were focused on reproducing disciples in a meaningful way. Puzzlement, bewilderment, and perplexity reigned in churches.
That was before COVID-19.
Since then, we have seen massive calls for discipleship and disciple making. Everyone now seems to realize that Sunday mornings, whether attended in person or online, are simply not enough. It is clear that God’s people are starving for guidance, for relationships … and for substance.
Non-discipleship is now the elephant in The Church.
So, we are tweaking our top ten trends this year. Our list this year focuses on the top ten trends we urge disciples, disciple makers, and church leaders to adopt. Based upon everything we have learned and the needs we see, we are taking a prescriptive posture this time rather than the descriptive one we typically issue.
You might call this list our top ten list of exhortations going into this year:
1. Make It Clear
We need clarity about disciple making today. Two areas in particular scream for elucidation.
Clarify definitions. Provide precise definitions for the key words you use like “disciple,” “discipleship,” “disciple making,” “church,” and “disciple making movement.” Until you are clear on the definitions of what you seek to create and how you will go about creating them, you will lack effectiveness. See here our list of recommended definitions (click here).
Make disciple making the core mission of our churches. If you make disciple making just one of the activities your local church does, you will not be very effective at that mission. Make disciple making the core mission of your church, as the New Testament shows us.[i] Until church leaders start evaluating everything they do through the lens of how it helps or detracts from disciple making as their core mission, they are destined for ineffectiveness.
2. Uphold the Shema
The Shema is the great commission before the Great Commission. God’s first plan for disciple making was in the home. God gave Deuteronomy 6:4–9 over one thousand years before Jesus gave the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20.
It is a profound section of Scripture, yet it is still one of the most practically significant of all.
Deuteronomy 6 is a key Scripture in what is famously called the Shema.
Shema means “heed,” “listen,” and “do.”
It was the operational mandate from the time the Israelites took possession of the land of Israel under Moses to this day. And the Jews in Jesus day recited it daily. Notice that it starts with parents truly loving God.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4–5).
God’s commandment to pass on the faith to the next generation was so critical to Israel’s flourishing future that he called parents to intentionally and sacrificially spend relational time discipling and helping children learn to know, love, and follow him:
“These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deut. 6:6–9).
God’s commands were not just to be on the hearts of parents; they were to impress them on their children. God and his commands were to be the topic of conversations around the house, when they got up, when they sat at home, when they traveled along the road, and when they would lie down together at night.
We know this one fact: the most effective and lasting discipling is that which is done by parents in the home. Statistically, nothing comes close. Sociologists call it the 4-14 window: majority of people who become Christians do so between four and fourteen years of age.[ii]
Let us state it this way: a church can get an A+ for discipling adults, but if it does not get parents to disciple their children, that church will get a failing grade.
Remember to keep a focus on the home.
3. Make It Relational
The Word of God does not teach an educationally focused model. It teaches a relationally focused model.
Note again, how the original commission to parents in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 emphasized relationship. Disciple making was all about sitting at home, walking along the road, when families were lying down and when they were getting up.
Jesus doubled down on a relational focus when he entered into Jewish life a millennia later discipled the twelve.
First, Jesus started discipling his disciples by asking them to “Come,” and spend the day with him (John 1:39). For three and one half years he literally lived with them, discipling them in the everyday stuff of life, as they walked along the road and made regular trips where they would “lie down” and “get up” in their journeys. Jesus adopted a relational foundation that utilized an assortment of tools, including an emphasis on education, but also one that included coaching, imitation, mentoring, questions, trial and error, etc…
Second, the heart of Jesus’ disciple making method was not just relationship, it was love. Jesus’ love can be defined as cross-shaped actions.[iii] Here is what we mean: Jesus was constantly picking up his cross and putting the best interests of his disciples first. Then, at the end of his life, Jesus went to the cross and died, not just for his disciples, but for the entire world (Luke 19:10).
This focus is clear in Jesus’ NEW command (John 13:34-35). “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” he said. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Cross shaped actions are the motive behind the disciple making mission and the foundation on which everything was built.
You cannot disciple people in the Way of Jesus without this same foundation of love.
4. Focus Beyond Sunday
Preaching on Sundays is good – but it is nowhere near enough. It is like throwing food to the children once a week and expecting that alone to nourish and feed them. It doesn’t work.
It never did.
As late as 2009, 50% of Americans claimed to be practicing Christians.[iv] Then the number started to drop … to 25% in 2018 and it is likely going down further as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the way we have been doing church. The previous big numbers were the result of centuries where parents, communities, schools, and even the government helped uphold many of the values found in the Bible. Churches could often get by with a shallow discipleship model – focused on Sundays – because there was so much support for disciples in the homes and other parts of life in America.
That world no longer exists.
To all the pastors, preachers and leaders out there, let us say it clearly – stop focusing on Sundays thinking it alone will make disciples.
Again, Sundays are not enough.
You must create a 7 day-a-week system of intentional, relational disciple making. You can include public meetings on Sunday, but it must also be “house to house,” (Acts 5:42) and include daily encouragement as long as it is called “today” (Hebrews 3:12-14).
5. Disciple the Mind
One of the most important books written recently is JT English’s Deep Discipleship. He makes the convincing case that we need more discipling in scripture and doctrine, not less. For too many years, those focused upon Jesus-style disciple making resisted what we call educational discipleship. We resisted an over-emphasis which held that disciple making was just about studying the Bible. As we said in point #2, that was NOT Jesus’ method.
But Jesus’ method included a strong emphasis on studying the Word of God.
We must reclaim that emphasis while also emphasizing relational disciple making. Most churches, including many disciple making churches, do not give enough emphasis to learning the Bible and doctrine. That is why we focus on the language of “disciple making” – which includes close personal relationship, studying scripture, coaching, imitation, mentoring, questions, trial and error, etc…
Read the following words by my friend David Young (about the future) and ask yourself about how important discipling people in the Word of God will need to be for disciples of Jesus to thrive?
Many Christians will have to learn to conduct themselves under the radar, avoiding social media statements and the like. Christians are already hiding many of their beliefs at work; it will only get worse. In many ways, I believe our affluence will work against us as the U.S. becomes more aggressively anti-Christian. We will want to play ball with secularism because we have so much to lose financially. And we will avoid building strong counter-cultural institutions because we won’t have to–we have enough wealth to weather the storm for a long time without changing our routines very much. Expect cultural Marxism, a continued erosion of any sense of personal virtue and vice, and a shocking hypocrisy from those on the left.
Young is not pessimistic about the future because he knows the power of disciple making. He describes a future hope that he envisions.
But, there will be faithful Christians who shine, who make up strong Christian homes, and who survive through their unwillingness to say that which is obviously false. They will become more attractive to others committed to Jesus, while Christians on the left fall away in increasing numbers.
6. Master Phygital
Some people say we must go back to in-person groups for disciple making. Others tell us that the future belongs to online disciple making.
They are both right.
Phygital combines the two and it is here to stay. Phygital is the concept of using technology to bridge the physical world and combine it with the digital world. Here is the basic idea: disciple-making groups that combine regular in-person gatherings with regular digital gatherings (through Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.).
Here is one model to make what we are describing clear.
A group of 3 to 5 people form. This is a specific group size, ideal for the phygital environment. A same-gender group is best. I (Bobby) and Alex Absalom wrote Discipleship That Fits to explain the different sizes of groups and why this size is a good one.
Meet weekly online. The regularity of the meeting is important (for relationships and spiritual formation) and, if you are careful to keep it to one hour, it is not too difficult. My recent men’s group met every Tuesday night. The men helped get their kids in bed and then easily joined the group without the loss of work and travel time during the day.
Meet monthly in person. As a part of our holistic model, we also meet in person. In the monthly meeting, it was just the 4-5 of us. We tried to follow a rhythm where we would serve the needy, have a meal together or observe the sabbath together. Jason Dukes wrote a helpful book called, Inviting Along, which explains the seven rhythms of a “with Jesus lifestyle” and this model can be built around those rhythms.
With advances in technology, we will soon have new ways to disciple people. For example, Facebook plans to open virtual reality rooms next year. Soon using virtual reality and augmented reality for discipling relationships will be as common as meeting on Zoom meetings was in 2020.
Virtual and online meetings are also a big part of the reason we are upgrading The Discipleship.org Collective. We can now have ongoing trainings, conversations, and coaching online in ways that were not envisioned even a year ago.
7. Fast and Pray (a lot)
Here are two annoying questions. What gave power to Jesus’ disciple making efforts? God. How did Jesus access God’s power? He started his ministry with forty days of fasting and prayer (Matthew 4:1-2), he regularly withdrew to pray throughout his ministry (Mark 1:35), he prayed all night before picking the twelve (Luke 6:12-16) and he asked his three closest disciples to withdraw from the world to pray with him, and then he prayed so hard that sweat, like drops of blood, fell from his forehead just before the cross (Luke 22:39-46).
He was the Son of God and he utilized fasting and praying to be effective.
Why do we think we can be effective without relying on God’s power the way Jesus did?
Let me state this point positively. We have observed that fasting and prayer is a key component behind international disciple making movements. When people ask why we are not seeing these disciple making movements in North America, we point to our belief that a lack of fasting and prayer may be one of the key reasons.
We are not saying that Fasting and Prayer is like magic – human actions that make God give us what we ask for. God may have reasons that God alone knows why he will or he will not grant our requests. But, at the same time, he teaches us to pray and that we do not have things because we do not ask God (James 4:2). Fasting and prayer are key tools in our earnest efforts as we look to God to unleash his power. God’s Word teaches us to “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8).
Church historians tell us that prayer is a precursor to revival and the great movements of God’s Spirit.[v]
This focus is true for those who emphasize free will and those who emphasize God’s sovereignty. It shows that both points of emphasis are needed. The Calvinist scholar Roger Nicole put it this way:[vi]It is in keeping with Reformed thought that revival should be grounded in prayer, because in prayer we acknowledge God’s sovereignty. God alone is the One who can dispense revival. So, revival is not something that is within the reach of human beings; it is something God alone can provide.
8. Develop a Simple, Effective, and Reproducible System
Those three words describe the personal disciple-making model every person and every church needs.
Several years ago, we brought on a staff minister from Jim Putman’s church in Idaho at the church where I serve as lead pastor. It was the early days of our focus in shifting to a disciple making culture. Our staff worked hard together to adapt to the differences between the Nashville area (where we are located) in comparison to North Idaho area (where our new staff minister came from). He loved basketball. So, one day he compared the disciple making system that we were developing to the way the Harvard University basketball team played basketball.
“It is pretty complicated,” he said. “But it might work.”
I soon realized the problem. Effective disciple making must focus on everyday disciples, not experts. We didn’t need a Harvard system.
If it is too complicated for the average, everyday person to adopt it, then it will not be easily reproducible and it will not multiply. And the local church or ministry needs just one system, not two or three (even though you may have variations).
So, when you are working on a team and you are seeking to create a disciple-making system, remember these three words.
Simple – it must be simple to understand, participate in and lead others in the personal disciple-making system you adopt. It can be a mission group model or small group model (designed for disciple making) or it can be a smaller transparent space model or even a one-on-one system. Just make sure it is simple, make it easy.
Effective – some of the best personal disciple making models I have tried sound great in theory, but they were ineffective in practice. Some models work with certain groups but not with other groups. Some models work well in one part of the country, but not in another. Many worked for others, but not for us. I jokingly tell my co-workers that over 90% of the ideas that I have tried do not work.
We have learned to underrate the wooden adoption of disciple making models. Let me share a good example.
Lots of people around North America have been trying to utilize Discovery Bible Study, but we are not currently seeing the effectiveness with this method in North America that others are seeing around the world. Is it because we do not have a culture where obedience is natural? Is it because we do not want to be accountable to share our faith with lost people? Is it because we are not providing the foundation of fasting and prayer? These are good questions that our team is investigating. The key point is that we want to make sure that we adopt effective models before we get the whole church to follow us. We each need our own effective model.
Reproducible – we want to raise up disciples who make disciples. That means that we also want our personal disciple-making model to be easy for people who have been discipled by us to repeat the same process with others. Sometimes people describe what we are talking about here as portable – people can take our model of disciple making and use it with men or women, students or adults, blue collar or white collar.
In short, when we utilize a personal disciple-making model, we want one for everyday people. We want a personal model for our ministry and/or church that creates disciples who make disciples, who make disciples, who make even more disciples …
9. Create Disciple-Making Culture, Not Strategies
Strategies are great. But the culture of a church or ministry is much more important.
There is an organizational and business truism that is often repeated to make this point: culture eats strategy for breakfast. Applying this to a church or a ministry, if you do not change the culture, nothing will really change. Many leaders fail in their strategies because they fail to account for this reality.
Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, took the adage two steps further: “Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner …”
What is a culture? The Harvard Business Review describes it this way: “The values, beliefs and behaviors practiced in an organization formed over time because they are rewarded or punished (i.e. by formal or informal rules, rituals, and behaviors).”
The McKinsey Institute put it more simply: “culture is how we do things around here …”
Strategies are easy because we take something external and try to put it over top of the people and their culture. “If we can just get everyone to follow this path,” we say. “If our people will adopt our strategy, we will get where we want to go.” The problem is that disciple making is not a path and it is not a strategy.
Disciple making is both an identity and a lifestyle.
People first see themselves as disciples. They believe it is the greatest reality on planet earth. This identity represents warmth, hope and joy for a person. They internalize being a disciple as something they want to share with others.
The desire to share what it means to be a disciple grows through challenges, trials, and it overcomes the draw toward lukewarmness over time. But the conviction about the truth of Jesus and the eternal lostness of those who are not disciples prevails.
Being a disciple and making disciples becomes a lifestyle – for individuals, ministries, and churches.
A disciple making culture must be created, nurtured and developed. It will thrive when it becomes deep rooted. As we pointed out in an earlier Discipleship.org blog, in such a culture there is an internal and external congruence throughout the organization based upon common beliefs/values (deep rooted), disciples/habits (practiced daily), and narrative/words (repeated regularly).[vii]
A disciple making culture is a beautiful, almost unstoppable thing.
10. Don’t Seek Easy Solutions
Don’t settle for shortcuts.
Who doesn’t want quick answers to difficult, challenging realities? But that is a big problem if you really want to shift to a disciple-making culture.
As the old saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would do it.
Here are three common ways that church or ministry leaders search for easy.
They send other staff members or other leaders to figure out how to solve their discipleship problem.
They find and easily adopt a popular disciple-making method without doing the deeper work.
They add disciple making on top of everything else they are already doing.
Given what we have said in the points above, it doesn’t take a genius to see that these three typical approaches – and countless more like them – will lead to failure. We have seen many church leaders and many churches make failed attempts at creating a true disciple-making focus.
G.K. Chesterton had a poignant observation about true discipleship: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” The same is true for a disciple-making focus. So, embrace the challenges and difficulties.
We are not bringing up this last point to create discouragement. On the contrary.
The effort is worth it. Disciple making is so important, so vital, and so life changing for people, that we cannot set the bar too low. It is the greatest mission on planet earth. Just think, it was the focus for 65-90% of Jesus ministry.
There is no more worthy focus for our lives, ministries, and churches.
A culture where disciple making thrives is a culture destined to bring abundant glory to God.
We want to give him our best.
[i] Jim Putman and I make the cursory case for disciple making as the core mission of the church in our book DiscipleShift: Five Shifts to Help Your Church Make Disciples Who Make Disciples and Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert make a similar but more elaborate case in their book, What is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. To help with clarity on this point, in the late spring of 2021 Scott Sager and I will publish a shorter, punchy, and cut-to-the-chase theological argument called, Disciple Making: The Core Mission of the Church (forthcoming by renew.org).
[iii] For more information on this definition see the forthcoming book by Kelvin Teamer, Kingdom Life: Experiencing God’s Reign through Love and Holiness (forthcoming Renew.org).
[v] See Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (IVP Academic; Expanded Edition, 2020).
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