Discipleship in the Local Church

If we have any hope of recovering the New Testament picture of the church, we will need to recover personal mentoring from the ash heap of history. Some signs look good, especially in non-western churches. In the west, we just have too many important things to do. We can’t find time for meeting with younger Christians to build love relationships and to train them in the word, character development, and how to build a personal ministry. [Barna gives convincing evidence that intentional discipleship is in eclipse in modern America. George Barna, Growing True Disciples, (Ventura, CA: Issachar Resources, 2000), Chapter 3, “The State of Discipleship.”]

We know Jesus did it. We know Paul was let down over the wall in Damascus by “his disciples” (Acts 9:25). We know he told Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). We know most churches in New Testament times probably didn’t have classes, and that classes are inadequate for forming character and ministry skills in young believers. We know there were no theological schools like seminaries in the first century, and therefore the New Testament church must have raised up virtually all leaders through personal discipleship. So the biblical case for personal mentoring is strong.

Widespread personal disciple making was lost during the rise of the clergy in the second and third centuries for the most part and has only occasionally been practiced since, usually with excellent results. But just when interest in making disciples was rising in America during the Jesus movement, the “shepherding movement” left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth and set discipleship back dramatically.1 Today, interest is again rising.

Personal mentoring brings qualities to the equipping process that no class can bring. I meet with a number of young men every week, and these are the best times of my week. These times are when I feel God working through me intensely as I come to grips with real issues in people’s lives. Most of our meetings are two hours or so. We have time to share what’s happening in our lives, study together, and pray. If I had to cut things from my schedule, these “hang-outs” would be the very last thing to go. Even more importantly, each of these young men meets with other young men to do the same thing. I believe the most important thing I can do for our church is to deliver high quality leaders for their future.

When a church gets the vision for making real disciples, the future looks good. By gradually spreading the practice across the church, such groups can anticipate a future with scores and eventually hundreds or even thousands of trained, competent Christian workers. All of them will be looking for opportunities to serve. Multiplication becomes possible.

Multiplication happens when, instead of just adding people to the church, each member seeks out people she can win and disciple. As individuals duplicate themselves, groups tend to multiply. The church grows, and not just in numbers; qualitative growth matches quantitative growth. This concept is as good today as it ever was and has tremendous potential to raise up large numbers of quality Christian workers.

I know Christians who don’t share this vision for personal disciple making, and I feel sorry for them. They’re going to miss the lifelong joy that comes from cultivating such friendships with young Christians and the eternal rewards that come with it.

The Process

For detailed information on how to make disciples I recommend people read our book on the subject, Organic Discipleship.2 The basics of making disciples include: building a quality friendship; gaining and imparting vision; teaching what the Bible says and how to interpret it; and teaching and modeling prayer, fellowship, and how to build a personal ministry. Helping disciples gain victory over personal sin problems and build godly character is the most difficult part—especially when we include sins of omission, attitude problems, self-absorption, and relational problems. We may need to confront issues at times in loving discipline.

If your disciple matures and wins a ministry, especially winning another disciple, coaching begins. Here you monitor your person’s thinking and actions when he’s working with others, helping him to ask the right questions, read situations, and measure his words. In churches where home groups duplicate themselves, you will likely see your disciples begin leading their own groups. By guiding new leaders through the first year or so of leading a group, you can significantly shorten the learning curve.

To begin with a self-centered, carnally-minded believer and end with a self-feeding, stable, relationally healthy minister for God is a several year project—if things go well. A significant percentage of people we try to disciple will never make it. But God put us here to give our lives away in real Christian love. If we adopt a ministry philosophy in harmony with that, he will bless us with eventual success. Of course, if you have some authentically mature believers to work with, the time could be shortened considerably.

The Harvest of Discipleship

In a church where people buy into personal disciple making, you can anticipate several good changes:
First, people realize that disciple making is a meaningful ministry where God might use any serious Christian. Instead of feeling clueless about how they could affect the kingdom of God in a lasting and powerful way, people dare to consider the possibility that even they could be used by God for something important. Delivering even one replicating disciple is equivalent to a lifetime of work. Instead of one servant of God, there are now two.

When disciple making succeeds, people experience changes that are deep and lasting. Most discipling relationships lasting several years are close enough to reveal people’s real underlying needs in a way no other ministry could. When two believers dare to build a close relationship before God and his word, things come out. The life-changing power of love and truth come into operation. When Paul taught that we can “speak the truth in love” to one another, resulting in spiritual growth and maturity, this is the kind of thing he had in mind. Disciple making can release the church from the deadening task of baby-sitting to move on to real service.

As the number of people being discipled and making disciples increases, the disciple making church will see an end to people’s sense of disconnection. People engaged in relationships at this level feel love in the church—something many in modern western churches do not now experience.

Under a proper model of disciple making, people stop seeing spiritual growth as primarily an inward thing benefiting themselves. They realize that God gives us life change so we can give ourselves out to others. Healthy disciples begin seeking opportunities to minister. Can you imagine what a church full of people like this would be like? A community where most people were looking for an opportunity to love and serve others? Anyone entering a group like that would soon realize this is no ordinary group of people. The whole church would seem warm, welcoming, and eager to relate.

Discipling churches have no shortage of volunteers, good giving, and consistent efforts at personal evangelism. As discipleship networks spontaneously form and expand, people enjoy being with each other, following up on how things have developed. This is different from churches where people feel relatively distant from others in the group.

A discipling church is a wonderful church. But none of this is easy. Only years of patient teaching, modeling, prayer, and pleading will have any chance of establishing a disciple-making ethos in a group, whether the group is large or small. To be fair, discipling groups also have conflict and friction at times because of the closeness in relationships. But that’s all part of the picture God would have us pursue.

If this is not a part of your church, start with yourself. Find a person or two to befriend and mentor. As you and your friends share the benefits, you may find a few others who will work with you on the project, including finding their own people to mentor. It has to spread gradually through the church; you can’t impose this church-wide and expect people to understand. Authors Bill Hull and Greg Ogden have written excellent books on working disciple making into existing, more traditional churches.3 Why not read those books and make a plan for introducing disciple making into your church?


1. The Shepherding movement grew out of a group centered in Pensacola Florida, and spread nationwide during the 1970s. They taught that you need a discipler, or “shepherd” whom you obey in all areas of life. They theorized that by learning to obey a human shepherd, you would learn to obey God. Their mistaken understanding led to authoritarianism and spiritual abuse. The movement was stamped out of existence by the rest of the church in America during the ‘80s.

2. Dennis McCallum and Jessica Lowery, Organic Discipleship: Mentoring others into maturity and spiritual leadership, (Houston: Touch Publications, 2006). You should also read Robert Coleman, Master Plan of Evangelism. (Revell, 2006). Coleman is unexcelled for vision and theory. Our book starts where his leaves off with practical ideas.

3. Bill Hull, The Disciple Making Pastor, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1988), and The Disciple-Making Church, (Revell: 1998). Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003).