“If I am honest, I’ll admit that I don’t really know how to make disciples.” I remember when those words came out of my mouth. I had been in the pastorate for almost a decade, and despite sermons, programs, Bible studies, and small groups, many of the people I pastored weren’t becoming more deeply devoted followers of Jesus Christ. For all of my effort, I wasn’t able to make disciples—the primary task to which Jesus calls us!
There were some good things happening in the church, of course. Some people were growing, and others were coming to Jesus. For that, I was thankful. But the fruit seemed random and relatively disconnected from any strategic effort.
I was somewhat relieved when I learned that churches with much larger budgets and staff than mine, and preachers who were more eloquent than myself, also seemed to be treading water in the area of discipleship. It gave me comfort that I was not the only one facing this challenge. However, relief quickly turned to sadness: The church in the United States was, by and large, missing the mark.
Today, leaders are less afraid than they were back then to admit that their churches are not doing a great job of making disciples. Leaders don’t necessarily post to Facebook or tweet the sentiment. But leaders of congregations of various shapes, sizes, and denominations express disappointment over the quantity and quality of disciples being developed in the ministry.
We all know that the core task of our congregations is to make disciples. We all know the great commission in the end of Matthew 28 is to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and we know that making disciples means to teach people to “obey everything [Jesus has] commanded.” We indicate this sentiment in mission statements such as “To make disciples who make disciples” or “To know Christ and make Him known” or “To love God, love others and make disciples.” There is no lack of knowledge or agreement that our core task as individuals and as a church is to make disciples. So why aren’t we doing it? Why aren’t we fulfilling the main task of the church?
One of the greatest inventions in manufacturing was the establishment of the assembly line. This ingenious approach allowed a person on an assembly line to have one job that they repeated thousands of times a day rather than many jobs that they repeated less frequently to achieve the same end: a finished product. The line was filled with hundreds of people with individual jobs. Products could be made quickly and consistently every time.
In the name of making disciples efficiently, we have adopted an assembly-line mind-set to create disciples in our church. We have made assumptions, probably without a lot of thought, about how to adopt speed and efficiency into our disciple-making process, with the anticipated outcome of mass production. We assume that, like building a car, making disciples is a linear process. For example, we expect that weekend worship can produce many disciples.
However, if we stop and reflect on our own development as disciples, we will probably find that our growth didn’t come from an assembly-line process. Usually, our growth has come through a combination of personal time with the Lord and interactions with mentors and other disciples, experiences and opportunities that stretch us and caused us to grow. We may have been particularly touched by a few sermons, but they weren’t the primary factor in our growth as a disciple.
Jesus Kept It Simple
When Jesus made disciples, He used some simple principles to develop the people around Him. These principles and processes were so simple that they could be used with people of any educational level or socioeconomic class, from highly educated religious leaders like the Pharisees (John 3) to a man who had just been healed from a thousand demons (Mark 5). These principles were then repeated from generation to generation. What developed was a movement of faithful and mature followers of Jesus.
While Jesus didn’t outright list these principles for making disciples, they can be deduced as we observe His interactions and see these patterns repeated in the interactions of Jesus’ followers. We even see these principles being utilized all over the world in places where there is exponential growth in the quality and quantity of disciples.
And yet, in the modern Western world, we don’t see much of a movement. We have a lot of what would be considered advantages for discipleship: freedom to assemble as large groups in worship, access to information that increases in volume more rapidly than we comprehend, seminaries and educational institutions, and a growing number of organizations that offer a plethora of discipleship books, curricula, and programs. These are wonderful privileges, and they absolutely have their place. I wonder, however, if at times this richness of resources has actually muddied the waters of discipleship. Do we sometimes miss the ultimate purpose of the great commission: helping people become more in love with Jesus and more reflective of His character in the world? Have we made discipleship more complicated than it needs to be?
A Simple Process
The first section of this book is a high-level view of the nature of being a disciple. We will examine the great commandment— to consider what, at the fundamental level, characterizes a disciple. We will then look at the foundational approach of Jesus toward His disciples.
The second section of the book takes a deeper look at what it looks like to follow Jesus as someone who loves God with head, heart, and hands. We have identified eight qualities and twenty supporting characteristics of a disciple. These have been mined from Scripture and articulated with the help of a variety of experts in the field; they will help disciples consider their personal spiritual health as a follower of Jesus. An accompanying simple discipleship assessment will help us get feedback from people in our lives. This invaluable tool will encourage us to see ways in which we have matured and help us uncover areas where we might give more concentrated effort. The result will set the stage for a personal plan for discipleship.
The third section of the book will help you design a personalized process through which you can grow in specific areas of discipleship. As this plan develops, it will include personalized activities for engaging with God and others. This practical and experiential plan will encourage growth in knowledge of the truth. As these elements come together, they will foster personal maturity.
The fourth and final section will help leaders within the congregation incorporate simple discipleship principles into the larger structure of the congregation. Congregations may want to implement simple discipleship into small groups or a Sunday school program, in missional communities, or in one-on-one discipleship. This section will help a congregation create an environment conducive to multiplying disciples.
Incorporating what is presented in Simple Discipleship doesn’t require you to change your structure, spend a lot of money, or hire additional staff. Simple Discipleship will, however, be challenging, in that structures will likely change and leaders will need to rethink their assumptions in light of this new emphasis on making disciples.
My experience has been that incorporating this type of simple discipleship into the church is a welcome addition. Lay leaders are hungry for a simplified approach to disciple making, one that retains a robust vision for mature disciples. We all want to understand what a disciple is, to know where God is calling us to grow, and to flourish in our personal discipleship. If we can clear the clutter from our vision for discipleship, we will see disciples growing in number and maturity in our congregations, our ministries, and our communities.
Taken from Simple Discipleship: Grow Your Faith, Transform Your Community by Dana Allin. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of NavPress and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Rev. Dr. Dana Allin is synod executive for the Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). Dana formerly served as the president of the board of ECO, the pastor of Indian River Presbyterian Church in Fort Pierce, FL, and the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Lakewood, CA. He is an associate certified coach with the International Coach Federation. He lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Beth, and their three children, Micah, Peyton, and Piper.