Before the subject of making disciples can be detailed, the definition of what a true disciple is must be established. To do this, one must look to the scriptures, specifically in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus starts by saying, “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” While this passage uses strong language, it does so to portray a disciple’s love for Christ must be greater than any other person, place, or thing. Jesus continues saying, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” This essentially means a disciple must be willing to lay down their life by surrendering their complete will to God. Finally Jesus says, “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not sit down first and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?” This passage illustrates disciples must ask themselves if losing everything, possibly even their life, is worth the cost of following Jesus.
Ultimately, being a disciple requires sacrifice, relationship, and transformation. As Dr. Rod Dempsey says, “A disciple is someone who knows Christ, grows in Christ, goes for Christ, as well as someone who shows and shares Christ with others.” With a proper definition established, this paper will give a detailed description of how disciples are made in the context of the local church and a Christian community. In addition, it will also highlight the specific roles and importance of the local church, pastors, saints, and the spiritual giftings God has equipped followers with to make and prepare new disciples in order to fulfill the Great Commission.
DISCIPLE MAKING IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
While each church is unique operating with different visions, they all have the same mandate from God, which is to fulfill the Great Commission. At Caesarea Philippi, a place full of pagan idols, temples, and a place of horrible sacrifices where the blood of babies flowed down the streams, Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” After this declaration, Jesus told his disciples, “”I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” This passage contains the first mention of the word church, so a proper understanding of the context and exegesis is critical. The word church here refers to an assembly of called out ones and as R.T. France illustrates, “The gates [of Hades] thus represent the imprisoning power of death: [but also how] death will not be able to imprison and hold the church of the living God.” Ultimately, the church was meant to become the fulfillment of the kingdom of God with a specific mission: to complete what Jesus had started. God sent His Son to save the world, but He would have to die on the cross in order to make atonement for humanity’s sin. Because of this, Jesus commissioned His disciples saying, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Leon Morris portrays how, “The charge given added solemnity from being linked thus to the mission of the Son: their mission proceeds from His. It is only because he has thus accomplished His mission, and indeed precisely because He has accomplished it, that they are sent into the world.”
While the Great Commission should be the mission of the church, the Great Commandment should be the church’s primary motivator. Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it and through this New Commandment, He had essentially reduced over six hundred laws down to two: love God and love your neighbor. These can only be accomplished when one loves the Lord with their entire heart, soul, strength, and mind and it is only out of a complete devotion to God and submission to His will that a disciple will be truly effective in advancing the kingdom of God.
For a local church to be successful in making new disciples, they must focus on three things. They first must be intentional; with their motivation rooted out of love for God and others for it was the love of God that made a way for everyone to be saved. Second, they must focus on the individual by identifying giftings, callings, and helping them grow by learning how to use their gifts to advance the kingdom and make new disciples. Lastly, they must be missional by teaching disciples it is their mandate to reach a lost and hurting world by pointing people to Jesus. The more a church can help their disciples reach their full potential, the greater impact the church will have in fulfilling its purpose.
Disciple making is going to look different in every church to some extent, but as Malcolm Bartsch illustrates, there are several key principles, which must not be overlooked:
While extensive and careful work has been done on the concept ‘discipling’, there are at least two areas, which seem under-represented in the discussion. One of these relates to the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion and their significance in the discipling process. While various church traditions place different emphasis on sacramental theology, the treatment of one of the key texts relating to ‘discipling’ (Matthew 28:18-20) gives baptism only a brief passing reference, while Holy Communion is only obliquely referred to. The other area of concern relates to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, particularly in the gospel of John. While there is brief mention of the Holy Spirit, this receives surprisingly little development considering the emphasis placed by Christ on the role of the ‘Helper’ (John 14-16) in the future work of his disciples.
DISCIPLE MAKING IN THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
As the church helps believers grow in their spiritual maturity and become active in fulfilling the Great Commission, the next step is for the believer to start evangelizing in their local community, within their family, their places of employment, and everywhere they go by sharing what God has done in their life. Jim Putnam identifies these individuals as, “Spiritual Parents [who] live out God’s Word in their daily lives. They are kingdom-centered and God-dependent.” The more a disciple grows in Christ-likeness, the more they will find purpose, worth, and identity. It is important to note a disciple can never teach someone something they themselves do not know, just as they can never lead someone to a place they have not yet been, so it is crucial for every disciple to continually stay focused on growing closer to Christ.
People are constantly watching and it is often during times of trials and persecution where one’s devotion is tested and when the true depth of one’s faith is revealed. It has been said Christianity and the process of discipleship is something that is more caught than taught, so being imitators of Christ is crucial especially in times of great adversity. Paul said it best, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Despite being imprisoned, Paul still found joy in serving the Lord and wrote four of his letters to the churches. He did not allow his circumstances to deter him from living a Christian life. Paul, in spite of his suffering and persecution allowed God to use him in a capacity that would not have been possible if he had lost faith or given up. Instead, he counted it as pure joy and the more the world and life attempted to stop him, the more his circumstances seemed to motivate him in spreading the gospel and serving God.
Relationships are critical in making and training new disciples in the community. In this culture, it is necessary to earn the right to speak into someone’s life and this normally takes time, but there are small windows of opportunity, which God opens up that followers of Christ must always be ready to capitalize on by speaking truth into a situation or by being able to help through acts of service rooted out of love. The goal of every believer is a transformation that happens with the renewing of one’s mind. In essence, after coming to faith, an individual is given a new lens to view the world through. It reveals just how broken we are, but also how lost and hurting the world is and the only remedy is Christ Jesus. As followers of Christ, it should be one’s ambition to make coming to church and faith as easy as possible, but for many churches they have instituted high walls of entry and low expectations after coming to faith. God wants to see every believer grow in faith, not just stay where they are when they come to faith and that is why living a transformed life is more about the process and journey and not just about attaining perfection, which is only possible on the other side of eternity.
The message of the Gospel is all about love and reconciliation; God through Christ has reconciled Himself to us and as followers of Christ we must never forget that. At the moment of salvation, we are a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come. Essentially, the Gospel transforms our perspective of life and through the development of one’s spiritual formation a transformation of the heart takes place. What breaks the Lord’s heart begins to break ours and the love and compassion the Lord has for His children begins to be poured out through us. We live for the glory of God and by loving others, by leading them to Christ, and by helping them grow in their faith realizing their full potential is the greatest way we can bring glory to His name.
ROLE, PURPOSE, AND GOD’S PLAN
Just as the Gospel transforms our heart, it also transforms our purpose. Before Christ, everyone lived according to his or her own agenda and goals, but after coming to faith, every believer has a new identity and purpose found in Christ. That purpose is to be ambassadors of God’s kingdom exercising love, hope, peace, and reconciliation as our message to a lost and hurting world. Believers must learn how to allow God to not only to work in them, but also through them as they fulfill the Great Commission.
The primary role of the church, as Jim Putman suggests is, “To create biblical disciples in relational environments.” The church is the body of Christ and all parts must be working together to achieve maximum efficiency. The body grows in love and becomes healthier when all parts are functioning correctly. This means, with and through disciples, the mission Jesus passed on to the church must be intentional and focused on individuals. In a world where four babies are born and two people die every second, there has not been a greater need for the church to become what God intended it to be. The churches’ first goal should be to win people to faith in Christ. Secondly, it should be to help believers find their giftings and callings by providing an environment where they can refine their skills, and lastly it should be to send them out to make new disciples teaching the same principles which they were taught. Every believer has a part to play and the church has the potential to become what God intended it to be when people find their role in the body and engage collectively proclaiming the Gospel.
Another characteristic of the church, which must be defined, is why does the church exist both globally and locally? As Ruth Ann Sigurdson illustrates:
When we looked at the church in a global sense it was for the purpose of sharing the love and gospel of Jesus Christ… It serves the community and has strong doctrinal teaching… It also offered a service to them and our families in weddings, funerals, and baptisms. The question was more difficult to answer than we had anticipated because we soon came to realize that locally it was to meet our own needs and globally it was to meet the needs of others.
The church must also teach believers how to study, interpret, and apply the word of God to their life. By observing some of the habits of the early church the importance of several things are apparent: they regularly studied the Apostle’s teaching, they fellowshipped with each other, they shared meals together, they prayed together, and they regularly met and praised together. The culmination of all these habits led to unity in the church as well as favor with all the people. A sad reality Tim Nichols highlights is:
Across North America today most churches are experiencing very limited growth or even decline. There are multiple factors that contribute to this systemic problem. These factors include, but are not limited to (a) a maintenance mentality, prioritizing the sustaining of church programs and facilities; (b) pastoral dependency, limiting lay member’s participation; (c) apathy and complacency about the lost in the community around the church; and (d) the lack of clear vision, purpose, and direction to unify and inspire the energy and resources of the congregation.
God does not want the church to play it safe as is illustrated in the parable of the talents. He desires His followers to have a heart for the lost and hurting rooted out of love. God’s will for the church is centered on discipleship and how to teach believers to be in this world, but not of it. The foundation of discipleship must be helping people grow in their love, obedience, and reverence for God. One area of major disconnect occurs between a believer and God when their relationship with Him is not intentional and all encompassing; if it is not then they truly do not love the Lord. God requires our all and if we truly love the Lord, we will obey what He commands. The importance of the church is critical to the discipleship process as Dietrich Bonhoeffer illustrates, “No one can become a new human being except by being within the church, that is, through the body of Christ. Whoever seeks to become a new human being individually cannot succeed. To become a new human being means to come into the church, to become a member of Christ’s body.”
As Nichols illustrated above, “One of the greatest needs in the North American church today is to energize a shared ministry between clergy and laity.” This primarily rests upon the pastor to cast a vision to the visionless, one they can be a part of and rally behind. As God’s word says, “Where there is no vision, the people will perish.” Bill Hybels asks the question: “How does a leader best communicate vision? [They do so:] By embodying it. By personifying it. And By living it out.”
It is also the role of the pastor to equip the saints so they are able to do the work of service. By helping saints grow spiritually, they are able to grow closer to God. In addition to equipping the saints, pastors must also teach about God’s love, because the more they learn to love God, the more they will love others. In a like manner, the more one reads the word of God, the more they will understand His ways; the more they understand His ways, the more they will learn to trust Him; and the more they trust the Lord, the more confidence they will have standing upon His promises.
Upon examination of I Peter 5:2, we see Peter addressing the elders proclaiming, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.” As Putman points out, “This verse points to the pastor’s responsibility to see that the people are being cared for spiritually.” Peter Davids elaborates further on this imagery illustrating, “The image of shepherding God’s people ‘or His people’s being his flock’ is an OT image that is common in the NT, but the command to elders to shepherd is found only here and in Acts 20:28-29. Both places significantly connect shepherding with ‘watching over it,’ showing that shepherding is a job of oversight.”
As shepherds over God’s flock, pastors are often called to oversee, rescue, feed, comfort, lead, cast vision, and protect those under him or her. It is the job of the shepherding pastor to find the lost sheep and bring them home. Sheep are notorious for wandering off and getting lost. In fact, in extreme cases of sheep wandering off, the shepherd would actually break the sheep’s legs, mend them, and then carry the sheep on his back until they were healed. Upon healing, the sheep would no longer stray away from the pastor’s side. The question every believer must ask themselves is would they rather have a little discomfort now or do they want to be completely lost with potentially no way of being found again?
The writer of Hebrews says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Essentially this means that pastors will be held accountable for how they lead, just as the flock will be held accountable for how they follow. The best example of a pastor was Jesus and He lived a life of service and sacrifice. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As with most principles in life, all you must do is observe what Jesus did and figure out how you can replicate His methods in your own life.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is often considered the guide to living a Christian life. In chapter twelve he urges believers to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God equating it to a spiritual act of worship. He warns them to not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their mind. Paul cautions the reader to not think too highly of one’s self, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
Paul describes the church as the “body of Christ” noting each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. In addition to the various parts, we also have different gifts, according to the grace given us. Some will have the gift of teaching, serving, encouraging, contributing, prophesying, governing, or showing mercy; the important principle is to use whatever gift God has given you in proportion to your faith. Douglas Moo draws a comparison between the parts of the body and spiritual gifts saying, “Moreover, the parallels between the sequences of exhortations here and in other Pauline texts also suggest that Paul may be rehearsing familiar early Christian teaching. Note especially how Paul, as in 1 Cor. 12-13, follows a discussion of gifts with a reminder of the importance of love.” It was by one’s love that the world would know we were His disciples and what better way to show love than by all parts of the body working together as the saint discovers and identifies his or her gifting.
Paul also warns the saints to hate what is evil, while clinging to what is good. We are to be devoted to one another, submit to authority, love one another, and honor one another, while being joyful, patient, faithful, and hospitable. Lastly, Paul address trials and persecution saints experience instructing them to bless those who persecute you; rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn; live in harmony with one another, do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited, do not repay anyone evil for evil and be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Paul urges saints to live at peace with everyone while not seeking revenge in order to leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. Unbelievers are not the enemy and they should instead be viewed of prisoners of war in this spiritual battle for souls and while Satan has the gates of hell, Jesus has the keys. The only way to overcome evil is with good and the only way to not be overcome by evil is to continually do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, continues to emphasize the importance of unity within the body. He urges believers to be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing one another’s burdens in love. Paul stresses the importance of peace in unity saying, “There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Paul also identifies it was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers in order to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. By speaking the truth in love, Paul proclaims we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. In Christ we are a new creation, so Paul instructs saints to put off their old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Paul closes this chapter warning saints not to sin in their anger and never to let the sun go down while you are still angry: a timeless principle! His reason for this was to stop the devil from gaining a foothold in the saints’ life. He also cautions not to let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen while getting rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling, and slander, along with every form of malice. Instead, he encourages the saints to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ forgave you.
The final role of the saints is to evangelize. This presents an area for debate especially when using Ephesians 4:11-12 as context. While this passage does say, “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” it does not mean evangelism is reserved for a select few. Regardless of misinterpretation, the main reason for not evangelizing comes down to spiritual apathy and laziness turning the Great Commission into the great suggestion. Donald Whitney points out, “God does gift some for ministry as evangelists, but He calls all believers to be His witnesses and provides them with both the power to witness and a powerful message.” Every believer should proclaim the goodness of Christ and be witnesses in all they do and everywhere they go.
Paul, in I Corinthians 12 is dealing with the issue of what it means to be spiritual as well as the abuse of gifts: mainly speaking in tongues. In verse 11, Paul establishes every Christian has at least one spiritual gift, given by the Holy Spirit, which God wants us to use for His glory. The question for some is how do they find what their gift is but the more apparent dilemma is after finding it; why do most choose not to use it? For some, they may be embarrassed or confused how to, so they simply hide it or choose not to acknowledge what God has given them. However, this is an affront to God because He expects us not only to use our gifts advancing the kingdom, but He also expects us to grow in those gifts by using them.
Just as spiritual gifts were a topic of debate in the early church, they continue to be today as Michael Horvath illustrates how, “Spiritual gifts have quickly moved into the forefront of discussions of personal spiritual growth.” While there are different types of gifts, they are of the same Spirit. Even in the diversity of gifts, one can observe unity because God is a god of order. Horvath defines spiritual gifts and their roles as:
Individual difference characteristics that are relevant to behavior in a Christian context. Second, spiritual gifts are not argued to be specific to the professional pastorate; all Christians are thought capable of possessing them. Third, most definitions include the provision that spiritual gifts are either new abilities, or newly augmented natural abilities, that are given to individuals after they become Christians. This is in contrast to natural abilities, which are characteristics possessed by all individuals.
The primary role of spiritual gifts, as Gordon Fee illustrates, is rooted out of love for the edification of the church:
Their passion for tongues in the assembly was further indication of their failure to love one another. Love, however, is not set forth in contrast to tongues, but as the necessary ingredient for the expression of all spiritual gifts. The reason for the gifts is the edification of the church, which is precisely what love aims at, but uninterpreted tongues does not.
Paul in Ephesians 4:7 says “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Again in Acts 1:8 Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” These gifts are to be used in spreading the gospel from our within our neighborhoods and communities to the four corners of the earth while also in building up the body of Christ. As believers in and followers of Christ, we exist solely to glorify God and we do this most effectively by testifying of His love, mercy, grace, and redeeming power. As part of the body of Christ everyone has a part to play and if a spiritual gift is not being used, it is the equivalent of missing a body part. As the body of Christ, we are meant to be connected and we are meant to use our gifts in conjunction with each other’s as I Corinthians 12:12 states, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
God’s greatest gift is love, so it should be no surprise He expects our attitudes and actions to be rooted out of love. The Great Commandment is at the heart of the New Testament and played a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity as Claire McLisky illustrates:
The idea of Christian love has been central to the Christian religion since its inception [and] Christian love played an important part in early Christian theology… In teaching Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther believed, the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith. For Luther, Christian love was universal and undiscriminating, mirroring God’s love for humanity. The aim of the Christian faith was, therefore, to cultivate a “pure heart” and be so in accord with God’s Word and his example that he will wish everyone well and do good to all, as God wishes him well and gives his divine love to him.
Disciples are the legacy of Jesus. Out of pure love, God sent Jesus on a mission to save the world and upon completing His task, He has now entrusted the church to complete the mission. This paper has shown a disciple is someone who knows Christ, grows in Christ, goes for Christ, as well as someone who shows and shares Christ with others. First and foremost, a disciple must make sure their relationship with God is in order and that they are using their gifts to edify the church. Then one needs to be intentional about making and equipping disciples in the church and local communities. Followers of Christ must show love to all because that is how the world is supposed to know they are His disciples. Christians must also deepen their relationships with the people in their lives by focusing on the individual and their needs. Lastly, believers must maintain a missional mindset because Christ died for everyone, so one’s focus cannot be limited by their own thinking. God has called us, He has equipped us, and now He is sending us out to find, feed, and rescue His lost children by winning them to Christ, growing them as disciples, and sending them out as witnesses of God’s glory. Becoming a disciple is a choice made at the moment of salvation. It is one that demands complete love, sacrifice, and submission to the will of God. While the cost may be great, it will never amount to the sacrifice and price Christ paid.
Bartsch, Malcolm. “Making Disciples: The Significance of Jesus’ Educational Methods for Today’s Church.” Lutheran Theological Journal 40, no. 1 (05, 2006): 44-5. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/213743289?accountid=12085 . (accessed 11-18-15).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4: Discipleship. Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 2003.
Davids, Peter H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle of Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
Fee, Gordon D. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
France, R. T. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
Horvath, Michael. “Spiritual Gifts Inventories: A Psychometric Perspective.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 32, no. 2 (Summer, 2013): 124-33. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1437251886?accountid=12085. (accessed 11-18-15).
Hybels, Bill. Courageous Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2002
McLisky, Claire. “And They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”: Exploring the Role of Christian Love on Maloga Mission, 1874–1888. Journal of Religious History, 39: 333–351. 2015, doi: 10.1111/1467-9809.12181, (accessed 11-18-15).
Moo, Douglas J. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
Morris, Leon. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
Nichols, Tim Nichols. “THE PASTOR’S ROLE IN VISION-BASED LEADERSHIP.” The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 2, no. 1 (Summer, 2007): 20-31. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/751869916?accountid=12085. (accessed 11-18-15).
Putnam, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.
Sigurdson, Ruth Ann. The Purpose Driven Process: a Church Asks Some Hard Questions and Unearths Some Uncomfortable Answers.” Presbyterian Record July-Aug. 2006: 30. General Reference Center GOLD. Document Number: GALE|A150910354. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA150910354&v=2.1&u=vic_liberty&it=r&p=GRGM&asid=70382952919dad2e74ae770435039d37 (accessed 11-18-15).
Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014.