The Church’s Mission: Making Disciples

By Ethan Magness

My first formal ecclesiological training came from a song:

The Church is not a building,
the Church is not a steeple,
the Church is not a resting place,
the Church is the people.

It was not an especially good song, but it had hand motions (perhaps you know them). I am grateful for this song, because it provided a sufficient ecclesiology for my early years of life. I did not merely go to church; I was part of the church. We were the church, the people of God.

My second round of training came from the back of my church’s bulletin. I was 5 or 6, sitting in the second pew. My mom was at the piano, and we were expected to be in our seats early and reasonably well behaved. So I read the bulletin. It was a good bulletin. And the back page was the same every Sunday:

“The Nature of the Church to Which We Aspire”
The Congregation of Christian people by custom meeting for worship in the Hopwood Memorial Christian Church building perceives the Church of Christ as characterized by one Body, one Spirit, one Hope, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; and one God the Father of all, who is over all, in all, and through all. Christian people are related to God as his children; to one another as brothers and sisters; to Christ as our Savior, our Lord, our Teacher, our Model, and our Mediator of salvation and restoration to true humanity and to fellowship with God in life eternal. Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”

We confess one Creed: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

We confess one Discipline: The word of God revealed in the New Testament.

We hold one measure or standard as Authoritative: That course of life, personal and corporate, practiced and enjoined by the Apostles whom Christ appointed to be His Witnesses.

In sum, the Marks of the Church are: Unity, Holiness, Universality, and Apostolicity.

Such is the Nature of the Church.

We aspire to work toward its realization.

Dr. Dean E. Walker

This was a pretty good start. I remember reading these words again in the summer between my second and third years of college, just after I had decided to pursue ministry. “We aspire to work toward its realization.” I shared that aspiration, and I was ready to work toward it.

So I started working.

What, but Why?

Unfortunately, without realizing it, I allowed neither of these ecclesiological lessons to inform my early ministry. Instead of focusing on the human nature of the church, I focused on the tasks I needed to accomplish. (One of my early ministry coaches asked me to put a note near my phone to remind me I was talking to people on the phone.) Instead of focusing on the ideals from which the church emerged, I focused on the programs I was expected to maintain.

01_magnessb_jnI knew better, but I acted like the church was a set of programs. I was in seminary at the time being taught better, but when I was on the clock, my self-imposed operational mandate was clear: maintain and incrementally improve the programs of the church.

I diligently pursued this mandate for more than 10 years. I flatter myself to think I accomplished this mandate reasonably well. And God was faithful and used that work to further God’s good purposes.

I pursued this mandate in small churches and medium-sized churches and megachurches. I focused my attention on the differences between their programming models and thought about how to launch new programs and improve old ones. I was honored to be part of programs that grew in number and where lives were being transformed. But I was always faced with a nagging insecurity.

I knew what I was doing but I had no clear idea of what I was trying to do.

By this I mean I knew what tasks were keeping me busy, but I had no clear sense of what I was trying to accomplish.

I was doing church—preaching, teaching, planning, leading, visiting, serving, recruiting, and passing the offering tray. I was even good at doing church, but I was unsure of the connection between what I was doing and the mandate of Christ.

I had read that bulletin too many times: “We hold one measure or standard as Authoritative: That course of life, personal and corporate, practiced and enjoined by the Apostles whom Christ appointed to be His Witnesses.” I wasn’t sure that this was what I was doing.

Wise Followership

This reflection led to my third round of constructive ecclesiology. I began to ask again of Christ, “What are we trying to do? To what end should I be working?” With great clarity I was led to focus my attention on discipleship. I was convicted that too much of my energy had been focused on making members and converts and students and participants. Very little of my energy had been focused on cultivating wise followership of Jesus.

It would be some years before I would encounter this quote from Mike Breen, but I had already come to this conviction: “If you make disciples, you will always get the church. But if you make a church, you will rarely get disciples.”1

That was what I feared I had done—made the church and rarely gotten disciples. Of course, “rarely” isn’t “never,” and God has been faithful to demonstrate the fruit of God’s work in all of my ministry, but the clarity with which I now knew what I was trying to do was a watershed moment in my ministry.

To move forward I needed to do two things. Figure out how to make a disciple, and then only do things that worked toward that goal.

Before I share where this clarity has taken me. I give you this challenge. Stop reading and write down how to be a disciple using, at most, three or four sentences. Then in three or four more, write down how to disciple someone.

Don’t beat yourself up, but it is worth realizing that if you don’t know the answer to this question, you won’t have a target to aim for and the people you lead probably won’t either. Don’t wait for the perfect answer. Any half-decent answer can become a clarifying tool for your ministry.

I’ve had three working answers since this clarity. One I have since discarded. One I am using now. One is a work in progress. The one I am using now is as follows:

To be a disciple I must:

1. Know where I am.

2. Know where Jesus is.

3. Follow.

Consequently, for a church or a program to make disciples, the following factors are needed:

1. A discipler who knows a person well enough to know where they are.

2. A context in which that person can come to see where Jesus is.

3. A conversation in which the discipled and the discipler can mutually discern in what direction they need to move to follow Jesus.

4. A context in which the discipled can begin to walk in that direction with the coaching and feedback of the discipler.

Renewed Clarity

This tool has given renewed clarity for every aspect of my ministry. I preach according to this tool. In my preaching I need to know where people are and develop a relationship within that shared place. From there we together look to see where Jesus is and together discern what it would look like to follow him.

The talking portion of the sermon is complete when we find ourselves with a clear sense of our next step toward Jesus as disciples. But the momentum of the sermon must be designed to carry us beyond the sanctuary into a shared context in which the community is challenged to be walking toward Jesus.

This is the tool I use to evaluate programs at both the macro and micro levels. At the macro level I ask myself, Do we have programs that excel at every part of this process? At the micro level I have become convinced that softball teams, small groups, Sunday school classes, accountability groups, and knitting circles are all perfectly good places for discipleship to happen, if there is a leader who recognizes he or she is called by God to be a discipler and is leveraging the context to get to know the people he or she leads, helping them see Jesus, discerning the concrete steps of movement toward Jesus, and then walking with them and providing coaching and feedback along the way.

Having this tool prevents me from naively rejecting church programs that are working well even though they may be old-fashioned, but it also gives me a clear way to coach and improve those programs that no longer move the church toward its mission of making disciples. This tool helps me evaluate the discipling potential of existing programs and new ones that we might think to start.

I even use this tool to analyze curriculum for all contexts—from kids to students to adult small groups. I want curriculum that helps my leaders see themselves as disciplers and helps them build relationships that allow them to know their students. I want curriculum that takes them to God’s Word to learn about Jesus and know where he is leading. I want conversational tools that help them discern together what next steps to take, and I want concrete strategies for follow-up and experiment as we try to live out our followership together.

(I happily share a wink with any old-school Christian education people who hear echoes of Hook, Book, Look, and Took. It isn’t the same, but I can’t pretend that the echoes aren’t there.)

There is nothing special about these four steps. As I mentioned, I’m reflecting right now on another way I might talk about this process. The key is that I have a working answer to the question, “How are disciples made?”2 Having this answer is the strategic bridge between what I am trying to do—make disciples—and what I am doing—the programs, practices, and preaching of my congregation.

Without this clarity, I am sure I would be stuck on the treadmill of simply chasing marginal improvement to the programs I inherited, or hoping that the latest conference guru will finally have the program that saves us all.

Just like I learned on the second pew from the back of the bulletin:

We hold one measure or standard as Authoritative: That course of life, personal and corporate, practiced and enjoined by the Apostles whom Christ appointed to be His Witnesses.

Their course of life was the life of making disciples.

Such is the nature of the church.

We aspire to work toward its realization.


¹Mike Breen, Building a Discipling Culture (Pawleys Island: 3DM Publishing), 11, 12.

²For answers from other writers who have thought about this, check out Alex Absalom at (especially his e-book with Greg Nettle, Disciples Who Make Disciples, where he champions the REI model) or Mike Breen’s book (mentioned above).

Ethan Magness serves as senior minister with First Christian Church, Johnson City, Tennessee.

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