13 September, 2021

Back to the Drawing Board: How to Lead a Church Built Around Making Disciples (No Matter the Cost)


by | 1 September, 2021 | 0 comments

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well-known for penning the book The Cost of Discipleship about what it costs each of us to follow Jesus. In addition to that cost, discipleship—or disciple-making—also costs church leaders who take it seriously.

I recently spoke with a lead pastor who serves not far from where I live. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Disciple-making is the mission Jesus gave to the church.

Him: I think we need to focus more on evangelism. It seems like all I hear of late is “discipleship,” and [to me] it sounds like “work harder, learn more, go deep.” It sounds like self-indulgent, intellectual superiority.

Me: Discipleship includes evangelism, but it also involves helping people learn to obey Jesus, not just making them Bible smart.

Him: All I see is fellowship and discipleship, and as a result churches aren’t reaching the lost, their doors are closing, and we’re not impacting culture. What we need to do is get back to simply sharing the gospel with people.

This illustrates one of the key reasons we struggle to live out the mission Jesus gave us: We don’t understand what Jesus meant by “make disciples,” so we infuse it with our own ideas and then do what we want to do rather than what Jesus commissioned us to do.

But Jesus is King, and if we want to be faithful, we’re not free to make up the mission of the church.


Jesus gave a very clear mission to his apostles: Make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).

And that doesn’t mean make converts (i.e., evangelism).

And it doesn’t mean make super-smart-in-the-Bible, ingrown believers (i.e., self-indulgent believers who consider themselves to be intellectually superior).

For Jesus, a disciple is someone who has arranged their life to be with a rabbi/teacher in order to become like them (see Luke 6:40). In our case, that means helping someone learn how to be with Jesus as his disciple so they can become like Jesus.

And that includes two components: (1) helping unbelievers become believers, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (evangelism); and (2) helping new believers become mature believers who “obey everything Jesus commanded.”

That’s disciple-making.

That’s the mission Jesus gave us.

Jesus meant for that to be the heart of everything we do as churches.

Making it the heart of everything we do is a subtle but massive shift, one that we must be willing to make if we’re truly committed to the mission of Jesus. Disciple-making is what we should measure more than anything else. This is what we should celebrate.

Discipleship isn’t something we do; it’s everything we do.

For that to be true in our churches, we must cultivate a discipleship culture, which I admit isn’t easy.

I received an email from someone working in a youth-focused ministry that addressed this challenge:

I currently work in a context where the end goal of my efforts is to help church communities see the value of making disciples, especially of young people. We run into this issue all the time, where the idea of making disciples is relegated to a “part” of what we do, and not “everything we do,” and church leaders end up in serious amounts of dissonance trying to conceive of the wholesale changes to the status quo necessary to lead a church built around discipleship. All of that to ask, how have you found it best to help church communities (1) see the value of discipleship, (2) see it worth every struggle to change their direction, and (3) endure the long road of obedience required to see it through?

The heart of the issue for us as church leaders is this: Are we content doing church the way we’re used to and hoping it will somehow produce growing disciples? Or are we willing to go back to the drawing board and figure out how disciple-making can become everything we do, no matter the cost?

Again, I want to be clear: Disciple-making doesn’t mean making converts. It includes that, but it is bigger and greater than that. Disciple-making entails helping someone live as a disciple of Jesus so that they become like Jesus. That means helping someone move from outside Christ to inside Christ, and then on to maturity in Christ. As the apostle put it, the aim of all our labor and toil is to “present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28), until Christ is “formed” in them (Galatians 4:19).

This is the mission of the church and the goal of our ministry.

Pastors, elders, church leaders . . . since discipleship is everything we do, that means

1. it’s not a piece of your ministry; it’s the whole thing

2. it’s not a program that you tack on to everything else you already do in church; every program is a discipleship program . . . and if not, why do it?

3. it’s not a six-week emphasis once a year or a special event we push to “try to get people into small groups”; it’s meant to happen all the time because it’s (supposed to be) at the heart of all you do

Since discipleship was Jesus’ assignment to us, this is the question for us as pastors: Is everything we’re doing helping unbelievers become believers and new believers become mature believers?


If you’re thinking, I’ve tried discipleship programs before and . . .

I get it.

Or if you’re saying to yourself, We already do small groups and do our discipleship through those . . .

I know.

But, I’m talking about a culture of discipleship, so that your church is like a greenhouse for growing disciples. I’m talking about a culture that makes it normal for unbelievers to become new believers and for new believers to become mature believers.

And trust me, I know there are lots of things that make this hard. Making discipleship everything you do is costly. Cultivating a discipleship culture in your church is costly.

There’s so much pressure to focus on other things, many of them good.

There’s the constant urge to measure success by more obvious things—like buildings, bodies, and budgets—rather than genuine, deep transformation that’s harder to quantify.

We’re fighting against the busy-ness of life, for us and our people. How do we make disciples when people seem barely to have time to attend church services?

And then there’s the messiness of dealing with people. Growing good humans is messier work than leading a great organization.

And all of that requires patience. We’ve got to be willing to play the long game. Helping people become like Jesus takes a while. Creating a new culture doesn’t happen overnight.

And the most difficult part might be that cultivating a discipleship culture requires change . . . and that change needs to start with ourselves. We must change what we value, what we know and are used to, and how we do church.

But most of all, we probably need to change our own character, our own walk with Jesus, and our own discipleship.

And change—especially deep, personal, internal change—is always hard.

But we have no choice because we have no other mission than this: Go and make disciples.

How can we cultivate a discipleship culture in the church?

The No. 1 key is to focus solely on our mission (i.e., “own it”) and begin to evaluate everything we do in light of it.

In addition to that, here are a few other suggestions. (I explore these more fully in my free online workshop for pastors and church leaders on this subject; visit discipleshipworkshop.net.)

Clarify the path. Too often we think in terms of a discipleship program. What we really need is a discipleship path. A path communicates direction and shows someone where to go. We need a clear path that helps guide people from unbeliever to new believer and new believer to mature believer (not a path that makes them a good church member). We need a path that helps them live and grow as a disciple of Jesus.

Train people to practice the “one anothers.” Discipleship always happens through a life-on-life transfer because humans grow best in relational environments. And rather than guessing what that environment should look like or creating our preferred idea of “community,” we’d do best to create a one-another environment, meaning an environment that practices the one-anothers of the New Testament. We need to train people how to practice these skills.

Focus on growing good humans. So much effort and energy in Christian leadership focuses on growing “churches,” meaning the organization. But the organization exists for the good of the people; the people don’t exist to advance the organization (I think we all know this, but we don’t always act this way). So, the goal of our leadership ought to focus on growing good humans. Jesus described this as helping people become “good trees” who routinely produce good fruit. Our best efforts as leaders ought to be to cultivate a culture where “good trees” consistently grow.

Provide opportunities and resources for growth. Our discipleship efforts usually focus on creating programs and events that we put on at our building or under our direct oversight. Instead, once we have a clear path, we need to provide resources and opportunities that will enable people to move down the path and will equip others to mentor and guide people as they move down the path. These are resources and opportunities that can be used at various times and places apart from our building or our direct involvement, so that we can facilitate but decentralize discipleship. In this way, we can equip and release people to make disciples.

Here’s the thing: Jesus gave us one mission. Our best thinking, planning, and efforts must go into carrying out that mission. Merely making good church members won’t cut it. We’ve got to make disciples . . . and Jesus said he’d be with us to help us the whole way, no matter how much it costs!

<a href="https://christianstandard.com/author/johnwhittaker/" target="_self">John Whittaker</a>

John Whittaker

John Whittaker has been a pastor in two churches and taught New Testament, theology, and preaching at Boise (Idaho) Bible College for 19 years. Currently he equips people to follow Jesus by creating podcasts, YouTube Bible studies, and online courses to help people learn and live the Bible.


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