29 November, 2022

Authentic Disciple-Making: 5 Essentials


by | 1 March, 2022

By Bobby Harrington

Fifteen years ago, I started waking up every day focused on disciple-making. In my roles as a pastor, trainer of church planters, network leader, and coach, it became my obsession.

I did this because I came to believe disciple-making is the core mission of the church.

Just as importantly: I came to believe disciple-making is the key to Christian faithfulness in this cultural moment.

Disciple-making has become such a passion that I have now published over 10 books on the topic, initiated and led multiple national conferences on the topic, and cofounded three national networks for church leaders focused on disciple-making: The Relational Discipleship Network, Discipleship.org (reaching 30,000 evangelical church leaders focused on Jesus’ method), and Renew.org (reaching more than 15,000 leaders in Christian churches/churches of Christ with theology focused on Jesus’ teachings).

Christian Standard asked me to share the keys to authentic disciple-making I have learned. I’m grateful for the opportunity. Here are the top five in my experience.

1. Altruistic:You Need the Right Motives

To be authentic, our disciple-making needs to start with the right motives. Too many people launch discipleship or disciple-making efforts with distorted goals. Disciple-making efforts should not be launched to get more numbers or grow the church, to keep people happy, or even to give people the fellowship they desire.

Love, which we define as cross-shaped actions following Jesus, should be our motivation (John 13:34-35). Disciple-making must spring from a desire to truly love God and love people. It must be that “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14, emphasis mine). We must desire to love people in the way of Jesus, for he came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) and he devoted his most focused energy and time to the making of twelve disciples.

If you seek to make disciples because you see and love people like Jesus saw and loved people, you are starting at the right place.

2. Intentional: You Need to Follow a Plan

The Oxford English Dictionary describes intentionality as “the fact of being deliberate or purposive.”

Our postmodern world prizes the modesty of uncertainty and self-professed doubt. In the same vein, Christians can back away from intentional involvement in discipling others into following Jesus. It can feel comfortable to be tepid and reserved about making disciples. We might think, After all, only God can guide people. My job is to pray and trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance in another person’s life. That’s all I can do.

The problem with this passive posture is that it is at odds with Jesus’ teachings.

Let’s examine the primary New Testament text on discipleship:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

This text begins with two commands: “go” and “make.” Jesus is commanding us to be intentional. We can follow Jesus’ teaching in this text only if we “go” into the world of lost people to reach them and “make disciples.” The second command (“make disciples”) is even more key. (In Greek, it’s the fundamental imperative in the sentence.) And we can make disciples only if we know what a disciple is and how to make one. A disciple maker, by definition, is guided by intentionality and planning. She guides people to follow Jesus.

If I do not have a basic path onto which I guide people, can I really make disciples? If I fail to have a plan or basic sense of direction, I’m deviating from what Jesus told us. For, according to the text, making disciples includes my role in baptizing them and teaching them “to obey everything that Jesus commanded.”

At a basic level, my job is to intentionally teach them about Jesus and help them do what Jesus commanded.

3. Relational: You Need to Base Everything on Love

Relationships—genuine life-on-life connections grounded in Christlike love—create and sustain the environment for discipleship.

I became a disciple of Jesus at the University of Calgary because Dr. Mac Jacobs loved me enough to teach me about Jesus and show me how to follow Jesus. But he was able to do that because of our relationship, where he loved me enough to hang out with me, take my late-night calls, come over for family dinners, and put up with all my immaturities.

He walked with Jesus and loved me along the way.

It changed me.

Love changes people more than mere information does.

In the context of relationship, truth can be transferred from one life to the next. Questions can be asked. Real-life stories can be shared. Sin can be confessed. Accountability can be offered. Encouragement can be given. Jesus’ ministry clearly shows us that disciple-making is a relational process built on trust.

In describing unconditional agape love, the apostle Paul provided a rich description of the context that makes for fruitful discipling relationships:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Let me make this personal. As I trust and follow Jesus and seek to help others trust and follow Jesus, I am seeking to become a person epitomized by this kind of love. I want my biography to become clear to all.

Bobby is patient, Bobby is kind. Bobby does not envy, Bobby does not boast, Bobby is not proud. Bobby does not dishonor others. Bobby is not self-seeking. Bobby is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. Bobby does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. Bobby always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Bobby never fails.

This is why we say agape love is to be the foundation for everything that happens in disciple-making.It is the ultimate sign of maturity and a top priority when it comes to relationships. We pursue a life of love (Ephesians 5:1-2).

  • Love is our motivation as we seek discipling relationships.
  • Love is our mindset as we plan and strategize discipling relationships.
  • Love is our foundation as we nurture and uphold discipling relationships.
  • Love is our model as we navigate conflicts, difficulties, and disappointments in discipling relationships.

Love is the motivation for discipling relationships, because as Paul said, “Love never fails.”

4. Transformational: Your Goal Must Be to Change Lives

The goals of disciple-making are leading people to experience eternal salvation and live lives of Holy Spirit-inspired obedience. Remember the goal of the Great Commission is not that we would “know the teachings of Jesus.”

Stop and think about that last statement.

Jesus calls us to obedience-based disciple-making. We are to teach those we disciple “to obey everything I have commanded you,” Jesus said (Matthew 28:20).

As stated earlier, here are things we do not focus on in disciple-making (even if some of the following end up becoming byproducts):

  • helping those we disciple to be happy
  • knowledge for knowledge’s sake
  • close friendships
  • increasing church members
  • providing emotional support

Some of those things will likely happen when we disciple people the way Jesus did, but they cannot be our focus. I have made countless mistakes in discipling relationships because I have erroneously made each of those a focus point.

The apostle Paul described his discipling focus succinctly: “He [Jesus] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:28-29, emphasis mine).

The goal is developing people so they reach full maturity in Christ.

It is strenuous. It takes the energy of Christ. We ask God to powerfully work in us.

Here is what that looks like:

  • helping people to find salvation
  • helping people practice their new identity in Christ
  • helping people to obey specific commands
  • helping people stop repetitive sins
  • helping people forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable

The apostle Paul described the impact of his discipling relationship with the Corinthians this way:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

5. Repeatable: You Must Graduate Disciple Makers

Authentic disciple-making repeats itself, where the disciple becomes a disciple maker, reproducing the disciple-making process.

As I prepared to launch Discipleship.org’s national conferences and online training, I sought the input of some of the most effective disciple makers in North America. I was stunned by their uniform emphasis on one point: disciple-making is not biblical without an emphasis on multiplication.

Remember Jesus’ final command: disciples must go and make other disciples.

Jesus is our model. He showed us that disciple-making starts with lost people (he discipled the disciples before they were true disciples) and it reaches maturity when the disciples he made carried on the mission.

As disciples, we want to be like Jesus.

Here are summaries of what Jesus showed us about his style of disciple-making:

  • He came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).
  • He devoted 65 to 90 percent of his best time to discipling the Twelve (Luke 6:13).
  • He told us students are to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters (Matthew 10:25).
  • He commissioned his disciples at three different times in three different ways to go make disciples like he did (John 20:21; Matthew 28:19; and Acts 1:8).

The replication of disciple makers was Jesus’ master plan.

An Aha That Changed My Life’s Focus

I am a church planter who spent years training church planters around the country. After training church planters for a decade, I realized something fundamentally transformational.

If you plant a church, you may not get disciples. But if you make disciples who make disciples who make disciples, you should always get a church.

Jesus’ plan for multiplication is making disciples who make disciples who plant churches that make disciples.

Disciple-making is the best way to reach a lost world. It is the best way to bring the saved to maturity. It is the best way, in turn, to propagate the most important mission on planet earth for others.

That mission is to be disciples who make disciples.

Will you join with me and make it your mission too?

Bobby Harrington is the lead pastor at Harpeth Christian Church, Franklin, Tennessee, and the point leader for Discipleship.org and Renew.org.

Christian Standard

Contact us at cs@christianstandardmedia.com


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