On Making Disciples

Most of the people who come to this site are – like me – evangelical Christians. As the word suggests, we put a very high premium on evangelism. We believe everyone needs to hear the evangel, the good news, the gospel, and it is our duty to proclaim that message.

The good news is that we are all sinners, separated from God, heading for a lost eternity, in need of redemption. Jesus came to deal with this need, taking our place at Calvary, and offering us forgiveness and newness of life, if we agree with God about our condition, repent, and receive Christ as Lord and Saviour.

Thus we seek to tell as many people as we can about this vital message of God’s great saving love. As the theological lingo goes, we want people to get saved, to be born again, to pass from death to life, to be set free by the power of God.

All this emphasis and action on evangelism must always be maintained. But as I get a bit older in my Christian walk, I sometimes wonder if we are not missing out on another important aspect of evangelism, namely, discipleship. The two go together of course and hopefully most who are involved in the former will also be concerned about the latter.

But I think the connection can be – and is – lost at times. We may think we have done our duty when we have preached the gospel and someone has responded. We then might be tempted to move on and work at getting our next spiritual scalp.

But we must always recall the final commission of Jesus as found in Matt. 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.”

Here all the emphasis is on discipleship, not evangelism. Of course discipleship cannot take place unless one has first become a Christian, and that is why evangelism must always be a high priority. But the question is, have we always made discipleship as high a priority as well?

That after all is the real aim of evangelism. Getting people saved is often seen as an end in itself, but the New Testament picture is that conversion is simply the first step – the entry into what God in fact intends for us: a life of growth and maturation in Christ. Discipleship, in other words.

Thus when I receive news of evangelistic campaigns and hear about 55 people being saved here, or 120 souls saved there, I of course rejoice. But I also have to rightly ask: OK, but what about the discipleship? Is that being followed up on? What happens to all these new converts?

Indeed, just moments ago I received an email with these words: “Organizers of an evangelistic crusade in eastern Nigeria said more than 360,000 people made decisions for Christ during the five-day event held last month in the rural town of Takum.”

That is terrific. But now for the million dollar question: what next? Are concrete steps in place to disciple, church, and nurture these new believers? Hopefully this will not be an afterthought, but an integral part of any evangelistic strategy.

Sure, some people have the gift of an evangelist only, while others may have the gift of a pastor or teacher. But no church or Christian group should be involved in evangelism if it does not also have something in place to help disciple these new believers.

Part of the reason why some may have been a bit negligent in the area of discipleship is because they have a reductionist view of what the Christian life is all about. Many think simply in terms of getting souls saved and getting people to heaven. But there is more to salvation than just this.

As Paul reminds us in Col. 1:20, Christ seeks to “reconcile to himself all things”. All of creation is affected by the fall, and all of creation is meant to be reclaimed in Christ. Marianne Meye Thompson in her commentary on Colossians puts it this way:

“Through the cross God does not simply deal with the situation of the individual, but undertakes to bring wholeness to the whole world. The predicament of humanity and that of the cosmos are intertwined: both are in need of being rightly reordered by God, and neither will be so in isolation from each other.”

Or as N.T. Wright says in his recent volume, Surprised by Hope, “The work of ‘salvation’ in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely ‘souls’; (2) about the present, not merely the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.”

Salvation, as we should know, encompasses justification, sanctification, and glorification. Too many Christians concentrate on the first while minimising the second and third elements. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”.

So, am I downplaying evangelism? Nope. I am playing up discipleship. Both are essential components of our Christian work and both must be diligently pursued. We must always ensure that we are not just making converts, but that we are making disciples.

And that will impact on what sort of message we actually preach as part of our gospel proclamation. Sadly we often offer a weak, anaemic and shallow gospel, which ignores or plays down human sinfulness and the need for radical discipleship, including denying self and crucifying the flesh.

These weak gospel messages will always result in weak Christians. When such a shallow and hollow message is proclaimed, we can expect little substantial fruit, at least for the long term. What we too often offer in our evangelistic meetings are ten choruses of “Just As I AM”, with people leaving just as they were.

By all means, let us never lose our zeal and passion for evangelism. But let us always couple that with a thorough and ongoing program of biblical discipleship. Without that we will simply see most of the fruit of our labours lost, an ineffective church, and a lot of wasted effort.

[1062 words]

24 Replies to “On Making Disciples”

  1. Good call Bill.
    As a counsellor I regularly see people who are struggling in all manner of areas. When I ask about their understanding of their walk with God and their behaviour they are surprised that they have not been told certain truths.
    I firmly believe that if Christians heard the whole Gospel and then were discipled properly counsellors would have a lot less work to do.
    As well as a good discipleship program it would also be good if the WHOLE gospel were preached. Appeals to respond after a 5 minute explanation of the gospel is a recipe for a struggling Christian. If Finney, Booth, Wesley etc felt they needed much more than 30 minutes to expound the gospel why do our preachers think they can do it in 15 minutes.
    Warwick Murphy

  2. I think in majoring on ‘getting souls’ we’ve actually lost not just the discipleship aspect but also the souls.

    By losing sight of what ‘getting a soul’ is – making a disciple – all we focus on is getting decisions. And while it’s nice to get, perhaps, 360,000 decisions: invariably most of them are decisions to get wealthy, healthy, free access to heaven, hope or love. And it’s primarily because we’ve presented the Gospel as such: Jesus is here for us.

    But really we need Him to make us a disciple; and give us a new heart, a new mind, new desires, and indeed a new self – hence the term to be “born again”. Having lost sight of this, we don’t even preach a true Gospel anymore. We’re just out for decisions, and those decisions don’t even make “weak” Christians – they make those sinners even more selfish. Knowing what a disciple is, and knowing what God actually does when He does convert a person is the key here.

    If we knew to look for conviction, we would seek that out (not a decision); if we knew to look for a heart change, we would seek that out (not a decision); if we knew to look for a love for Jesus, we would seek that out (not a decision); if we knew to look for a hatred of sin, we would seek that out (not a decision).

    A person’s decision is nothing when it’s God’s decision that actually converts a person.

    Nathan Keen.

  3. Thanks Warwick and Nathan

    Yes I think too many new converts and too many preachers are simply interested in ‘fire insurance’. “Yes, we are now saved, and we know when we die we will go to heaven.” But what about everything in between? What about the life of a disciple? That so often is overlooked in the race to get numbers, decisions, scalps.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. But it’s not even about the fire insurance: how does one get saved? By repeating a bunch of words and saying ‘uh huh’ at the appropriate time to a few questions?
    No, it’s repentance and a full trust in Jesus – and sometimes it doesn’t happen instantly when we want it.

    So I wouldn’t be so quick to say that those decision makers even get converted/saved in the first place. See Mt 7:15-23

    Nathan Keen

  5. Unfortunately, I too can vouch for what you’re saying, and I’m not exactly what you would call uninformed. When I have curly questions I ask a friend who gives me straight Biblically backed answers. Usually my main response to his answers is, “Why didn’t someone tell me that years ago?”
    Felicity Shepherd

  6. Bill,
    There is a lack of emphasis on personal evangelism today and movement like the Navigators are rarely heard of. Leading a person to Christ and personally following up on him is a thing of the past. ‘Conversion’ is now mainly through altar calls in the church or some meetings and usually these people are asked to pray the ‘sinners prayer’. But the truth is that there are no references to a sinners prayer in the bible. These prayers to invite Jesus into our hearts have been treated like some magical words or conversion rites, and so we often hear of hundreds and thousands ‘saved’ at rallies but they are nowhere to be seen in church after that or evidenced by transformed lives of a repentant heart.

    Ro 10: 9-10 tells us that with the heart a person believes resulting in righteousness and with the mouth he confesses resulting in salvation. So salvation is a supernatural conversion of the heart which naturally leads to the person’s acknowledgement or confession of Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. And if the conversion is genuine the confession of the lips will gradually translate into transformed lives, through the proper teaching of the word and santification.
    This is where we need to avoid being hasty in leading people to say the ‘sinners prayer’, like muttering some magical words. True conversion and being born again is the supernatural act of God Time is required to explain the gospel clearly and allow the Holy Spirit to convict the person of his sins and lost state leading to faith in Christ in his heart. It is a heart thing and the confession that follows must be from a fully converted heart. It is not an intellectual mouthing of words but a heart thing that leads a man to cry out to God to forgive him a sinner. It is the direct work of the Holy Spirit in the conviction of sins leading to repentance and conversion and nothing less.

    Having delivered a new spiritual baby in Christ is just the start. Another difficult part is naturing him as a disciple.This is where I think you are right. The church merely lends lip service to this need. They are more concern about multiplication and little effort or time is spent on discipleship. All new converts are merely directed to cell groups.Further the lack of sound teachings and a potpourri of teachings and doctrines does not help in building true disciples of Christ.

    My suggestion in the caring for new christians is to have a separate cell groups (or Discipleship groups) for them with leaders trained to teach basics and doctrinal fundamentals to them. At the church level, the church can no longer preach light entertaining sermons that build superficial christians. Expository sermons is the right way for christians to be grounded in the word and spiritual maturity.

    Barry Koh

  7. I can’t remember who said it but the quote goes, ‘Evangelism without discipleship is a spiritual abortion’.
    Our Churches are full of people who interpret their lives starting with themselves working out to Christ, because everything in Church is geared around getting people, not centralizing Christ as the purpose. We teach topical messages, and so we miss large chunks of Scripture and some doctrines like eternal judgment dont get taught at all.
    The Church in Australia has a model that the existing congregation is the filter through which all other ministry must develope and flow. So if the existing congregation does not want you to have a ministry (or believes your ministry will draw people away from their church), you will not be supported but on occasion opposed. The model should be the existing congregation teach, disciple, support and facilitate any new ministries that are being pursued by members.
    The Church in Australia teach people to be servants and good little Christians, polite and non-confrontational, so if the Pastors are getting lazy, nobody will say anything.
    Part of the problem is we have become Dialectic not Didactic, we contradict our convictions in order to keep peace and not rock the boat, both in Church and in the world.
    The church also chooses people for possitions within that can be easily moulded into what the leadership want. It is the appointment of the obedient lap dog or the flamboyant charismatic good-looking leader (who eventually has sex with the worship leader and runs off to be a emergent church pastor – true story) not the search for and the discipleship of spiritually gifted people. We have a herd mentality, and we tend to build our views by looking in the rear-vision mirror.
    Joshua Ferrara

  8. I think that in general we need to help believers with Discipleship 101. It’s simple stuff. Have a daily time with God, read a chapter or so of the Bible, pray, be part of a home group, attend church weekly. I need to be convinced that we are getting to first base!
    Dave Price

  9. After reading this article, I feel I’m a failure at both evangelism and discipleship! I am always on the lookout for an opportunity to talk about God and salvation – although sometimes I have to gradually work up to it perhaps through a couple of meetings with the same person – as an example I was speaking with a person who is a builder and as far as I know, he is not a Christian. I asked him if he was getting plenty of work and he said that he did not have anything at the moment but a contract was in the pipeline. I told him I would pray for him to get it and each time I saw him I would ask him how it was going and he left me a message today telling me that he got a small contract which will help him out and he thanked me for my prayers which was encouraging. This guy now knows that I am a Christian and it might be useful later down the track if I come across his path again. Sometimes evangelism involves forming relationships with people in order to be able to demonstrate your faith in a practical and caring way – sometimes I think that all of us Christians (if we are fairdinkum) are links in a chain – sometimes you might come across a person who you might get a few words in – example – you might help a stranger and when they thank you , you might say “As a Christian that is what God expects of me”. God might have ordained a number of Christians to witness to that person and you might be just one of a number of those people. One thing I have always tried to do is to live a Christian life in front of people and when they make a comment about the extra mile you might have gone for them then you have an opportunity to bring up the gospel. Also if you hear of a non Christian who you know who has a problem or issue, go to them and offer to pray for them – I have never had anyone knock me back yet on this. I think you just have to be always ready but it is very important to be a part of the post conversion life of a new Christian if it is practical for you to be able to. Also it is very important to do as Paul exhorts us – “Watch your life and doctrine closely” as people around you will be watching as well. Finally, I think the last thing any Christian should be doing is walking up to complete strangers and saying something like “You are going to hell”.
    Steve Davis

  10. Some years ago I seem to remember someone somewhere worked out the statistics of all those who supposedly made a decision for Christ in a number of African counties like Nigeria and discovered when they added the claimed figures up the whole population had been saved about thrice over.
    Maybe they got converted to Christianity but never really saved unto Jesus?
    When I got saved from being a heathen at the age of 26 my life was drastically changed forever and it is just as real if not more today 39 years later. God either saves you or he doesn’t, and there is no in between. Just because someone answers an altar call (a modern invention popularized by D L Moody) and says yes in the right place does not necessarily mean anything. When you get saved you “GET” something and that something is everything. and it is not just some gooey emotional feeling or a burning in the bosom like the Mormons. If you don’t receive something and that something is down in your spirit you “aint” saved.
    That’s why I have serious concerns about things like the Alpha course, on the second or third night after having been placed in a very comfortable and relaxed atmosphere, when you are asked if you have agreed with everything said so far, the hand is extended with the words “Welcome to the family of God! And from that time on the person that person is accepted as being in the faith.
    Sorry I don’t believe it. I hope they are and maybe there is one or two that are really saved but it is a deception non the less. I think John MacArthur calls it cheap grace. My salvation not only cost Jesus everything but it cost me everything.
    Rob Withall

  11. Thanks Rob

    It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship who first used the phrase ‘cheap grace’ I believe.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. Rob,
    Agree with you. It’s a different gospel that is preached today in many churches, a gospel to make everyone feel good. I am amazed at the way people are declared as saved at the Alpha courses. It’s that a standard thing at all Alpha courses?
    Barry Koh

  13. Re Rob’s posting – the saddest part about the popular “salvation” approach that he describes is that it can very easily lead people to continue living the life they want to simply because they think they now hold their “ticket”.

    Not only are they still rebelling against God, but they do so under the delusion they now cannot be held eternally accountable since they prayed “that prayer.”

    The “Revival Hymn” DVD said it so well, Christianity isn’t about our salvation, it is for the glory and worship of God, both here on earth, and, only because of the incredible grace of God, for eternity.

    Really enjoy your thought-provoking articles Bill, and also the comments from your other readers.

    Peter Baade

  14. Bill, you have reminded each that when we are born again of the Holy Spirit, we must be fed 4 hourly and nurtured with a mother’s love and devotion. Regular balanced diets during our childhood and teen years ensure growth and development. Are these not the times when instruction in eternal realities, instruction in godliness, absorbing heavenly precepts indicate spiritual advance: more important than handling a basketball, kicking football or using a tennis racquet.
    Strong’s concordance states that a disciple must be taught, instructed and absorb precepts. Let’s remedy the defect.
    Harrold Steward

  15. Bill,
    As a fellow evangelical, I agree with what you say here. Both salvation AND discipleship are really important. Many of our older Australian traditional churches appear to neglect the preaching that will lead to commitment to salvation; but so also many of the more evangelistically minded churches do not appear to undertake much needed follow up of new Christians.

    In terms of discipleship making, it is helpful that many churches now have Home/Cell/Life Groups that provide a more personal setting where smaller groups can discuss their faith, and hopefully “encourage one another to love and good works”.

    As to Alpha which was disparagingly mentioned by Rob Withall, I can say having participated as a leader in around 8 or 9 different Alpha courses at our Church, that there was certainly never a blanket assumption of inclusion into christian faith merely upon agreement to some of the precepts used. Clearly the impact of Alpha will be enhanced by good facilitators. But the course itself talks clearly of the “man’s greatest need (All have sinned..”) and the results of sin (pollution of/power of/penalty for/partition of). It is declared that one must accept the gift that is offered; and that “new life in Christ” must begin.

    Whilst originally a little skeptical of what Alpha had achieved worldwide, I now rejoice that it has provided a wonderful medium for so many to come to faith in Christ, and for many other new Christians to understand their faith so much better. I have not seen anything else like it in 40 plus years of christian life.

    David Everard

  16. Yes Bill, the first chapter of THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP talks about cheap grace.
    Wayne Pelling

  17. Thanks Wayne

    Yes chapter one, called ‘Costly Grace’ has great quotes, including these:

    “Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”

    “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  18. Felicity Shephard, fifty years ago I started studying for the ministry. After all this time, most pew sitters in my former denomination still have not been interested in discipling. So die the mainline denominations.
    Stan Fishley

  19. Amen Bill! Praise God for your write-up. Clearly Jesus taught and preached a Gospel that involved entire lives, not simply a momentary decision. He preached that we MUST forsake all that we have, take on His life and actively be discipled/taught/trained/apprenticed in the Word. All too often we see countless people making momentary decisions – but are never even taught that God then commanded a life-commitment known as discipleship – and thus many remain babes rather than growing to the maturity that Jesus intended them to through Biblical discipleship… But who is truly practicing the Biblical model of discipleship?, including submission, accountability, theory and tones of hands on practice application – like Jesus practiced with His 12.
    I looked for a church that taught and practiced the full Gospel including discipleship for 10 years. And I want to encourage you Bill and others that there are some churches out there and I’m hugely blessed to be in one. The Miracle Christian Center (www.mccnoblepark.com.au and http://www.mcc777.com.au) in Noble Park is my home church and a church where the full Gospel of salvation and fully committed discipleship is preached and practiced week in and week out. In our church alone there are over 40 people being actively and personally Biblically discipled and growing as doers of the Word in all areas of their lives. I now understand so much more why God chose discipleship as His model and plan for growing and strengthening His children – as I watch these disciples grow stronger, bolder, more free, more skilful in living the Word, more ready and willing to minister rather than simply receiving ministry – each week.
    If you’re local Bill, I welcome you to pop in to one of our services and see discipleship in action for yourself, talk to the ministers and possibly even grab a copy of our 2 CD teaching on Biblical discipleship to take home and listen to if you’re interested.
    Biblical discipleship works, and Biblical discipleship IS the WILL of GOD!
    Jacquelyn Paul

  20. As always Bill another great article, I especially liked the quote, ‘a Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ’, fantastic! Our Ministry have implimented a 7 part indepth course called ‘Foundations’ of which our Churches take new and old through grounded them in the basics, asking and dealing with any and all sorts of questions, concerns, thoughts etc regarding discipleship, we tell them that if they desire to sit in a church and do nothing for Christ or fail to bear the most basic of Christian fruits then they can get their McJesus down the road at the many clubs labelling themselves as ‘Churches’, doesnt make us popular, certainly makes us real though because the crowds dont come back. But the fact is, after a good amount of time and nurture, care and teaching, no fruit, no Christian! and guess what, we have our greatest success rate making Biblical disciples out of the worst of the worst, the drug dealers, harlots, and more, and we have our greatest problems with those who have ever sat in churches complaining about the current state of their church yet never joining one that is DOING the Bible, nor becomeing a disciple of Jesus Christ. So keep shouting Bill, your articles are a great encouragement and much appreciated thanks, regards,
    Dorian Ballard

  21. Bill, you and your readers may be interested in the book “Making Disciples – A Practical Guide to Establishing New Believers” by John Sypkes, whose “… real passion … has been to make disciples and train disciple-makers. He now does this in Australia and in other nations.”

    Sypkes discusses the progression: Convert; Disciple; Disciple-maker; Equipper – giving the Profile of A Disciple from Romans 15: “I myself am convinced my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” which he expands to: having a Christ-like character; understanding Biblical truths; and having developed ministry skills. He then expands on the Profiles of Disciple Maker and Equipper. Only 140 pages: simple; profound; challenging. (discipleshiptrainingcentre@bigpond.com)

    Nigeria has negative press above! But for decades Benson “Fire in his bones” Idahosa’s ANFCBibleInstitute very successfully raised disciples in Nigeria. Independent researcher Matthew Ojo commented: “The greatest impact of Idahosa was among those he trained in his Bible School in Nigeria. Indeed, Idahosa’s scholarship scheme became an effective means of sustaining substantial religious and social transformation in Africa. It exported the Nigerian Pentecostal model and concepts…decades later many of Idahosa’s disciples became pioneers in their countries.”

    These 8,000+ disciples were trained for ALL denominations, but, after Idahosa’s death, ANFCBI became denominational and the mantle of training disciples for all denominations passed, in 2007, to Christian Faith Institute bible college in Jos Nigeria (www.cfaithministries.org). CFI was started by Australians Kent & Ruth Hodge with other former Nigerian staff from ANFCBI. While Christianity may be “only an inch deep” in some parts of Africa, in Jos, a Muslim majority area where there have been many riots and killings in recent times, the cost of discipleship can be very high.

    I understand that John Sypkes hopes to go to Jos teach the students disciple-making.

    Peter Newland

  22. Hi Bill, Great article! I am a disciple at Miracle Christian Centre. And can say that for the first 51/2 years of being a Christian, I was so weak and even backslid for 2 of those years. I was so disillusioned with “church” as a whole, not to mention most Christian. For the past 3 years I’ve been at MCC, of which, I have been discipled for about 18 months. As a result my life has completely changed, I’m no longer offended at everything, carrying around fear, and pain from the past. But as the bible says if you give up your life you will find it. And I’ve found myself in Jesus and His Word! I regularly preach on the streets, and basically have learnt how to live according to the Word of God! Instead of making up what “I think” the bible says, I’ve learnt how to find out what God says!

    I’d like to encourage everyone discipleship works! Because God set it up.
    Thanks again for a great article! Bless you
    Elisha Scott

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