Healthy Churches Intentionally Make Disciples (Part 2)

by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches

Click here for Part 1


The Rabbinical Tradition: Practice and Deviation

Discipling did not begin with Jesus or the NT church.  The Greek teachers and philosophers had their mathetes or disciple.1  The Hebrews had their own form of discipling as seen in the relationship between Moses and Joshua (Exo 24:13), Elijah’s school of prophets (2 kg 2:3), and the Jewish rabbis and their students.  Bill Hull observes five characteristics in the rabbinical tradition.  The student or disciple: (1) decides to follow a particular teacher, (2) memorises the teacher’s words, (3) learns the teacher’s way of ministry, (4) imitates the teacher’s life and character, and (5) raises up his own disciples.2

Akin to the tradition of the rabbis Jesus also gathered disciples around Him (Mk 1:16-20).  However, R. T. France comments that “it is misleading…to express this relationship (between Jesus and His disciples) in terms of a rabbi and his talmîdîm.  Rabbis did not call their followers; rather, the pupil adopted the teacher.  It marks him (Jesus) as a prophet rather than a rabbi.”3  Notwithstanding, there were similarities between the rabbinical tradition and that of Jesus’.  He taught the disciples more deeply; beyond His public discourses (Mk 9:30, Lk 11:1-4).  He trained them for ministry (Mt 9:35-10:16).  By His life and actions Jesus instilled His values into the lives of His disciples, and provided for them an example to follow (Mk 9:33-37, 10:35-45).  Lastly, Jesus also expected His disciples to raise up other disciples.  This is evident from the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20).

As the apostle Paul came from the rabbinical tradition4 the same pattern may be observed in his ministry.  He gathered around him disciples like Timothy, Titus and Silas.  He taught them God’s Word (2 Tim 1:13).  He trained them for ministry (Acts 16:1-3, 19:21-22).  He influenced them by a life lived out before them and from the example of his character (2 Tim 3:10-11, 1 Cor 11:1).  And he also instructed them to make disciples; to pass on to faithful men what they had learnt from him (2 Tim 2:2).  An important deviation from the rabbinical tradition is that Christian disciplers5 do not raise up their own disciples; rather, they raise up or make disciples for Jesus Christ.6  The people they disciple follow Jesus, learn and obey His words, serve His mission, grow in Christlikeness, and also make more disciples for Jesus.


Marks of Intentionality

Intentionality in the disciple-making ministry of Jesus and Paul is seen in the following:

  1. Focussed Discipling

Huge crowds followed Jesus (Mt 14:13-14) and gathered to listen to His teaching (Mt 5:1).  But He only chose 12 men for focussed discipling (Mk 1:16-20, 3:13-14).  He intentionally discipled this small group because they would carry on His work or mission when He ascended to heaven (Acts 6:2).7  Out of the 12, He concentrated on three: Peter, James, and John (Mt 17:1, 26:37).  And out of the three, He centred on Peter because He had marked Peter to be the initial leader and spokesman for the infant church (Acts 1:15, 2:14).

The focus on the 12 does not mean that Jesus did not disciple anyone else.  On one occasion Jesus sent out 72 of His disciples to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick (Lk 10:1-16).  When they returned from their mission stint He held a debrief for them to further teach and encourage them (Lk 10:17-24).  While the 72 did not enjoy the close, intense, and consistent discipling that the 12 had with Jesus, nonetheless, they were discipled by Him.  The difference is in the intensity.  Jesus was focussed on discipling the 12.  Ajith Fernando writes, “As the Savior of the world, he cares equally for everyone in the world.  That is why he came down to save the world….  But when he accepted the limitations of humanity, he took on a special responsibility for a few people, whom he trained to carry out his work after he left the world.”8

A similar pattern is seen in Paul’s ministry.  Many came to faith in Christ through his ministry (Acts 14:1, 1 Thess 1:6, 9).  He taught the people in the churches he founded and visited.  In a broad sense Paul discipled all of them through his teaching.  However, he devoted focussed discipling to only some; such as Timothy, Titus, and Silas.  Commenting on this principle, David Watson wrote, “Any wise leader will likewise concentrate his time with a small group of committed Christians, twelve probably being the maximum number for effective discipling.”9  In sum, intentionality (of disciple-making) is evidenced by focus (on selected persons for discipling).

  1. Clear purpose and goal for the disciple

Jesus planned for the day when He would leave earth.  He knew He would return to the Father after He had accomplished His foundational work of sacrificing His life for the sins of mankind (Jn 16:5, 17:13).  However, the follow through on His mission to evangelise the world (Mk 16:15-16) and disciple the nations (Mt 28:19-20) would be entrusted to His disciples (Jn 17:18).  The disciples had been with Him: they knew and loved Him, they were trained and empowered by Him, and they were wholly convinced and convicted about His person and mission (1 Jn 1:1-4).  In other words, Jesus intentionally selected and trained a special group of men with a clear purpose: to be like Him and to do what He did.  Jesus said, “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Lk 6:40).

Likewise, Paul had clear goals for the disciples under his charge.  The first concerned the growth of the disciple in Christ (1 Tim 4:15-16).  The discipleship encompassed the whole of life: personal (Eph 4:17-5:17), home (5:22-6:4), church (4:1-16, 5:19-24), work (6:5-9), and spiritual warfare (6:10-20).  The goal was for the disciple to become like Christ, or to be transformed into Christlikeness, in every aspect of his life (Rom 12:2).  The second goal was for the disciple to be empowered to multiply himself in the lives of others.  Paul’s instruction to Timothy is explicit, “And the things you heard from me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2).  The reliable men whom Timothy was to teach were also expected to teach others.  The intentionality of purpose seen in both Jesus’ and Paul’s disciple-making is unmistakable.  Chan states, “The litmus test of an intentional disciplemaking church is twofold: spiritual maturity and spiritual multiplication.10  

  1. A plan to develop disciples

A careful study of the Gospels shows that Jesus did not leave the disciples’ development to chance.  While the growth is not in a straight line, neither is it haphazard.  Jesus had a plan to develop His disciples.  Hull agrees with A. B. Bruce’s perception of Jesus’ three-phase11 discipleship development for the disciples, and adds a fourth.  The four phases are: (1) “Come and see” (Jn 1:39) – where the disciples learned about the person of Jesus, His ministry and mission,12 (2) “Come and follow me” (Mt 4:19, Mk 1:16-18) – where Jesus taught the disciples the priorities of the absolutes of Scripture, importance of prayer, the need for community, and the work of outreach,13 (3) “Come and be with me” (Mk 3:13-14) – where Jesus prepared the disciples to take responsibility for world missions,14 and (4) “Remain in me” (Jn 15: 5, 7) – where the disciples began to learn to live with and be empowered by the Holy Spirit.15

Greg Ogden expands the “come and be with me” phase with a four-stage development of the disciples.  Stage 1: Jesus as a living example where the disciples watched Him carefully and began to absorb His message and ministry.  Stage 2: Jesus as the provocative educator where He informed the disciples of a new kingdom perspective and dislodged wrong ideas and assumptions.  Stage 3: Jesus as supportive coach, such as the time when He sent them out on a short-term mission.  And Stage 4: Jesus as the ultimate delegator that followed His death and resurrection, and the handing of His mission to the disciples.16

Similarly, Paul had a plan to develop those under his charge.  Paul may not have used the term “disciple”, as a study of the Pauline epistles shows.  However, it does not mean that discipleship was unimportant to Paul.  He simply stated it in different terms.  Ogden comments, “The defining, though not exclusive, metaphor that shapes Paul’s understanding of the goal and the process of disciple making is spiritual parenting.”17  The role of the spiritual parent is to nurture and guide the disciple to move towards maturity in Christ (1 Thess 2:7, 11-12).  Ogden perceives four stages in Paul’s model.  Stage 1: Infancy – Imitation; Stage 2: Childhood – Identification; Stage 3: Adolescence – Exhortation; and Stage 4: Adulthood – Participation.18  Paul’s plan of disciple-making included teaching (2 Tim 2:2, 3:10, 14), encouraging (1 Tim 4:12), disciplining (2 Tim 1:7-8), and empowering (2 Tim 1:6).  However, his overarching philosophy of disciple-making is encapsulated in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  In the process of discipling others Paul taught them to follow his life and character.19  Paul’s philosophy of disciple-making points to the critical role of the discipler.

Go to Part 3

Healthy Churches Intentionally Make Disciples (Part 1)

by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches


The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 is explicit about the primary mission of the church—to make disciples of the nations of the world.  This biblical expectation of the church is here assumed.  The focus of the paper is on the issue of the church’s disciple-making intentionality as it seeks to fulfil the mandate.  By “intentionality” we mean that “everything in the church ministry revolves around the intention of disciple-making.”1 “Disciple-making” is defined as “the process of bringing people into right relationship with God, and developing them to full maturity in Christ through intentional growth strategies, that they might multiply the entire process in others also.”2 The purpose of the research is to determine the requisite factors for a church to successfully implement intentional disciple-making.

Secondly, the research is also about the relationship between disciple-making and church health.  That is, how does disciple-making affect the health of a church?  This preliminary issue is the paper’s first point of discussion.  It is followed by a study of disciple-making by Jesus and Paul, with a focus on intentionality.  The third section of the paper is a discussion of the main issue about the requisite factors for an intentional disciple-making church.  The research includes a study of the theology and practice of discipling3 from the Bible, Christian literature, and its application among churches in Malaysia.


In the paper, disciple-making is set in the larger context of church health.  In this section we explore the views of church health proponents about the relationship between disciple-making and the health of a church.  A healthy church may be viewed as a modern metaphor for the mature church in Ephesians 4:11-13.  Paul says that when leaders (God’s gifted men) and the people in the church (God’s people) fulfil their respective roles—to empower and to be empowered for service—the church grows to become mature (NIV) or perfect (NKJV).  The word “mature” or “perfect” is translated from the Greek telos which literally means “bring-to-an-end, finish, or complete.”4  The “mature man” or “perfect man” (andra teleion) may be seen as the end goal of the Ephesians 4:11-13 process.  Gene A. Getz posits that Paul uses the phrase “perfect man” as a metaphor to illustrate that all members of Christ’s body are to be mature reflections of God’s perfect Son, Jesus.5  This maturity, in the context of Ephesians, is to be understood in the corporate or collective sense.6  Akin to this view the paper uses the term “the healthy church” as a modern metaphor for the mature or perfect church, which is the desired goal of the Lord for His church.

In order to determine the level of health of a church many church health proponents have developed a list of church health characteristics.7  They do not fully agree on what should be included in the list.  However, they agree that understanding what constitute the characteristics of a healthy church and measuring a church against them, is critical to determine the health of a church.8  The church as the Body of Christ (Eph 4:12, 1:22) is often used as an analogy to underscore the need for and the use of a diagnostic approach to determine a church’s health.  Tim Koster and John Wagenveld in Take Your Church’s Pulse write,

“Viewing the church as the Body of Christ gives us a helpful way to develop an awareness of how the Holy Spirit is at work in a congregation.  When someone visits the doctor, the appointment always begins with the collection of certain basic data: pulse, temperature, blood pressure, …etc.  Those simple tests offer insight as to what is happening inside the body. If something is wrong, the tests also offer direction as to treatment….”9

It is beyond the scope of the paper to delve into a comprehensive comparative study of church health models and their respective lists of church health characteristics.  However, in relation to the subject matter of the paper, discipleship is a characteristic in many models.  Ten out of the 14 models researched include discipleship in their respective lists of church health characteristics.  However, the way the characteristic is described varies between models (see Table 1: The Discipleship Characteristic in Church Health Models below).

Seven models: Beeson, Dever’s Nine Marks, EFCS’s 10 Indicators, Koster’s and Wagenveld’s 10 Vital Signs, Lawless’ Church Health Survey, Searcy’s Healthy Systems, and Warren’s Purpose Driven Church use the word “discipleship” or one of its cognates for the characteristic.  Two models: Macchia’s Ten Characteristics, and Stott’s Living Church do not use the word “discipleship”, but their descriptions clearly indicate that they are about discipleship.  Getz also does not use the term “discipleship” but it is obvious that many of his model’s characteristics are about discipleship.

The findings from the comparative study of church health models show that proponents of church health believe that discipleship is an important component of church health.  They also believe that the level or the quality of discipleship in a church ought to be measured in order to determine the level of health a church enjoys.  Getz sums up the sentiment when he writes, “when measuring a church, we must have a comprehensive understanding of biblical discipleship.”10  If the quality of discipleship is critical to the health of a church, it is expected then, that churches must be intentional about disciple-making.  Chan comments,

“Spiritual growth is not automatic.  New converts and believers cannot be left on their own to grow.  There is an intentional follow-up of new converts.  There are intentional growth strategies for the development of authentic discipleship in the lives of believers.”11

A limited random survey was conducted by the researcher for the paper among 13 pastors and church leaders of English-speaking Malaysian churches.  Only Six out of the 13 respondents indicated that their church has a high degree of disciple-making intentionality.  The low proportion of churches engaged in intentional disciple-making among the sample churches might be representative of the overall picture of the church in Malaysia.  They know that discipleship is important, but pursuing the mandate through intentional disciple-making is deficient.  Hence, if disciple-making is to be intentional, how is the intentionality to be exhibited?  In other words, what are the marks of intentional disciple-making for a church?

Go to Part 2