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


2 thoughts on “Healthy Churches Intentionally Make Disciples (Part 1)

  1. I read all 3 parts and there is much to mull over, thank you.
    At the macro level, I suppose these are valid and no one would argue against them. As the maxim goes, “the devil’s in the details”. It is apparent that though many churches agree that discipleship is important, it is not clear why they have neglected it, whether in terms of intentionality or process or culture. What really are the underlying issues?
    Having a clear process is better than none. Yet, having a process assumes that it will act on the object-in-process and will produce the same product like in a manufacturing line. Same conditions, forces and ingredients are applied in the process and out comes the product. This becomes complex when the object-in-process (the disciple) varies from one to another. Age, gender, education, work, priorities, family life are all factors that may call for different processes even within a church.
    I believe many also struggle with how to effectively assess spiritual growth to ensure that the process has met the expectations. Recruits can go through boot camp and out come marines. I am not sure if we can apply the same scenario to discipling.

    • Hi KH,
      Thank you for reading my paper and sharing your insight. Why have churches not been more intentional about discipling? Maybe you can share your thoughts on this.
      As to your comment about the process, I certainly agree with you that the end product, the disciple, is not meant to be a look-a-like. Background, personality, gender, giftings (to name a few) will certainly ensure that each disciple will be different. But each will bear the qualities of a disciple of Jesus Christ. There are various definitions or descriptions of what they are. I think Avery T. Willis’ definition of discipleship is an excellent guide.

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