Healthy Churches Intentionally Make Disciples (Part 3)

by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches

Click here for Part 1, Click here for Part 2


The study thus far has shown that the discipleship of God’s people is critical to the health of a church.  However, discipleship does not happen by chance.  If a church is to be healthy it needs to be as intentional as Jesus and Paul in disciple-making.  Four factors may be discerned from the disciple-making ministry of Jesus and Paul that are requisites for an intentional disciple-making church:

  1. A biblical understanding of the characteristics of a disciple of Jesus Christ,
  2. An effective process to make disciples,
  3. Committed and capable disciplers, and
  4. A church culture that promotes disciple-making.

The Disciple

If a church is to be an intentional disciple-making church it must first have a clear biblical understanding of the characteristics of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Chan envisages the NT disciple as a “certain kind of product”1 who is characterised by five marks.  He is: (1) grounded in the Word of God (Jn 15:7, Mt 7:24-27), (2) submitted fully to the Lordship of Christ (Lk 9:23, Mt 6:33), (3) walks in love (Jn 13:34-35), (4) bears much fruit (Jn 15:5), and (5) equips others and multiplies (Eph 4:12).2  Hull describes a disciple with the use of a “six-fold definition of being conformed to Christ’s image.”3  They are: (1) transformed mind: believe what Jesus believed, (2) transformed character: live the way Jesus lived, (3) transformed relationship: love as Jesus loved, (4) transformed habits: train as Jesus trained, (5) transformed service: minister as Jesus ministered, and (6) transformed influence: lead the way Jesus led.4  Avery T. Willis, Jr.’s MasterLife has a succinct definition for discipleship, from which a definition of a disciple may be easily developed.  He states, “Christian discipleship is developing a personal, lifelong, obedient relationship with Jesus Christ in which He changes your character into Christlikeness, transforms your values into kingdom values, and involves you in His mission in the home, the church, and the world.”5

Chan, Hull, and Willis provide a clear description of a disciple.  They may differ in the way they say it, but they are clear about the goal or the “product”—what a disciple of Jesus Christ looks like.  It is imperative for every church to have a clear biblical description for the kind of disciple they want so that they can work towards “making it”.

The Process

The second requisite factor of an intentional disciple-making church is that it must have an effective process to make disciples.  Chan’s, Hull’s, and Willis’ definitions of a disciple show that the development of a disciple of Jesus Christ is multifaceted.  Furthermore, inherent in the idea of development is that a disciple goes through phases of growth.6  For this reason discipling must be seen as a process.  Hull comments, “To keep discipling effective, remember: discipling is not an event; it is a process…. The church has the responsibility to provide the clear vision and the vehicles that bring Christians into mature discipleship.”7  However, the philosophy of the disciple-making process varies between the proponents; from program-based discipling to relational discipling.

Willis’ MasterLife may be categorised as program-based discipling because the four workbooks it offers form a complete discipleship curriculum.8  Notwithstanding, Willis envisaged that MasterLife is to be used as a discipleship process.9  Hull deems Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church (PDC) model’s “Life Development Process”10 (LDP) as a program.11  However, Warren clarifies that PDC’s five purposes are arranged into a sequential process.12  A model like the LDP might best be described as a process with multiple programs, and that these programs may be replaced with improved programs to better achieve their purpose—to make disciples.  Or, in the words of Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger in the Simple Church, “A simple church is a congregation designed around a straight forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.”13  The definition acknowledges the need for a process to move people through the stages of growth.  However, Rainer and Geiger lament that most churches miss this truth.14  Whether it’s one program or multiple programs, discipleship must be developed into a process.  In other words, a process is a necessary means to achieve the goal for spiritual growth of the believers in the church and to make disciples.

Only four out of the 13 respondents surveyed opined that that their respective churches have a developed disciple-making process (see Appendix B).  The researcher has no detailed information about their respective processes, except that three respondents (out of the four) commented that their respective churches use common materials to disciple their members.  The materials may be changed when necessary.  These four respondents also indicated that their churches have a high degree of disciple-making intentionality.  Eight out of the remaining nine respondents indicated that their churches have a low degree of intentionality and lack a disciple-making process.

Ogden opines that one of the major reasons for the “low estate of discipleship is that most churches have no clear, public pathway to maturity.”15  He also advocates a discipling process; though, not a process with programs, but a process through relational discipling.  Ogden explains discipling to mean “a process that takes place within accountable relationships over a period of time for the purpose of bringing believers to spiritual maturity in Christ.”16  He advocates personal discipling in highly accountable, relational discipleship units of three or four.17  Both Hull and Chan advocate personal discipling as well as the use of small groups in disciple-making.18  One respondent in the survey indicated that his church has high degree of intentionality but it does have a developed process.  He commented that his church’s disciple-making focus is on building relationships and trust.  Every leader in his church is encouraged to spend time, serve together, and journey with the disciple.  This is perhaps illustrative of Ogden’s point on relational discipling.

The Discipler

The third requisite for an intentional disciple-making church is for committed and capable disciplers.  If discipling is a discipler helping a disciple develop into full maturity in Christ,19 then, the former by his (or her) life’s example must exemplify for the latter what it means to be mature in Christ.  Chan comments, “If you are not positively modelling, you are not positively mentoring….because things are more caught than taught, modelling is tremendously significant.21 through relational discipling.22

A discipler does not need to have the stature of a Paul or a pastor/elder.  If that were the case then very few would qualify.  Chan is right when he says that God intends discipling to be for every believer, not just the apostles.23  Colin Marshall and Tony Payne state that “to be a disciple is to be a disciple-maker.”24  In other words, any growing disciple can be a discipler of another.  Marshall and Payne go so far as to say, “All Christian should be disciple-makers….”25  Certainly, a discipler with greater maturity in Christ and training in disciple-making is likely to have a greater impact on a disciple.  For this reason, an intentional disciple-making church must be about training its people to be disciplers. Marshall and Payne believe that one of the critical ministry mind-shifts a church must make is a shift from running events to training people.26  A related mind-shift is from relying on training institutions to establishing local training.27  The challenge, then, is for the local church to provide training for its people to be “vine growers” or disciple makers.28

Church Culture

The fourth requisite for an intentional disciple-making church is a church culture of disciple-making.  One, or even a handful of disciplers do not make a disciple-making church.  If we accept Chan’s definition of disciple-making and what is meant by intentionality then disciple-making must form a most critical part of a church’s culture.  Aubrey Malphurs defines a church’s congregational culture as “the unique expression of the interaction of the church’s beliefs and its values, which explain its behaviour in general and display its unique identity in particular.”29  In other words, belief determines values, and values are expressed in behaviour.  A disciple-making church is one that is convinced and convicted by the biblical injunction and teaching on discipleship and disciple-making.  This shared belief leads the church to establish values about discipleship and disciple-making.  These shared values are so important that they are expressed in the common behaviour of the people in the church through their lives and ministry.

The persons most responsible to develop a disciple-making culture are the pastor and leaders of the church.  Malphurs opines that the pastor is the key church culture sculptor.30  Chan states that “the key to a disciple-making church is the disciple-making pastor.”31  The pastor together with the leaders do this through modelling, teaching and preaching, praying, developing a discipleship process, and training disciplers.  Hence, beside the pastor, church leaders must also lead in the example of disciple-making if the latter is to become a culture in the church.  Chan states,

“The right kind of leadership must be developed.  The disciple-making process must begin on the right leadership platform.  Leaders are inspiring when they model discipleship to the church and are actively involved in disciple-making.  Once we have leaders being effectively discipled, they will be discipling others, and the chain effect will be multiplied downwards.”32

From the survey sample, seven out of the 13 respondents indicated that many of their pastors are engaged in disciple-making (see Appendix B).  However, only three out of these same seven indicated that many of their church leaders (excluding the pastors) are engaged in disciple-making.  Furthermore, five (of 13) indicated that their churches have a culture of disciple-making.  However, only two (of the five) indicated that many of their pastors and church leaders are engaged in disciple-making; another two indicated that many of their pastors are engaged in disciple-making, but less so among the church leaders; and one indicated that not many of the church’s pastors and leaders are engaged in disciple-making.  Since culture is set by the leaders, it is incongruous for a church to have a disciple-making culture when the leaders do not exemplify it.  Disciple-making only becomes culture in a church when the church as a whole; pastors, leaders, and members hold a shared belief and shared values about disciple-making that are actualised.


The church of Jesus Christ has a mandate to make disciples, and fulfilling the mandate is a vital characteristic of a healthy church.  However, the success of a church to fulfil the mandate is hinged on the critical issue of its disciple-making intentionality.  The research has ascertained that for a church to be intentional about disciple-making it must have: (1) a biblical understanding of the characteristics of a disciple of Jesus Christ, (2) an effective process to make disciples, (3) committed and capable disciplers, and (4) a church culture that promotes disciple-making.

The ultimate objective is requisite number four: to a develop a church culture that promotes disciple-making.  The reason is because, once disciple-making becomes culture, the church simply does what it is.  However, the first three requisites—the disciple, the discipler, and the process—are also important components of the disciple-making culture.  The more these three requisites are developed in a church, the more deeply will a disciple-making culture be established be in the church.  In this regard, pastors and church leaders must lead by example.  All the leaders must be engaged in disciple-making.  Furthermore, a clear and effective process to make disciples must be developed for the whole church.  The church must not only be clear about the kind of disciple it desires to develop, it must also have an effective pathway to reach the objective.  Good intentions without a clear and effective process will not succeed.  Finally, while discipleship and discipling programs are necessary items in the process, even more important is the discipling relationship.  Relational discipling by the discipler with the disciple is key to disciple-making.

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