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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.