Creating Disciplemakers, Not Consumers
The story of a pastor who realized his church’s discipleship method wasn’t working—and how they fixed it.
I don’t know any pastors who would say that making disciples is not important. After all, making disciples is called the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20). But deep inside, I believe that many of us live with an uneasy feeling that the structure and organization of our church is better at producing consumers than disciple makers.
I have been in full-time pastoral ministry for nearly 20 years. There have plenty of ups and downs along the way, but by the grace of God I can say that I am loving ministry more than ever. Currently, I serve as the lead pastor of New Life Evangelical Free Church in Watertown, South Dakota. Recently, I had an experience that forever changed the way I think about and approach discipleship in the local church.
How it started
About 3 years ago, I was at the EFCA Transformational Learning Cohort at the national office in Minneapolis; it was all about how we, as pastors, can do a better job of making disciples. At the time, I thought I was doing okay—maybe a few tweaks to our programs and we would be good to go.
But then the speaker asked a deeply challenging question: What program or ministry at your church is intentionally designed to equip Christians to go out and make disciples the way that Jesus did?
Instantly, I felt my forehead begin to sweat. We had all the programs that you could imagine—programs for children, teens and adults; life groups, adult Sunday school and men’s and women’s ministries. But this is what shook me: not one of these ministries was designed to help men and women go out and make disciples who make disciples.
With a great deal of intensity, I went back to my church and had a long conversation with the elders. We decided that we needed to focus our energy on creating a disciplemaking movement in our church.
Next steps in the process
It was encouraging to see other leaders in our church get on-board as we began developing better disciplemaking tools.
Eventually we decided to create something we call “D Groups.” These groups are made up of three to five people who agree to meet on a weekly basis for up to 18 months with the expressed purpose of being equipped to go and make disciples. We are very clear up front when we talk to people about D Groups: it is different from being a part of a Bible Study or a Life Group.
While in a Bible Study you sit, listen, learn some new things and then leave, D Groups are designed to go beyond soaking up new information. Instead, they challenge people to get out of their comfort zones and become disciplemakers.
Initially, we tried to make it happen organically. We thought if we just got D Groups up and running that they would multiply and flourish on their own. I make a lot of mistakes and that was definitely one of them.
You see, what we found was that there is some theological confusion when it comes to everyday churchgoers making disciples—some people in our churches fail to embrace the truth that all disciples are called to make disciples; not just some of us called “pastors.” We needed someone to roll up their sleeves and meet with people, answer questions and conduct ongoing training, so our church ended up hiring a Pastor of Discipleship who oversees D Groups on a weekly basis.
But D Groups alone are not the solution for creating a culture of disciples making disciples in the local church. D Groups are one part of a system of discipleship opportunities within our church: we call it our Discipleship Pathway.
What is a Discipleship Pathway?
We have learned a lot from Pastor Tim LaFleur and Robby Gallaty from Long Hollow Church in Tennessee. One of the things that they point out is that churches often make the mistake of giving people a menu, not a map.
Pastor Gallaty puts it like this:
“We have an obsession in American Church culture with massive church growth. We love seeing our congregation numbers explode. And so for many churches, they have expanded their “offerings” to allow as many people as possible the opportunity to see something that will allow them to get plugged in...What they end up creating is a consumer mindset: come to church, survey the different things they offer, pick the things that work for you and go about your weekly life. People just pick what they like and disregard the rest. What we need to give people is a map, a Discipleship Pathway.”
A Discipleship Pathway is the overall process of a church—using the Word of God and accountable relationships, empowered by the Holy Spirit—producing faithful followers of Jesus. Instead of just throwing a wide variety of programs at people, we must be strategic and think about what it is that we need to do that will help everyone in the church grow into the image of Jesus Christ.
Our Discipleship Pathway is modeled after the life and ministry of Jesus, and it includes four distinct components.
First, the congregation is when we gather as brothers and sisters, in most cases, on Sunday morning for corporate worship and the proclamation of the Word of God. This is significant as an element of discipleship because it’s what we see Jesus do in the gospels: teach a large group of people.
Second, community is comprised of smaller groups of 8 to 12 people, who meet in homes during the week. This would be your church’s equivalent of Life Groups or small groups. The language we use at my church is, “Community is the greenhouse where discipleship flourishes.” Jesus spent three years with a small group of men; we want to follow His example.
Third, there is the core. This is the aspect of Jesus’ ministry that is often left out in churches today. The core is the D Groups that meet to go deeper and for intentional discipleship training.
Fourth, there is the crowd. These are the people in everyday life that we are called to love and share the good news of Jesus. This is the point of all this work—creating disciples who make disciples.
The jumbo shrimp of ministry
Christian consumerism is truly an oxymoron. A consumer primarily thinks about their own needs, not about sacrificially investing in the lives of others in messy, time-consuming relationships. The gospel compels followers of Jesus Christ to love others by serving them and putting them first. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the cost of discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
As pastors and church leaders, we should be intentional about our churches building up followers of Jesus to become disciplemakers—not consumers.
The Discipleship Pathway took a good deal of time for us to develop. As a pastor, I thought about it, read a lot and talked to others who were further down the road. Our elder board got away for a retreat and the single item that we discussed was the importance of creating a comprehensive plan for making disciples.
Both the Discipleship Pathway and D Groups are new here at our church. We don’t think we have it all figured out and I’m sure there will be growing pains along the way. But it feels great to know we are moving in a direction that will challenge and inspire people to go beyond mere attendance on a Sunday morning to living the life that Jesus Christ calls us to in the gospels.