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The difference between disciple-making and discipleship

Through my years in ministry (there a lot of them), I have lost count of how many times I've heard a long-time (notice I did not say mature) Christian say, "We are looking for a place where we will be fed." Before critiquing that statement, let me say this right up front - I understand and believe that Christians need to be taught biblical content that will challenge them to grow! I just have a problem with what some people consider growth. Learning the content is not growth. It should be just one part of the means by which we grow. If we make "being fed" content the entire goal of growth, we will miss all the other means that God has establish to grow us, and we will likely miss the whole point of growth. Most of the time we call this process of being fed "discipleship." That's the word we attach to the concept of spiritual growth. But Jesus calls us to disciple-making. In fact, the word "discipleship" does not occur in the Bible, but "make disciples" does. Could it be that we are using a similar word, but not pursuing what Jesus actually called us to?

Let me start with the differences and similarities of those two words- discipleship and disciple-making. Since the word "Discipleship" is not in the Bible, I’m going to define it the way church culture defines it.

Discipleship – The program for growing believers. As in – There is evangelism and that is for lost people, and there is discipleship for Christians. Because we separate those two out, we have made "discipleship" all about learning (again, I'm not saying learning is not important). Therefore, we believe that if our church offers lots of Bible classes, we are making disciples. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when he said “Go and make disciples” in Matthew 28.

Disciple-Making – This is the process of leading a person to Christ and growing them to the point that they are leading others. That means that this concept incorporates both evangelism and what we think of as discipleship. That is a massive difference.

Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 28:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We all call this “The Great Commission”. This is our commission to go out into the world and share the hope of Jesus Christ. But yet the word evangelism is not here, why? Because it’s all rolled up in that phrase “make disciples.” Making disciples is the process of leading someone to Jesus, walking with them like Jesus did with His disciples as they grew and learned faith lessons through practical life situations. And through that relationship (not program), they will teach them to “obey” everything Jesus commanded, which includes this verse – “Go and make disciples.” So their growth is not complete until they are also making disciples.

When we see this passage we automatically start breaking it down into programs. "This is our evangelism program, and these are our discipleship classes that give converts everything they need." I think we just sort of magically make the word "go" into "evangelism," and then the words "make disciples" can just mean pack their heads full of information to make them mature. But the word "go" just means "as you are going." The words "make disciples" include the whole process. For Jesus this was meant to be exactly like the process He followed with his disciples. They actually never went to classes. In fact they were more than likely rejected by all other Rabbis that actually did have formal classes. These guys instead followed Jesus and learned from Him as they watched him and had questions and ran into things they didn’t understand or know how to handle. And guess what, they left all the "religious programming" people behind and completely rocked the entire planet for God. Again, that doesn’t mean I’m down on formal classes. But here are some issues we run into when we pursue "discipleship" instead of "disciple-making."

  • We lose people in the handoffs. There are a couple of ways this happens. First of all, a church that thinks programmatically, usually sees most of its “decisions” come from a church service or in a program. The way the follow-up usually works is someone from the church contacts them and says, “We are celebrating with you that you put your faith in Christ on Sunday when you marked your card, or in youth group when you raised your hand. The church gave me your name and asked me to connect with you to help you get started in your walk with Jesus. The church has a Christianity 101 class coming up, can I get you signed up.” First of all, that person isn’t going to answer their phone, they don’t know your number, so you will leave that as a message. And second, they will likely never call you back or text you back. What happened? I mean on Sunday they wanted to know Jesus. Now they don’t care? There are a couple of problems with what I just described: 1. This person raised a hand or marked a card, but they didn’t have a conversation with anyone. That means that you very likely got a temporary decision from someone who didn't fully understand, you didn’t get a new disciple. Most of the real decisions I have seen (not all but by far most) have come from real conversations. 2. This person has no connection to the people trying to follow them up. Show me that in Scripture? What we see in the New Testament is the people who led someone to Jesus walked with them and taught them to the point that they were also making disciples. Were there moments, such as Pentecost, where lots of people got saved in a big public gathering? - yes. Were there a lot of those events in the New Testament? - no. You mostly saw personal disciple-making. Can it happen other ways? - yes. In a world where people have no frame of reference for Jesus, the Bible or the God of Israel, should we structure our church’s efforts counting on hundreds getting saved in a public service and then eagerly living life with believers they didn’t know ten minutes ago, I don’t think so. Following Pentecost, new believers had a great deal of external pressure to jump all-in with the church. Pretty quickly they were losing their jobs because they seemed to be rejecting the Jewish religion, and they were often put out of their families. The Church was all the community they had. In the post-modern climate in which we live, I think it is better to create an environment where we are turning mature Christians into Disciple-makers (which is what Jesus called us to be, so we can’t be mature if we aren’t), and have the “decisions” come mostly from the relational spiritual conversations they are having. And when people accept Jesus, they already have someone who is just going to keep walking with them – no hand off needed, no extra sign up for a class needed.

  • Along those lines – Disciple-Making has the right definition of maturity. Have you ever met Christians that know everything about the Bible and they spend most of their time just poo-pooing ministry ideas that other people have? What causes that – pursuing the wrong definition of maturity. If we create an environment where maturity is defined by how much you know instead of how much you obey and how much impact you are making on others, we can become proud. Jesus called us to be fishers of men. That's the goal. That's maturity. Healthy mature organisms reproduce. The "discipleship" mindset turns into a dead end that doesn't multiply itself.

  • Disciple-Making will always include Evangelism and Discipleship, Discipleship will often not include Evangelism. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had where I am talking about disciple-making, and there other person says, "Oh yes that's so important, we are all about discipleship." Of course, what they mean is they offer lots of classes. But when I keep pressing on how they are training people to lead others to Jesus and then "teach them to obey" what Jesus taught to the point that they are leading others, I get a blank stare.

  • Disciple-Making is one of the most powerful forces for Discipling you. This is where we are missing one of the greatest "growth" tools in developing Christians. Jesus took these unlearned, Rabbinical school rejects, and let them follow Him around. He taught them as real life situations arose. And even before He had taught them very many things, He sent them out in twos to tell the world about Him. We tend to think that, until a person has been through years of biblical teaching, they aren't qualified to try to lead others. Look at Matthew. He threw a party for all of his lost friends to meet Jesus immediately after following Him. Why did Jesus do this with His disciples? Because it made them even hungrier for what He had to teach. They faced questions they couldn't answer. They faced demons they couldn't cast out. And what did they do? They ran back to Jesus and said, "teach us about this topic that we didn't know how to deal with." You will eventually get bored with "being fed." You will probably think the problem is with the place where you are being fed and find a new church. But the problem is that you aren't hungry. Investing in others changes that. Unlimited spiritual growth comes from investing in others spiritually.

  • Disciple-Making is focused on obedience. The passage says, “Teaching them to obey all things.” It's not just focused on transferring information. It's focused on how you live it out. That is why a "walk through life with you" approach is so much better than a "come to our class" approach. If we are honest, the typical "discipleship" model is more focused on how much someone knows than how much they are living it out. That's why we run into church attenders that know the Bible inside and out, but struggle to meet with the person they have a problem with instead of gossiping. Or they believe that knowing a lot and being a Christian for awhile entitles them to have their way. To be fair, they are simply living out the goal that we have set before them if our focus in more on "discipleship" than "disciple-making."

Jesus made this the number one priority, both in this passage and Acts 1:8. Churches do many great things, but the number one deficit in the Church today is disciple-making. That's the part that requires us to deny ourselves and invest in someone else. That's the part that doesn't include how much we are "enjoying our church experience." I'm all for all the great things churches do. But if we continue miss this - the main mission and goal Christ set for us, the church in America will continue to decline.

If you need help establishing a disciple-making culture in your church, let's talk!

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