In the New Testament, the word ” disciple” was used to describe Christ’s followers much more than the word “Christian.” Jesus commanded the church to make disciples, not just evangelize the lost (Matthew 28:19). In spite of this lopsided focus, discipleship is not always the norm in the contemporary church. The following eleven indispensable principles are things I have learned as a disciple maker for almost four decades.
1. Disciple making is re-parenting
In this day and age of broken families, many new believers have no reference for submitting to authority, understanding a Father’s love, covenant keeping and having a godly household. Since the church is a family of families and functions as the household of God, a primary function of a church in certain contexts should be to “re-parent” new believers, which is usually a very long process. Consequently, in order to make disciples, a pastor has to sometimes function as a spiritual parent as well as a preacher.
2. Don’t focus on crowds, marketing and budgets
Many contemporary churches primarily focus on gathering crowds through marketing and providing a great Sunday experience. However, in order to make disciples, churches need to prioritize pouring into serious believers that are committed to the cause of Christ. The church will advance the Kingdom through a holy minority, not through a compromised majority!
3. Be people-based more than program-based
Disciple making cannot be done merely with an institutional program, it cannot take place only from the pulpit or with a weekly event. Paul the apostle not only preached the gospel but also poured his life into the disciples. (1 Thess. 2:7) Disciples do life together, not just meetings and bible studies together.
4. Have a relational more than an institutional paradigm
Along with the previous point, serious disciple makers have a very informal approach with those they are mentoring and do not merely rely upon formal church structures. Many pastors attempt to make disciples merely by sending potential leaders away to bible school or by creating a bible institute within their church. These methods may be good for giving people head knowledge but will not produce mature spiritual sons and daughters. Giving head knowledge without a personal connection affirms a worldly construct that can result in creating gifted leaders without godly character. Many of these models produce church splits because unproven leaders are installed who have no integrity.
5. Adopt the New Testament pattern for church life
The New Testament pattern for church involves a lead pastor who is committed to one region until enough leaders are raised up to maintain the congregation. The assignment of the lead pastor is based upon the leading of the Lord and not politics and bureaucracy. The New Testament model for church also makes room for elders and deacons to be developed in addition to the lead pastor; hence, the lead pastor doesn’t have to do all the work of the ministry. Furthermore, the New Testament also teaches that the body of Christ should be built up in love by which every member supplies (Ephesians 4:15,16) so that ministry is not relegated merely to professional clergy. All this makes room for disciple making as it leaves the door wide open for people to mature in Christ through serving God’s household and beyond.
6. Espouse church life rather than a religious church culture
Many church contexts are so religious that it doesn’t engender genuine relationships necessary for disciple making. Religious cultures in congregations produce superficial relationships, church politics and hypocrisy in the followers rather than true disciples. Since we cannot disconnect the relational dynamic from disciple making, a religious spirit is one sure fire way to hinder a disciple making culture in a congregation.
7. Focus on developing godly character more than promoting talented individuals
Many churches are tempted to elevate carnal singers, musicians and gifted preachers to fill a need in their congregation; however, in order to nurture mature disciples, the church needs to focus on developing Christ-like character before a person is allowed to minister in public. When we allow spiritual banes to function in a leadership position they are tempted to be lifted up with pride and fall into a satanic snare. ( 1 Tim 3:5)
8. Develop leadership teams to anchor the lead pastor
Many lead pastors focus on putting out fires, visiting the sick, counseling the wounded as well as handling much of the management of the congregation. In addition to all this, they are also expected to preach once or twice per week.
This leaves the pastor with no energy to pour into potential leaders and stymies the disciple-making process. Consequently, the only way a church can regularly produce disciples is by the lead pastor focusing on building leadership teams who will bear the burden of the ministry with him so that they can focus on the ministry of the Word, disciple making and prayer (Acts 6:2-4). Apart from having strong leadership teams around lead pastors, disciple making is almost impossible!
9. Adopt the father/son wineskin to counter the orphan spirit in the churches
The Trinitarian model of Father, Son and Spirit is the biblical model for oneness, unity and households. In light of this, both the first and second Testaments are models of households of households under the leadership of the elders (or fathers). Hebrews 1:1 teaches that the prophets spoke in time past to the fathers, not the kings or priests, because the fathers had ultimate earthly authority (read also 1 Kings 11). In the New Testament, the qualification for elders (or spiritual leaders) was to be able to manage their own households well (1 Tim3:5) not that they needed to be great preachers, why? Because the church is organically a household of households or a family of families, just like the nation of Israel was in the first testament; hence, the church needs to adopt this Father/Son wineskin (The Holy Spirit seems to function maternally as the comforter of the church). This is the only model the church can function in that has the power to break the orphan spirit over potential disciples who cannot function optimally until their generational curses of fatherlessness is broken (Malachi 4:6).
10. Practice consistent corporate prayer for spiritual vibrancy in the church
Over the years I have observed that the most significant disciples I have developed had an intense hunger to seek God, not just say their prayers. Spirit led prayer opens the individual up to the Spirit of God who deposits into them divine passion, power and guidance. Since Jesus only ministered through the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1,2) then true disciples are those trained and endowed by the Spirit to minister. The best way to learn how to pray is to participate in powerful prayer meetings. Prayer is caught rather than taught. Acts 1 illustrates how the early church was birthed and empowered by an elongated time of seeking and waiting upon God. If the early church lived and breathed prayer to release Kingdom purpose, how can today’s church ever expect to produce culture-shifting disciples apart from fervent prayer! (Read James 5: 16-18.)
11. Build upon the local church paradigm rather than the para-church paradigm for disciple making
Finally, there are many well meaning para-church ministries who attempt to make disciples apart from the participation of the local Church (they are strong regarding mission, but weak regarding ecclesiology). They probably subconsciously reason, “Jesus made twelve disciples before there was a church, so we can do the same.” However, even a cursory reading of the gospels (John 14-17 as an example) shows that the church was always the objective of Jesus’s disciple making plans. As one who lived within the Trinitarian Father / Son wineskin, Jesus knew the only way to advance His Kingdom was to produce a family of families that would eventuate in fulfilling the promise the Father made to Abraham (that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed: Genesis 12:1-3). Hence, empowering spiritual and biological families would be how the original cultural mandate (Genesis 1:27,28) would be fulfilled. Of course, this involves a lot more than just getting men together for a weekly bible study. I have learned that, unless a person’s family is connected to a spiritual family of families, their capacity to release God’s purpose will be greatly limited!
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