The Role of Church in Disciple-Making
Many disciple-making strategies exist in contemporary evangelicalism: Home Bible studies, small/cell group meetings, one-on-one coffee shop meetings, and myriad other possibilities. All these methods have their various strengths and weaknesses – but they all also have one thing in common – they do not work as a long-term strategy unless they are connected to the concept of a local church. The purpose of this small article is to address the role of “church” in disciple-making.
For the purpose of this article, ‘church’ refers to the New Testament term ekklesia, which literally refers to a local gathering. There are three kinds of local church roles in disciple-making: 1) The Disciple-Making Local Church, 2) The Church-Planting Disciple-Making Local Church, and 3) The Disciple-Planted Local Church.
The Disciple-Making Local Church
This is what most pastors envision when they say that they want their church to be making disciples. Generally speaking, a church that wants to be a disciple-making church will speak frequently about the following subjects:
- “We need everyone involved in soul-winning and reaching our community.”
- “We want to grow.”
- “We want to disciple people.” (usually using the term class or Bible study)
These churches have the potential to make a significant impact in their immediate community, if they are truly obedient in giving the gospel and following up with discipleship. Typically, this kind of church will either funnel new believers into a discipleship class, or have mature believers mentor them outside of the regular Sunday School structure. Other, more truly discipleship-oriented churches, will integrate the discipleship model into their whole paradigm: Sunday Schools will change into small group discipleship where every believer has the opportunity to mentor other believers.
This kind of church typically sees discipleship success as full saturation of the community with the gospel that results in church growth and maturing believers.
This kind of church is better than a disobedient church – but it is a short-sighted, and often inward-focused church. The greatest likely impact of this church is only local. If a church is not at least at this level, it is in disobedience.
This kind of church needs to be challenged to complete simple obedience, and needs to release its self-centeredness in exchange for Christ’s glory within its community and beyond.
The Church-Planting Disciple-Making Local Church
This is the type of church found in Antioch in Acts. Unlike the Disciple-Making church, this church does not see its own growth and success as the mark of obedience. Instead, this church sees its discipleship ministry as a tool for multiplying churches, beginning locally, but intended to spread globally. This church is not content to grow if it is not starting other churches. Churches and pastors who think this way talk like this:
- “We want a simple, clear gospel presentation that anyone (even a brand-new believer) can use with anyone.”
- “Obedience to Jesus is for everyone.”
- “Church exists for one purpose: obeying Jesus.”
- “We must be simple.”
To these churches, discipleship is not a method or a program (although it will be organized) – instead, it is a way of life for the members of the church. This church actively encourages and trains everyone how to give the gospel, and removes every distraction (even good programs) in order to focus on the main thing. This church does not try to bring in new members to grow the church – instead, it trains its members to start small groups in homes or other venues, with the goal of turning these into churches.
This kind of church needs to constantly be pushing people out to start other churches. Stagnation will cause it to revert to the former kind of church.
The Disciple-Planted Local Church
This is the type of church started by the disciples trained by the second kind of church. From its inception, it mirrors its mother church’s simplicity, obedience, and vision. Church plants almost always resemble its predecessors, just as disciples resemble their disciple-maker. If the mother church is faith-filled, obedient, simple, and Bible-centered, its daughter churches will be the same.
One of the biggest fears that church planters/churches have about new church plants is that they will get off doctrinally. Usually this fear rises out of several factors: Their own church is too complex, lacks obedience in some areas, and is very man-focused. Disciple-planted churches, however, have always been in less danger than other churches, because a disciple, by definition, is a follower. One who is following and obeying Jesus through the Word will not deviate easily. Established churches involved in helping to start others need to learn to take their hands off, and truly commit the disciples and the new church to the Lord, and trust Him to keep them. This way is not as comfortable, because it risks the reputation of the church and its leadership – but it is the normative New Testament way.
By the way – churches are the natural and necessary result of disciple-making. A disciple-making group that never moves to that level will stagnate in disobedience. A disciple-making group too closely integrated with the parent church will never spread out and fulfill Christ’s commands. A church – the local assembly of like minded believers who together desire to obey Christ – is the integral functioning unit of disciple-making. It should not be bound by culture or tradition – only by the Word of God.
This kind of church needs to be supported, encouraged, and prayed for by other churches – and released to obey Jesus without constraint and criticism.