Let’s be candid and free the air about some misconceptions regarding disciple-making.
For most of the church age, the comprehension that disciple-making begins with relationship building has been foreign.
Without delving into the early church—which I’m more than happy to do (I’ll save you the homework)—reproducible disciple-making was never designed to begin at conversion, baptism, or church membership. It also was not designed for categorical stages, but instead, was a commission to reach unreached people groups.
Disciple-making was always (and is) about continually making disciples from unbelieving people groups for salvific reconciliation harmony with God and a sanctifying journey through life to exalt Christ. (Matt. 28:18–20).
Jesus called Twelve men, “disciples,” prior to their revelation of his identity. It was clear that these new followers of Jesus—at least to the Pharisees—took the identity of “disciples” (Matt. 9:14). It’s understandable to make an argument that they were covenant Israelites, looking for the Messiah—but not even Peter’s renowned profession happens for some time (Matt 16:13).
Likewise, a person can be seeking God, but not be a Christian. For instance, Apollos was an adherent to the baptism of John, and knowledgeable in the “instruction in the way of the Lord,” but Priscilla and Aquila “took him aside” and discipled him “more accurately” (Acts 18:25-26). Of course, we have no idea of how long Apollos was in Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila or how long they discipled him—but to “explain to” Apollos the “way of God more accurately,” denotes more than a quick conversation.
Therefore, all Christians are disciples, but not all disciples are Christians.
The discipleship process shouldbegin pre-conversion—at building relationships, explaining, reasoning, walking, and living with others—hopefully, while they are in the searching process.
Unfortunately, when the church shifted to a more didactic form of “discipleship”—between the late second to early fourth centuries, mainly due to heresies—the communal life-on-life aspects of reproducible disciple-making changed.
Disciple-making doesn’t occur in stages
I’ve read many times and, in several publications, that disciple-making is about getting to, and recognizing, specific stages. Here’s some of the problems and arguments I have with stages of discipleship.
First, the Thessalonian church was only 3 weeks old when Paul and Silas were snuck out of the city—but no older than six months (Acts 17:1–9).How could this church grow in reproducible disciple-making, with a city of a hundred thousand persecuting them, in only a few short weeks? The truth is—reproducible disciple-making requires Holy Spirit gospel transformation, not programs or categories. In the case of the Thessalonian church, they would have been considered “babes in Christ.” Today, none of them would have been selected to lead or facilitate our modern small groups. Yet, Paul was encouraged by the report of their “faith and love” (1 Thess. 3:6).
Second, the dilemma with stages reduces disciple-making to a course to be completed. As if we enter a final stage of maturation. Believers are always learning and always growing. The Apostle Peter was rebuked by the Apostle Paul for representing a false gospel—what stage would we have placed Peter into during that period (Gal 2:11)? I’ve seen some models of discipleship list a requirement for a “mature disciple” to possess full knowledge of the gospel—guess that leaves Peter out? Paul asserted that Peter stood, “condemned” (Gal. 2:11). I’ll rest in the words of the Apostle Paul—that God is not finished with me, yet (Phil. 1:16).
Third, similar to my second point, when disciple-making is viewed as a program within the church, what happens to those who are not involved? I’ll tell you. Those “disciples” do not view themselves as disciples because they’re not in a “discipleship class.” The modern church values Scripture memorization more than Scripture adherence. Disciple-making is a continual life-on-life journey, which should begin at pre-conversion.
My point? Why bother with trying to measure believers up? Every believer is going to go through times of doubt, anxiety, turmoil, bitterness, error, sin, and so forth—perhaps the church should focus on being more like Christ—in unity—communally—not individualistically?
If the church could have a renewed vision of reproducible disciple-making, looking back at the early church, not trying to reinvent the wheel, perhaps evangelism and growth would be the outcomes? Perhaps the church could reach unreached peoples in communities, cities, and countries—beginning the reproducible disciple-making process.
The concept of reproducible disciple-making is not about finding a believer and discipling them, but a non-believer. What if each believer focused on discipling a non-believer? What would that look like?
It would look like multiplicative new conversion growth: salvation, baptism, identity in the Godhead, teaching to obey the commands of Christ. It would look like gospel transformation. It would look like communal life-on-life—sharing in troubles, failures, and successes. It would look like accountability and personal relationships, with God and man.
Is that so bad?
Fee, Gordon, L. The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians(TNICNT) (Eerdmans: Grand Raids, 2009, 6).