Just before Jesus ascended back into heaven, he gave his disciples one final command:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19–20)
Jesus tells his disciples to go out and make more disciples. While the evangelical church has done a good job of evangelizing and bringing people into the faith, we have oftentimes not been as faithful in the second part of Jesus’s command—to teach Christians to observe all Jesus commanded. That gets at the heart of discipleship.
I grew up in a post-Christian, secular environment—wonderful parents and loving home—but I didn’t grow up knowing the Lord. I came to Christ through a Campus Crusade chapter at Colorado State University. And the Lord set my heart aflame for Jesus, and for the gospel, and for evangelization. So, for the next three or four years, I got involved in ministries, but I found it hard to be discipled in the context of my own local church.
In fact, much of my growth and learning happened through parachurch organizations. So I went to my pastor one day and said, I would like to grow in my knowledge of Jesus and what it means to follow him. And he said, “That is fantastic. If you want to grow in your faith, you need to go to seminary.” Now, hear me clearly, I had a wonderful experience in seminary, and I’m blogging for a seminary right now. I have people in our church who have gone to great seminaries, and I want to send as many of our students to seminary as we can.
But the reality is that while I was spending ten years in the academy, I would walk out of my classes thinking, Why can’t I get access to this rich knowledge of God in the local church? Why does the church often think that deep discipleship is something that is dead and archaic and not relevant for today’s Christians?
In the last twenty or thirty years, many conservative, evangelical, Jesus-loving, and Bible-teaching churches have said that discipleship primarily happens in the context of community. And by community, they mean small group environments. The trouble is that we’ve forgotten that community is not synonymous with discipleship. Many of our community/small group environments have become merely fellowship environments; they’ve ceased to be teaching environments.
In my book, Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus, I encourage local church leaders to reestablish and retrieve learning environments in their churches. Those environments don’t necessarily need to teach the technical things—like Greek and Hebrew—that seminaries are uniquely equipped to provide. But they do need to be classrooms where the basic doctrine and practices of the Christian life are imparted. I imagine those environments answering questions about the basics of the faith: How do I read the Bible? Who is God? What does it mean that God is Trinity? What are God’s attributes? What has Jesus done for me?
Many studies have come out and said that Christians don’t know their Bibles well. Even seminary leaders have noticed that some students today come to graduate school without knowing the Ten Commandments, the order of the books of the Bible, or the difference between the Old and New Testaments. I don’t want to overstate my case, but if we’re depending on community groups, home groups, or small groups for our discipleship, our method may run counter to our purpose. It could be that we are simply putting Christians who don’t know their Bibles around other Christians who don’t know their Bibles. That’s just pooling ignorance.
But God has given the church teachers who know their Bibles well. And if those leaders are given an environment to impart knowledge to the church community, I believe it will better equip the church for ministry.
Because of our market-driven, consumeristic society, many church leaders ask, “What do disciples want?” We think about offering a product. But pastors and ministers should be asking, “What do disciples need?”
I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. Now imagine them coming to me every single night right before dinner and saying, “Dad, we want candy.” If you’re a parent, that might not be hard to imagine. What if I let my understanding of my kids’ nutritional needs be driven by what they want. We’d just be eating Paydays every day. But as a dad while I give them what they want from time to time, my ultimate responsibility is to give them what they need—the nutrients necessary to grow as healthy children.
The same is true in the context of the local church. We need to ask, “What are the indispensable elements of knowing, loving, and walking with Jesus?
First, disciples need to know the Christian story, and they need to know how to read their Bibles.
Second, we need to learn basic theology. We don’t all need to be systematic theologians, but we should all know who God is, who we are as both image-bearers and sinners, what Jesus has done for us, and what our eternal hope is—the resurrection of the dead.
Third, disciples need spiritual habits like prayer, meditation, evangelism, and fasting. These shape and form us into the image of Jesus.
Knowing the Bible’s basic story, basic doctrines, and basic habits will help us to stand in faith during the darkest nights of the soul. One of my colleagues at The Village Church used to say it this way: “We preach the truth in the light so that we can stand on that truth when it’s dark.” That’s what discipleship does for us.
I have a friend who recently lost her child when she was 37-weeks pregnant. She said, “J.T., I don’t know what I’d be clinging to in the dark night of my soul now if I didn’t understand God’s attributes or the hope we have in the resurrection of the dead.” Her words were a reminder to me that discipleship in doctrine, far from being distant and cold, is the very thing that we need in order to live in this dark and broken world.
If you think about those three things we’re imparting in discipleship: the story of the Bible, Christian theology, and Christian formation, so much of what we’re doing inside the context of the church is outside the bounds of those three buckets. In many ways, what we regularly do is outside of our scope. In the book, I call it a Frankenstein philosophy of ministry.
If you’re a small groups' pastor, discipleship pastor, or senior pastor, you have inherited what the church has done over the past 20 years. And you’ve got a lot of golden calves that are difficult to kill off. But we need to eliminate some things in order to focus on what is most needed.
One of the big crazes today in—and outside of—evangelical circles is the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a way to understand yourself and your personality. As Calvin says at the opening of his Institutes, it’s important to have a knowledge of self to have a true knowledge of God. So I’m not against the Enneagram. However, I sometimes wonder if many people are more familiar with their Enneagram number or that of their spouse or friends than they are with God’s attributes. If this is true for you, you may have misprioritized the elements of discipleship. The importance of who God is far surpasses the importance of your Enneagram score.
We also might ask, “How many Christians are discipled more by our 24-hour news cycle than they are by the Scriptures?” A pastor may get 1–3 hours per week with his people, but they get three hours each night with their favorite news anchor. So are we being discipled more by the latest political news than we are by basic biblical doctrine? It’s hard to have a heart that is formed with the story about what God is doing in the world when we’re being formed by other false narratives each day—regardless of what news channel you’re watching.
We have to provide better alternatives.
Surveys tell us that the most committed Christians now attend church twice per month—26 times per year. But what would it look like if we set out to raise the bar of discipleship? I want members of the congregation to be involved in Bible study, short-term mission trips, serving in the children’s ministry. And I’d call this essential for discipleship.
Inviting people into active service isn’t giving them hoops to jump through. It’s a high view of discipleship that cultivates growth rather than creating obstacles for people. If you think about fitness or running or weightlifting, we invite people into incremental steps for growth. We’d never say to someone who has never run before, “You need to go and run a marathon today.” Instead, we create a couch-to-5K program, and then a 5K-to-10K program, and then maybe a 10K-to-half-marathon program.
Similarly, churches need to be thinking about how to relate the various environments we have—whether it’s a home group, or a Bible study, an institute, or a training program—to one another to create a pathway of discipleship with various accessibility points for people who are at different steps in their journey. We want to invite people to grow their hearts and spiritual muscles in a way that is similar to how physical muscles grow—by stimulation, by dissonance, and by being forced to do things that are a little harder than we think we can do.
Instead of lowering the bar to try to keep as many people as possible, we need to say, “No, my job as your pastor, our job as your ministry staff, is to introduce dissonance into your discipleship, not just satisfaction. So that you’ll start building discipleship muscles and discipleship instincts that encourage growth over 10, 20, 30, and 40 years.”
This comes down to intentionality. We make discipleship our goal and then ask, “How does everything in our church gear towards growing people in their faith, presenting them mature in Christ?”
What’s ironic is that we typically do a pretty good job at discipleship from nursery through middle school. We want to see a first grader grow, so we’ll have a curriculum for them, and we’ll teach them the Bible. But as soon as kids hit adolescence and high school and college, we seem to be okay with stagnation. We’re just happy if they’re there because we have a fear of losing people.
But what I’ve found over and over and over again is that if we’re willing to raise the bar, people are willing to come up to that level. In discipleship, the church is calling its people to something greater than themselves. It’s worth it because Jesus is worth it.
Here’s one last essential element of discipleship. When the church raises the discipleship bar, we’ll be clear that every disciple has been sent. I want every church member—every Christian— to be a missionary in the context where God has placed them—whether that person is a mom at home with her kids, or a working mom in the office, or a missionary that we’re going to send to the field, or a church planter that we’re going to send to another city.
Every single believer needs to view themselves as someone who is sent on mission with Jesus. And so in all of the environments that a church creates—Bible studies and institutes and training programs and home groups—the goal isn’t, “How do we send a few people from these environments?” but rather “How do we commission and send everyone from these environments?”
When I was at The Village Church, we created a 36-week training program, a seminary-lite. Participants read Bavinck and Edwards and Luther and Calvin and Augustine and Athanasius. They learned the whole story of the Bible, and they memorized Scripture. It was intense. You might call it Navy SEALs-level discipleship. In the first year, we had 459 applicants (I was expecting 10). This just proves that people are hungry.
We had over a thousand graduates over five years. And what we told them at the end of the training program was, “You are now the most theologically equipped people at our church of 5–6,000 people. Your responsibility is not just to know God, but to help others know him better. So we’re not going to merely ask, “What are you learning but who are you teaching it to?”
In this life, we never graduate from discipleship. Rather, as we continue to grow ourselves, we’re commissioned to go and make more disciples.” Through all of my years in academia, I learned that I didn’t really learn truth until I was forced to teach it to others. The same is true for discipleship. We need churches where the lead pastor is not the only teacher. Rather, each person in the congregation should see themself as a participant in the ministry of discipleship—going and making disciples wherever God has called them.
Discipleship is not optional for the church. Jesus commanded that we make disciples. It takes intentionally thinking back through what Christ did with his 12 disciples and then believing that he can do it again now through the church.
J. T. English is the lead pastor of Storyline Fellowship in Arvada, Colorado, and author of Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus (B&H, 2020). He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter.