This teaching on discipleship is based on a conversation I had with a retired campus pastor named Max Barnett. Max spent 37 years making disciples on the campus of Oklahoma University. He is now a consultant for the Baptist Collegiate Ministry in Colorado, and on the faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas.
The model suggested by Max is based on what Jesus did with his twelve disciples. Jesus did not merely teach these men, as teaching is imparting information he trained them. Training is teaching how to do something with what your learning. Discipleship looks a lot more like apprenticeship. Jesus did life with these guys, they ate together traveled together, prayed together, and did ministry together. Jesus spent three years training these guys then empowered them to go out and do the same.
In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus gave the great commission: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” NASB
In this command Jesus told them to make disciples all over the world. He told them to baptize them and to teach them to observe all that he had commanded them. A key thing in this command is that the last thing he had commanded them to do was go in to the world making disciples. Jesus commanded them to start a movement. Notice he didn’t say go teach the Gospel, or go plant churches. Something Max had said here stuck with me: “You can plant churches without making disciples, but if you make disciples you will plant churches.” He told them to do more than just preach the Gospel or create situations where people can go to hear good preaching, he told them to be intentional about duplicating themselves exponentially. The mission was to make disciples that make disciples, that make disciples. Like Max said to me: “ Your not through disciplining a new Christian until they are making disciples.”
To answer my question of how Max took me to I Thessalonians 1:5-10: “5For our Gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. 9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” NASB
There are four main principles in this text we can apply to disciple making. First share the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Ministry starts in evangelism and it’s not you that is saving or converting this new believer it is the Holy Spirit doing the work, your job is to preach the gospel in word and deed. Jesus and the disciples evangelized in multiple methods. Sometimes Jesus healed physically, other times he dined with people, fed multitudes, and approached the unapproachable. The methods to evangelizing vary, however often it was relational and holistic. Second set the example. Who they were living among them played a part in proclaiming the Gospel and in training them to do the same. The Disciples set the example for those they were training, just as Jesus set the example for his disciples. Third get other people imitating you. First they were setting the example, as they were imitating our Lord Jesus, then those they were disciplining imitated them, and in doing so they were imitation the Lord as well. Fourth reproduce it. This is where the cycle starts. Go preach the Gospel and set the example so that those you are disciplining while imitate you, then others will imitate them. Then the gospel spreads virally as it did in the New Testament church.
Paul also gives us a warning in Galatians 4:11 that we labor in vain if the gospel stops with those we lead to Christ. The disciple needs to reproduce or the message stops with them. In Galatians 4 Paul was addressing backsliders who had received the Gospel but were sliding back to worldly teaching and forsaking the simple Gospel. He was then imploring them to stop falling back and it is in that context he said He feared he had labored in vain in disciplining them.
The example we have in Christ and the disciples was a relational style of discipleship. Often even the evangelism was done relationally, then training was done while doing life together. He taught as they traveled, and through real life experience. Often he would even pull them aside later and debrief after teaching others. He would tell a parable to a group them explain it to the disciples after, for example the parable of the sewer.
The application I came away from this teaching was a great clarification on what it is to be a disciple of Christ. A disciple is not merely a church attender, but an ambassador of Christ. God gives us a purpose to do not just to be. In the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) God promised to make him a great nation, he would bless him, and make his name great, so that he would be a blessing. Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. In Galatians 3:29 we find that in the new covenant since we belong to Christ we are now descendants of Abraham and heirs of this same promise. A promise to be blessed, with the purpose to be a blessing to the world. Abraham’s greatest blessing was that God chose to reveal himself to him, and give him a lineage through whom he would reveal himself to the world, and ultimately through which he would send his Son, Jesus to redeem the world. We are now part of that lineage, and we have a purpose, a mission to join in the ministry of making disciples. For some this means working in full time ministry, but for all this means sharing our faith, being an example, and teaching others to do the same. We are all missionaries, in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, wherever we go we bring the gospel.