Discipleship programs. Discipleship pastors. Discipleship pressure.

So much talk about discipleship in the church today. And rightly so.

Following Jesus means obeying the Great Commission, with its command to make disciples of all the nations. But what does that mean? And how do we do it?

In a few other posts I’ve answered what it means to be a disciple and who makes disciples. But today, I want to begin to address the question: How do we disciple?

A brief introduction

Many helpful books have been written on discipleship. My (old) favorite is Robert Coleman’s Master Plan of Evangelism; my (new) favorite might be Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus by Mark Dever. Both are simple reads. The former tracing Jesus’ pattern of discipleship; the latter giving practical instructions on “helping others follow Jesus,” which is Dever’s simple definition of discipling. If you have never read a book on discipleship, I’d recommend you pick up one of these two—then read the other.

In the meantime, let’s try to put a few how-to’s in place, with or without any prerequisite reading. Without limiting or listing the number of ways discipleship can be carried out, here are three ways we might conceive of discipleship.

Discipleship by preaching—All discipleship begins with this core spiritual discipline.  While preaching by itself is inadequate for maturing a disciple; it is not nothing. Therefore, biblically and practically, it is the place to begin.

Discipleship by association— The fundamental means of discipleship is initiating a relationship (formal or informal) that helps another follow Jesus. Such association may come through adoption (a Christian  man reaching out and “adopting” a younger Christian man), enlistment (a younger Christian woman prayerfully seeking an older Christian woman), or conversion (a man receives Christ, whereby the Christian witness is now responsible to give this baby Christian spiritual milk)

Discipleship Logistics  — In any trade, a skillful apprentice needs good tools. The same is true with disciple-making. Thus, (1) the local church, (2) intentional conversations, (3) scheduled appointments, and (4) good biblical resources are four ways discipleship can and should be implemented.

Truly, these elements only scratch the surface of disciple-making, but in the next few weeks I hope to return to them to outline somewhat of a basic “how-to” for biblical discipleship.  Today, let’s just consider the first aspect of discipleship by preaching.

Discipleship by preaching

Biblical discipleship begins with a biblical pulpit. For example, Acts 14:21–22 reads,

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.

From these two verses we find two principles for discipleship.

First, all disciples are made through preaching—in one form or another.

Because faith comes by hearing the gospel (Romans 10:17), Christ-centered, gospel-rich preaching is the starting point. For no matter how good a “discipleship program” a church has; it’s disciple-making won’t rise above its preaching. Why? Because pastors are the lead exemplar for sharing the gospel, reading the Scripture, and applying the Bible to all of life.

By implication, a gospel-centered pulpit (shorthand for the weekly preaching of any local church) should result in gospel-centered members who are motivated and equipped to “preach” the gospel. In this way, the pulpit is not set against the pews, but rather the clear preaching of the gospel on Sunday empowers church members to proclaim the gospel through the week—hence, increasing the decibel level of the gospel. A disciple-making church, therefore, is centered on and sent out by a gospel-centered pulpit.

“Disciple-making,” therefore, as a church-wide passion will rise or fall with its emphasis (or the lack thereof) from the pulpit. In Paul’s ministry, his preaching called for conversion—i.e., repentance and faith (Acts 20:21)—and conformity to the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). As someone who modeled personal discipleship, Paul’s preaching was the starting point for disciple-making.

In our day, conversion may come in a Sunday service or a Tuesday lunch meeting. But the abiding truth remains: disciples are born by the preaching of the Word. So, we ask: What is the church making who has a complex system for “discipleship,” but little emphasis on the Word of God? Discipleship does not end with gospel preaching, but it must begin with it.

Second, all disciples need the Word to strengthen and encourage them.

Because the Great Commission calls for making disciples who obey all that Jesus’ commanded, not converts who merely “pray a prayer,” ongoing teaching is necessary. More exactly, disciples need to be strengthened by the Word and encouraged by people who know them.

As Paul and Barnabas returned to the churches in Galatia in Acts 14, they did both. When they traveled to be with the churches they had planted in Galatia, Luke records how they were “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (v. 22).

Later, Paul would write the Galatians a whole letter to strengthen them in their faith and to make sure that false teachers did not lead them astray.  He did this with many of his churches, and hence so much of our disciple-making efforts today depend on his church-directed letters.

Indeed, Christ’s disciples always need the Word of God and they need faithful teachers to help them understand what it means and how it applies. Every local church should have these gifted teachers—they are called elders. But local churches should also have other non-elders (godly, mature men and women) who give themselves to imparting biblical truth to others.

A disciple-making church

While every church has its own idiosyncrasies, a disciple-making church is marked by a committed group of disciples meeting regularly to hear the word of God, so that from the overflow of their hearts they might “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).

Indeed, disciple-making is not complex. It just takes consistency and enduring focus on the Christ-centered, gospel-rich message of the Bible. For this reason, preaching and hearing the gospel (from one of the pastors and from one another) is the starting point for all disciple-making in the local church.

May God fill our hearts with the riches of Christ’s Word, so that we might be a church of disciples who make disciples.