We’ve Got Discipleship All Wrong

Thursday is for Discipleship

The surprising thing is that what I am about to write will sound radical.  It’s not.  It’s biblical. It’s what Jesus taught, which I suppose was radical in its time.  But it is not the practice of the modern church, so it is going to sound radical because it goes against all our experience.

Here’s my thesis:
Discipleship is evangelistic before it is formative.

In the typical church, mention the word discipleship and the first thought generated will be along the line of deepening people into greater maturity in Christ.  But Jesus starts the process with one of the clearest and simplest verses in all of Scripture.

“Follow me and I will make you to be fishers of men.”

(Mark 1:17; cf Matt. 4:19)

Straightforward and simple.  We follow him.  He makes us fishers of men. Condition and promise or, if you prefer, action and promise.

Here’s the stunningly simple question: Does Jesus keep his promises?
Obvious response: Absolutely.

So if I follow Jesus he will make me a fisher of men.  But the verse indicts me as a non-follower of Christ if I am not fishing for men.

[Further clarification based on feedback: I am not saying “unbeliever” or “not Christian”. That is not my point and not my place to judge. On the other hand, Jesus and Paul both have language that does cause all of us to analyze our own followship to see if we are indeed in the faith, see Matthew 7:21-29 and 2 Cor. 13:5 for just a sampling.]

Therein lies a major problem in our approach to discipleship.  We bypass the fishing and move right to the kitchen with fish that others have caught and delivered for processing.

It’s artificial. It is not the way of Jesus.  And it doesn’t work.

Jesus didn’t say he would make us cooks. (Nothing against cooks!)  He said he would make us fishers of men.  To follow him means that we fish for men.  A discipleship process that by-passes the start of the process misunderstands the whole process.

Our churches are filled with “fisherman” who never fish.  They don’t understand the process.  But it is worse than that. Our disobedience and failure to fish for men truncates our growth in Christ.

“What, you mean to tell me that if I am not fishing for men my walk with God will somehow be warped and underdeveloped?”

That’s what Jesus says.

“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”  ( John 14:21 ESV)

Jesus ties further disclosure of himself to obedience to his commands.  If you want to grow in Christ, if you want to become a true disciple of Christ, start uniting your “formation” with evangelism.  And watch your understanding of the resurrected One grow according to his promise which he always keeps.

36 thoughts on “We’ve Got Discipleship All Wrong

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Couldn’t we also say that an essential part of the formation involves evangelistic/redemptive relationships? Jesus as “friend of sinners” and a “drunkard and glutton” seemed to start further back than most of us do with the “good soil” people, but we don’t seem to take that into account when we “make disciples” of the found instead of the lost.

    I’ve recently been thinking about whether or not we fully believe the conditions and consequences of Luke 15’s Lost Parables. Would Jesus really leave the 99 for the one? Or is that just hyperbole? Would he really dirty himself on hands and knees for a mere coin? Would he really wait at the doorstep and run to the shameful lost son?

    And have we incorporated this deep theology into our disciple-making philosophy and methodology? Beginning with the lost instead of the found? Trusting that God is already on the move and on the search and rescue to bring back what matters most to Him?


  2. Yes, but …
    Close examination of the gospels reveals a rapid movement by Jesus (and Paul and Peter for that matter) from “friend of sinners” to “proclaimer of gospel.” In fact, we might be better to think of it this way: Jesus was the friend of sinners by calling them to repent and believe.

    In any case, the maximum length of time that Jesus could have been in a “redemptive friendship” was three years in terms of his public ministry. This is quite a bit shorter than the year after year, decade after decade in which most believers know or befriend unbelievers and yet never proclaim the data points of redemption.

    God is already on the move in people’s lives. We need to trust that and the power of the message. We are heralds not salesman.


  3. Jesus promises that when they follow, he will “make” them fishers of people.

    This indicates that being a disciple maker is not instant or automatic, but the result of a period of formation that happens in following Jesus.

    The problem is that people are able to become believers and even disciples, but don’t follow onward to the point of learning how to be disciple makers = fishers. They drop out of discipleship school prior to graduating to become disciple makers. (And go on with further learning – I’m not suggesting that learning stops.)

    And I suggest the reason is that we are teaching the commands of Christ to would be disciples as told in Matthew 28:20 with one major exception: the Great Commission itself.


      1. I don’t really have a blog, but when I do a presentation or write something, I put it up on my website for free download at http://www.disciplewalk. I also teach an online course – Disciple Making 101 – and self-publish a series of novels (google Ascending Grace) which use fiction to demonstrate the system of disciple making I teach. Thank you for the discussion you are carrying on here!


  4. Question: Who (in Jesus’ statement ‘follow me and I will make you fishers of men’) does the making? Do we become fishers of men by self effort?


    1. Tim,

      Welcome to the conversation. See my response to Matt (below). But I would also add,

      Jesus is the one who makes us fishers of men but that is not apart from our obedience. See again, John 14:21.


  5. Hey Marty,

    A couple of thoughts.

    1. “Follow me” – that’s discipleship. “and I will make you fishers of men” – that’s the direction Jesus takes all true disciples. I’m with you there. But did Jesus instantly send the disciples out “teaching, preaching, and healing”? Or did He take them along with Him, to see, hear, and learn first?

    2. What is a “fisher of men”? I would contend that it is a gospel-shaped person. Someone who first knows the gospel, and because he/she knows the gospel he/she loves it and is able and eager to share it. Discipling others means helping them first to know the gospel—not just hear it, in a simplistic evangelistic presentation—but to know it, and then to share it out of the abundance (qualitatively and quantitatively speaking) of that knowledge.

    Paul posits a very close link between depth of maturity (construed as full knowledge) and gospel proclamation. Col 1:24-2:5 makes that point pretty strongly (I preached on it last night).


    1. Matt,

      I always enjoy your comments Matt. They help clarify my points wonderfully.

      Just a quick response, since I am vacationing:

      Point 1: Not instantly, but … A close reading of the gospels indicates that the disciples are being sent out to do what Jesus did, very early in their time with him. A close reading of the book of Acts and the first and second missionary journey’s of Paul reveals that Timothy was gossiping the gospel all over a 50 mile area within months of his conversion.

      And just to emphasize the point… Woman at the well, instantly. Demoniac, instantly. Roman centurian, instantly.

      I’m not denying a process in becoming a fisher of men, I’m just saying that mature discipleship always yields a gospel telling man or woman, compelled by the beauty of the gospel, the needs of others and most of all, the command of Christ, to tell others. It doesn’t take as long as some people say. And when the process is drawn out too long it actually hinders spiritual growth.

      Point 2: quick response: too cerebral. While I agree with you and would have loved to hear the message you preached, your point is too narrow. The woman at the well, the centurian, and the demoniac knew very little, but what they knew was their story and their encounter with Jesus and they were all released to go and tell that to anyone that would listen.

      Length and maturity and depth of growth in the grace and knowledge of God should deepen our zeal to proclaim, but it does not follow that those who know little cannot tell what they do know effectively.



  6. Totally agree! I once heard if paraphrased this way: “Follow me and I will make you to become fishers of men.” It’s a process, but you’re right that as we follow Jesus, He works in us to become people who attract and win others.


  7. Excellent post. I wonder if we could avoid theses errors in practice by no longer equating evangelism with soul winning. Correct me if I am wrong, but there is no reference to evangelism as soul winning in the scriptures.

    If that is the case, then I wonder if Discipleship is ever really evangelistic. I do think it is always formative.


    1. Miquel,

      Thanks for your comments brother. It is always good to hear from my readers. I’m not sure I can agree with you on this one but maybe it is because your comment is so brief.

      My comments: I don’t use the word “soul-winning” anywhere on my blog. So this is an idea that is being imported and attached to the word “evangelism.” Actually, I think the problem occurs when we divide evangelism and discipleship and call them two parts of the one task called “make disciples.” (see my post on “Making Disciples is a Unitary Act” (here’s the link: http://wp.me/pGYIn-oX)

      So I guess I am taking you up on your invitation to “correct you if you are wrong”. Actually, all of the the references to euangalizo are references to evangelism but evangelism as a whole, incorporating the beginning of the announcement of good news and the whole process of forming Christ in the life of the disciple.

      So, I would counter that it is always formative and evangelistic at the same time. The objective is always to produce a holy saint who lives to gossip the gospel to everyone, everywhere, at every opportunity, in every way possible and appropriate to the situation and then to help those who respond to grow in Christ and do the same.


  8. I think we are in agreement but emphasizing different aspects. It sounds like we agree that becoming a disciple maker is a growth process rather than instant event.

    While it is true that Jesus makes “fishers of people” from those who follow, I’d like to suggest that the method Jesus uses is Matthew 28:20 – “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

    Here are the implications of that … (numbered for easy reference)

    1. When we go and make disciples (evangelism) we begin a process of helping babies become fully mature disciples …

    2. Fully mature disciples, just as in creation, can reproduce; they are disciple makers who can make baby disciples and raise them to become “disciples who make disciples who make disciples” and “fishers of people.”

    3. It is not the intention of the Great Commission that you become a “self-made disciple” or interact only with Jesus (unless you are shipwrecked on a deserted island), but be taught and mentored throughout your spiritual life by someone else fulfilling Mt 28:20. (Most of us are more abandoned than mentored.)

    4. The command that is most often left out by those who are following Mt 28:20 is the Great Commission itself – disciples are being taught to “be like Jesus” but not being taught how to make disciples utilizing the Great Commission.

    5. While Jesus makes disciples through you, and they belong to him, they are “your” disciples in the sense that you have a personal God given responsibility for their well being. You are helped in this responsibility by the entire body of Christ and by the example of someone who modeled that for you … hopefully.

    6. If you doubt #4, review your books and other materials on faith. Do they suggest that you, personally, are to go and make disciples … or do they delegate this duty to the church, the clergy, or to those gifted in evangelism? I was astonished in my reading for my DMin project, 2005-2007, to discover only ONE widely known resource on discipleship, outside of the church planting literature, that emphasized that obeying the Great Commission was the responsibility of every individual Christian. (This is beginning to change.)

    I appreciate very much the opportunity to share in the discussion, both here and on Facebook.


    1. David,

      I like what you say here. My only push back would be that in number 2, the metaphor breaks down a bit. On the analogy of infants, no human infant can do much of anything. They are completely dependent on the nurture of others. Not so with spiritual infants.

      Spiritual infants are instantly given the Spirit of God, have a cognitive capacity to understand at least what they were told and are capable of beginning to tell what happened to them immediately.

      You’re right the church planting literature is helping to change the situation in our churches, but we have a long way to go.


      1. Theologically, you are absolutely correct. But it is an idealistic understanding of spiritual infants.

        As a traditional church pastor, however, my current reality is that I have a church load of such helpless folks. The easiest way to explain this helplessness is to say that they aren’t really saved … but they still need a disciple making process.

        If we take “born again” seriously however – a symbol Jesus chose to use – I don’t think we should assume that every person emerges from the spiritual womb dressed in their Sunday clothes with their bible under their arm, able to read, understand and testify to God’s word. That would contradict the symbol Jesus chose to use, and the reality of most believers is that they fit this stereotype.

        And when I look over the world, I see many Christians regressing to this helpless spiritual dependency, crying and whining for someone else to meet their needs. Whether or not they are born into it, we need to learn how to help them grow out of it.


      2. I’ve got no problem with the process idea. But it has a lot to do with expectations. Neil Cole is helpful here–though I can’t agree with his perspective on the traditional church completely. One of his slogans is “Raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple.” Changing the corporate culture at an established church like yours is a difficult and delicate task that requires much wisdom and patience. (2 Tim 4:2 … “with patient instruction” [NIV])

        At my last church we worked a process of disciple-making that had the men out to the 9th generation and some of the women were out to the 13th generation before we stopped tracking it and just let it go naturally. Hundreds of people were discipled into disciplers and gospelers. At year ten we did a survey of the men and found that 25% had led someone to Christ in the previous 3 years.

        So I’m not against process.
        I’m not unaware that everyone is different.
        I believe we must be patient and not guilt people into sharing the gospel.

        But I do believe that ALL of our true spiritual infants, anyone who is born again, can immediately begin the process of telling their story to someone else—–if we tell them at their birth that this is part of what it means to be a disciple and challenge them to tell someone fairly quickly about what just happened to them–their conversion.

        We would be wise to prepare them for rejection, perhaps even to go with them. But the quicker we can help our people realize that full discipleship means, from the beginning, telling others the story the faster they will grow in ALL aspects of Christlikeness.


  9. Not everyone had a radical “conversion experience” when they first come to Christ. Oh, ontologically it’s radical. But experientially, not always… and, I would argue, not often. All they have is a cleansed conscience and faith in a promise. Perhaps that is sufficient “healing” to justify the kind of evangelistic fervor the woman at the well, the demoniac, and the centurion demonstrated. But if so, then you would expect this response to be automatic. The fact that it’s not automatic for so many people who are “saved” today is something that needs to be analyzed well.


    1. It’s also possible that many who are “saved” today are not “saved” in reality. I am reminded of Spurgeon’s famous quote upon meeting a drunk who proclaimed himself to be one of Spurgeon’s converts. Said Spurgeon, “Indeed you must be my convert for you are certainly not Christ’s.”

      I think what you are pointing out here is more of a damning statement about the lack of clarity and truth in our 21st century gospel presentations.


  10. Marty – I’m glad to hear of your positive experience with Neil Cole. My DMin project attempted to contextualize third world cell church methods into midwestern United Methodist Church settings. As I moved toward application, I adapted a lot of Neil’s stuff for that purpose. He has his own calling to a non-traditional church mission field, but what God has given him has been very helpful to me.

    As you describe born again, it sounds a feels and lot like the change that happens when someone becomes an authentic disciple (duh). What are we to do with the multitudes who are believers, often worshipers, who are not yet there? And also those who are “witnessed to” out in the street and accept Christ and never show up in church? Despite what the culture experts tell us, it’s getting hard for me to find someone who is unchurched who hasn’t in some way been involved in religion or accepted Christ as a result of “hit and run” witnessing. That’s who I want to put in the “infant” category … believers but not yet disciples. These are the people who are like sheep without a shepherd – that need a physician.

    What should we do with them?


  11. I am so happy to hear part of the truth (left out component of discipleship) which is the foundation of discipleship. I totally agree to the truth for cannot do against the truth but for the truth. Yes we got to go back to the simplicity and ways of Jesus Christ which even the unlearned disciples were able to follow and effectively implement without much monetary costs.


  12. This has been very interesting. Your preaching has really made me rethink discipleship and what I’m doing with my life. I want to dig in deeper. Do you have resources that would be helpful Marty? Neil Cole?

    I also would love to hear your thoughts on various methods of evangelism sometime. Some books that I remember better that I’ve read on the topic of evangelism include “Tell it Often, Tell it Well” and “The Gospel and Personal Evangelism” – Mark Dever


    1. Those are two great books on evangelism. I recommend them all the time. A couple of others are THE DANGERS OF USER-FRIENDLY EVANGELISM (Bailey Smith) and SHARING JESUS WITHOUT FEAR (Bill Fay). I especially like the last one.


        1. The modern church is a mess with regard to discipleship. many of my posts reflect attempts to rescue us from some sloppy thinking. Even the question, “what about evangelism” or “what about discipleship” reflects this.

          The “two” are one. They are two sides of the same coin. They are impossible to separate. Making disciples is a unitary act. It is always both evangelism and spiritual formation. See my Thursday and Monday posts all over the blog. All that being said, two people that in my opinion are saying a lot of things that seem to best reflect the unitary nature of making disciples are Neil Cole (See Cultivating a Heart for God) and Bill Hull (who has written a half a dozen books on the discipleship.)

          Why don’t you email me at Chosen-rebel@hotmail.com and set up a time where we can sit down over a cup of java and talk about some of these things?


  13. Marty, based on one of your comments here it sounds like the One to One discipleship program developed at a previous church you were a part of you now may see as less effect than you believe at the time it was used. Is this a correct inference, if so do you see that model as redeemable if you will with changes or do you see it as a good honest attempt that may have missed the mark?


    1. Hey Ed,
      Good to hear from you. I hope you are doing well. Say hello to Carolyn for me.

      No, not necessarily. One-to-one discipleship is still a viable process. But like anything human, it should always be amenable to change and revision and improvement. At New Song (the church you referred to) we tried to keep making disciples as a unitary act. When we succeeded, we produced better reproducing disciples quicker than when we allowed the two aspects of making disciples (evangelism and discipleship) to drift apart.


      1. So, and forgive me I do not want to get in over my head here, but what you are saying is the one to one program worked well when the lesson on sharing the faith was done seriously as intended. It was through that lesson Craig Strum and Marty Vavra brought me to Christ, but if the process is not done properly this material becomes weakened if you will by the failure to follow through on the actually sharing of faith. On a related note I find myself reconnected to a college friend who I lost touch with shortly after being a Christian.

        I shared my faith with him then, and do so again now in the context of our conversations. I find [when I ] share Christ with him it builds up not just my own faith, but my knowledge as well. He is a proclaimed secular humanist with Buddhist leanings. In talking with him I find myself looking to my Bible, as well as other resources, and members and mentors of the faith to answer his question or propose questions of my own. Is this the sort of experience on some level when you talk of discipleship as a unitary act? Sorry if I am off base here just wondering?


        1. Ed,
          Yes, you are on the right track. Jesus never said evangelize the world. He said “make disciples”. At one time in American church history the church emphasized the proclaiming of the gospel and did very little to help people grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. At another time the emphasis was on education. At still another time the emphasis was on growth. Now the hot button term is “spiritual formation.”

          But for Jesus (and Paul, and John the Baptist, and Peter, and John) making disciples was a unitary act. Evangelism always included in the gospel record, a call to radical growth and transformation and the call to radical growth and transformation always includes new disciples telling the story of the gospel to others.

          The discipler always learns better (and grows better) when he is engaged not just in growth processes for other believers and himself but in evangelism of others who have not yet believed. That was your experience as you started to share Christ with your Buddhist leaning friend. You had to study harder, pray harder, believe more deeply what you yourself believe and as you did, you grew because you were being obedient to the call to evangelize, better, make-disciples.


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