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How to Create a Disciple-Making Church

Chris, the pastor of a church Roy and I were working with, frequently challenged the congregation to become disciple makers. But only a few people were catching the vision. Even for these precious few it was hard, because they were busy with all the studies and programs the church offered for their growth.

Chris always felt that he was discipling because he loved to teach. The sermons were rich with history, and the classes he and the staff and volunteers taught were filled with content. But most of the learning stayed inside the building and inside people’s heads and lives.

That began to change when some young adults started hanging out with Chris’s son at the pastor’s house. They would spend most weekends away from college there. It proved a safe place for spiritual discussions. In the life-to-life environment of their home, a few decided to follow Jesus, and Chris and his wife began to pour their lives and the Word into them.

 Modeling Turns Theory into Practice

Then, quite naturally, Chris began sharing stories of these new disciples from the pulpit. Others picked up on his success and began similar practices with the people in their lives. Discipleship went from theory to action in the life of not only the pastor, but in the lives of other leaders and many in the congregation.

Paul told the church at Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, esv). Imitating involves seeing someone else do something, then doing it yourself. When we are only told what to do, it is more difficult to comply. Seeing something demonstrated affects us more deeply than mere instruction. Think of the power of peer pressure. Social modeling and how it affects behavior has been documented many times over—just remember when you were a teenager, or ask the parent of one!

Chris’s church caught the vision for discipleship because of his stories and the results that others in the church observed. Today that church is a disciple making church. The leaders are involved in discipleship, and so are many of those in the larger body, even among their neighbors and coworkers!

Lifestyle DNA vs. Program

In our work with Navigator Church Ministries, we often use the IDEA model in training and development. Here’s what it stands for:

  • Instruction
  • Demonstration
  • Experience
  • Assessment

Our desire is to see everyone “practicing” and using the tools and methodology we know works the best. It is very easy for people to gravitate back to their old way of doing things. IDEA helps them develop new behaviors that become normative.

When Jesus wanted His disciples to understand and practice servant leadership, He provided an example of modeling the behavior. He did so by washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:1-15). Then He told them to do this with others, to do as He had done. He modeled the behavior He wanted. How effective would that message have been if He had merely told them?

Discipleship is Jesus’ main commission to the church: “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19, niv). It is to be a lifestyle, our basic DNA and way of doing things. How effective would Jesus have been in getting His followers to make disciples that changed the world if He hadn’t spent so much of His short time on earth being “with” them, daily modeling as well as teaching the things He wanted them to do?

Discipleship as a program is not sustainable over time. As I have often heard, “You teach what you know and reproduce who you are.” One of the most powerful things a church can do to create sustainable lifestyle discipleship in its congregation is to let them see discipleship happen actively in church leaders.

Start by telling stories of leaders introducing people to Jesus and partnering with God in maturing them into reproducing believers. Truth is, not all peer pressure is bad! When leaders model disciple making, others will catch the vision and run with it.


Margaret Fitzwater and her husband, Roy, co-direct Navigator Church Ministries, a mission of The Navigators. For 80 years, The Navigators have helped people grow in Jesus Christ with proven tools to equip lifelong disciple makers.

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