Without This One Thing, Nothing Else Matters
The following is an excerpt from Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send. The book comes out July 28, but if you order it before then, you’ll get a free eBook (Sending Capacity, not Seating Capacity) and 2 video sessions from our recent Gospel Summit.
Many skills make for effective ministry, but there is one without which everything else we do is useless. That one thing: make disciples. Apart from that, all the money we raise, buildings we build, ministries we organize, sermons we preach and songs we write don’t move the mission forward. Without that one thing, we fail.
Everything else we do is ultimately in support of that one thing. Disciple-making was the central component of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19), and it ought to be the standard by which we should judge every ministry in the church. In his classic book The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman said,
The great commission is not merely to go to the ends of the earth preaching the gospel, nor to baptize a lot of converts into the Name of the Triune God, nor to teach them the precepts of Christ, but to “make disciples”—to build men like themselves who were so constrained by the commission of Christ that they not only followed Jesus themselves, but led others to follow him, too.
The criteria upon which any church should measure its success is not how many new names are added to the roll nor how much the budget is increased, but rather how many Christians are actively winning souls and training them to win the multitudes.
Kevin Ezell, President of the North American Mission Board (the domestic church planting arm of the SBC), said that the greatest obstacle to planting churches today is not a lack of funds, but a lack of qualified planters. Southern Baptists claim 16 million adherents in 42,000 churches, and we have a problem finding 500 qualified planters? Only 1 of every 320,000 Southern Baptists —1 planter out of every 840 churches—needs to become a church planter in order to have more planters than we can support. How are we not producing even that many?
Other evangelical tribes do not seem to fare much better. I once heard the leader of a large North American church-planting network explain that they were looking for creative ways to attract qualified planters from outside their network to plant churches through their network. Why would a successful church planting network need to look outside of its own churches for prospective church planters? Shouldn’t they be raising them up from within their churches? If everyone is doing the importing and no one is doing the exporting, how can the economy survive? And if our church plants are not effective at making new disciples, who is?
Many of the fastest growing churches in America are not growing by winning and disciplining new believers, but by importing them from other places. Maybe you’ve seen this happen in your city. Some new, hot church with great music comes into town, and everyone flocks there. That church boasts “New Testament-level” growth, but the total number of people in church on any given weekend has not increased. Reshuffling members is not advancing on the gates of hell; it is reshuffling the soldiers into new platoons. At some point, somebody has to engage the enemy or we forfeit the war.
I have been inspired watching our college ministry, because they do this extremely well. Each year they launch about fifty students into ministry, most of whom come from non-Christian backgrounds. A couple of years ago they sent a full-time church planting team to Southeast Asia that consisted of eight college graduates, seven of whom became Christians at our church during college. The next year they supplied us with fourteen interns to help reach more students in the area, all fourteen of whom had become Christians during their time in college.
The difference? This college ministry puts extraordinary emphasis on discipleship.
To reach more people, we don’t need better gathering techniques; we need better discipleship. Bigger audiences and more “decisions for Christ” are just not cutting it. If we are going to move the mission needle in America, we have to turn unbelievers into church leaders, atheists into missionaries. We have to get good at making disciples.
The good news is that making disciples is fairly easy. You simply bring people along in your spiritual journey. Making disciples is more about intentionality than technique: Discipleship means teaching others to read the Bible the way you read it, pray the way you pray, and tell people about Jesus the way you do. If you have Christian habits in your life worth imitating, you can be a disciple-maker. It doesn’t require years of training. You just teach others to follow Christ as you follow him.
I asked one of the most effective disciplers I know to share with me his discipleship “system.” I was expecting a fancy curriculum with a silver-bullet technique. Instead, he sent me a scanned list of verse references he had typed out by hand on a word processer from the 1980s. He explained that he gives this list to the person he’s trying to bring to faith and asks them to read the verses and then write out on a sheet of paper what they think each verse means and what God might be saying to them through it. He then meets with them the next week to discuss their answers. After that, he said, he asks them if they want to read a book of Bible together and do the same thing.
That was it. No secret sauce, no electrifying jolt of discipleship genius. Yet just about every time we do a baptism, that discipler has somebody represented in the lineup—either from him directly or through someone he’s led to Christ who is now bringing someone else to Christ. I think he is at least a spiritual great-great-great-grandfather.
What about you? Are you—personally—good at making disciples? Can you point to others serving in the mission now who were not believers when you met them? Are you reproducing yourself?
What a tragedy if we spend our whole life busy in ministry but overlook the one thing Jesus told us to do, the one thing Jesus said would advance the mission.