Disciple Making in the Local Church

Introduction

The process of making disciples has varied throughout the centuries from monastic asceticism to liberal antinomianism. Currently, the question of specifically how disciples are made within the context of a postmodern society may be the most pressing question facing the local church. Without an understanding of how disciples are made, the body of Christ risks becoming irrelevant to its culture. This paper provides a detailed description of how Christian disciples are made within the context of the local church and a Christian community. The analysis first discusses the roles and importance of the local church, pastor, saints, and spiritual gifts as transformative agents, followed by an examination of both the goal and means of transformation into disciples of Christ.

The Local Church and Pastors

The local church, pastor, saints, and spiritual gifts all play an important role in discipleship as transformative agents. However, prior to role identification, each term needs biblically defined. First, according to Bauer’s Lexicon (BDAG), the term church (ἐκκλησία) means an assembly (cf. Acts 19:39), a gathering (cf. Acts 19:32, 40), or a community of people with shared beliefs, expressed locally (cf. 1 Cor 11:18) or universally (cf. Eph 1:22). [1] Rod Dempsey explains that the role of the local church is to accomplish the Great Commission by building up people in their knowledge of Christ and impacting the culture through transformed lives.[2] Furthermore, Dietrich Bonhoeffer highlights the importance of the local church by emphasizing the anthropological reality of each believer in the community being “incorporated into his (Christ’s) body” by being crucified with Christ (cf. Gal 2:20) and resurrected with Christ “even in his glorified body.”[3] Accordingly, each member of Christ’s body participates in a new creation status (cf. 2 Cor 5:17) who is “now truly and bodily accepted…out of Gods mercy” because believers are “‘in Christ’ (έν), and ‘Christ is in them.'”[4] Due to the organic bodily nature of the church, Dempsey appropriately asserts that the starting point for a healthy church must be on the health of the individual, not the health of the institution thus, the purpose of the local church is to facilitate the maturity of believers.[5] Accordingly, the role and importance of the church is to transform lives. With a correct understanding of the local church as believers in Christ, not an institution, the role and importance of pastors become evident.

Regarding pastors, Frank Viola and George Barna assert that Ephesians 4:11 is the only place in the New Testament that refers to the word pastor, thus scant evidence exists for such a role.[6] However, Viola and Barna commit a word study error by relying on English translations, rather than a Greek lemma search. The lemma used for the word pastor (ποιμήν) in Ephesians 4:11 occurs eighteen times in the New Testament and refers to a shepherd, guardian, or leader.[7] Furthermore, according to Moisés Silva, the meaning is attested in ancient Near East and Jewish literature.[8] Accordingly, the role and importance of pastors (shepherds) and teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12).[9] The pastoral role is important for executing the role of the church, to transform lives. Unfortunately, as Dempsey explains, the modern pastoral role is often more concerned with the institution than the individuals and focuses more attention on facilitating the growth of a budget rather than the growth of the saints.[10] An analysis of the role and importance of saints and spiritual gifts may now commence.

The Saints and Spiritual Gifts

The Greek lemma for the term saints (ἅγιος) may be translated substantively as “holy ones” or adjectivally as dedicated to God’s service.[11] Moisés Silva notes that the “designation was not primarily ethical in character; rather, it expresses a concept parallel to ‘called’ (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1), ‘elect’ (Rom 8:33; Col 3:12), and ‘faithful’ (Col 1:2).”[12] Accordingly, as new creations in Christ, Jim Putman, Bobby Harrington, and Robert Coleman suggest the role and importance of the saints (holy ones) is to love others by building intentional relationships “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).[13]

The role and importance of spiritual gifts is quite controversial in scholarly literature. However, James Stitzinger asserts that a spiritual gift is any God-given ability used for God’s glory in the body of Christ.[14] Accordingly, as Dempsey explains, the role of developing spiritual gifts, such as prophecy, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and mercy (cf. Rom 12:6-8), is to assist in building a healthy body of believers, which supports the role of the church–to transform lives.[15] The foundation of disciple making rests on a body of believers, the church, who are equipped by pastors to deploy their spiritual gifts in an environment of holiness. The question that remains is how specifically disciples are made in the context of these transformative agents.

How Disciples are Made

Putman, Harrington, and Coleman suggest that Jesus’s method of making disciples consists of four tasks: share, connect, minister, and release disciple makers.[16] The theoretical framework is important, but to encourage believers to do the four tasks without a specific method for making disciples involves risk. For example, the authors suggest that the discipler is to “help people to obey.”[17] The suggestion is not unreasonable, but unless a specific method of disciple making exists, the suggestion may result in advice-giving or manipulation that risks a defensive response that undermines transformation.

Dempsey asserts that church life is about helping “believers grow and develop into maturity” and that the impact of the local church “comes from transformed lives.”[18] Accordingly, two issues need addressed: (1) the goal of transformation and (2) the means of transformation.  First, the goal of transformation is wrapped up in two commandments, loving God and loving others (cf. Matt 22:36-40). In other words, the fruit of the Spirit, led by love, must exemplify a transformed life (cf. Gal 5:22-26). Second, the means of transformation must also be established. Wright asserts, “For the development of this kind of character (love), there is one thing above all which Paul sees as an absolute necessity: the formation of a Christian mind (cf. Rom 12:1-2).”[19] Next, Wright observes three principles arising from Romans 1:20-28: (1) the mind can grasp truth about God, (2) the mind is linked to emotions and longings, (3) the mind ultimately “determines the behavior.”[20] In other words, the believer must renew the mind with God’s truth to effectuate the transformation of emotions and behaviors. To determine the aspect of life that requires transformation, the disciple first identifies an area where the fruit of the Spirit is lacking. For example, if a disciple experiences jealousy that leads to unhealthy behaviors, then the thought causing the jealousy needs captured (cf. 1 Cor 10:5) and renewed on God’s truth for transformation to occur. The specifics of how a disciple renews the mind now needs explored.

Craig Keener contends that “‘renewing’ (ἀνακαινώσει) undoubtedly alludes to the ‘new’ life obtained by union with the risen Christ.”[21] Being transformed by God directly relates to a mind placed on the new creation status where, according to Bonhoeffer, the believer is accepted into the body of Christ, the church.[22] Wright explains the reason that the mind must be placed on the new creation status is due to idolatry, which produces a “failure to think straight” that results in “dehumanizing behavior.”[23] Revisiting the example above, if a believer’s jealousy occurs due to a longing for the idols of money, relationships, or even ministry success, then the solution is placing one’s mind on God’s truth. When a believer’s mind appropriates an identity that is in Christ, not in idols, the jealousy and resultant unhealthy behaviors subside. In other words, a righteous identity moves to righteous living as the reality of God’s truth transforms the believer.

Next, the disciple maker’s part in God’s transformation of the disciple needs addressed. Three important disciple-making methods were utilized by Christ: (1) inquiry, (2) empathy, and (3) encouragement. First, as Lee Wanak explains, “Many of Jesus’ questions were designed to begin the process of prospective transformation. Jesus asked lots of questions.”[24] Thoughtful questions create an environment of discovery and simultaneously decrease the risk of defensiveness that undermines transformation. Second, J. T. Holland asserts that Jesus remains a model for ministry due to his empathy, which is “the key to almost every encounter in the Gospel.”[25] Jesus extended empathy to many individuals, such as the woman at the well (John 4:39), which provided a transformative mirror that prompted life change. Finally, Jesus’s encouragement was transformational. A powerful example of encouragement is Jesus’s request of Peter to feed His sheep even after he denied Jesus three times (John 21:17). Through inquiry, empathy, and encouragement, a disciple maker can effectively facilitate transformation within the context of a postmodern society.

At this point, it is necessary to revisit Putman, Harrington, and Coleman’s suggestion that Jesus’s method of making disciples was to share, connect, minister, and release disciple makers in the context of the local church and Christian community.[26] First, William Fay suggests the most effective way of sharing the gospel is by utilizing inquiry, empathy, and encouragement within the context of community and Scripture.[27] Second, the disciple maker intentionally connects with individuals and small groups by utilizing the  disciple-making methods of inquiry, empathy, and encouragement to build relationships of trust bathed in Scripture and prayer. Third, the disciple maker ministers to disciples by using the disciple-making methods to assist disciples in identifying areas of unhealthiness and to facilitate the renewal of the mind on his or her new creation status in Christ (righteous identity). The necessary result of an appropriated righteous identity is Godly behavior (righteous living)–a transformed life. Finally, once a disciple’s life is transformed through sharing, connecting, and ministering, he or she can be released to deploy the disciple-making methods to make disciples.

Conclusion

This paper provided a detailed description of how Christian disciples are made within the context of the local church and a Christian community. The analysis first examined the roles and importance of integral participants involved in the transformative discipleship process, which include the local church, pastors, saints, and spiritual gifts. Next, the study described the specific process of discipleship by determining the goal of transformation, loving God and others, and determining the means of transformation, the renewing of the mind on God’s truth. Finally, the research identified three disciple-making methods necessary for making disciples–inquiry, empathy, and encouragement. Two practical applications are significant. First, all disciples have the opportunity for transformation by capturing unhealthy thoughts and renewing them with God’s truth each day, which provides the foundation for healthy emotions and behaviors. Also, all disciple makers have the opportunity to extend inquiry, empathy, and encouragement to facilitate the transformation of other believers – make disciples.

Bibliography

Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey. Translated by Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.

Earley, Dave, and Rod Dempsey. Disciple Making Is…: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013.

Fay, William, and Linda Evans Shepherd. Share Jesus without Fear. Nashville, TN: B&H, 1999.

Holland, J. T. “Jesus, a Model for Ministry.” The Journal of Pastoral Care 36, no. 4 (December 1982): 255–64.

Keener, Craig S. The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

Putman, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman. DiscipleShift. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Silva, Moisés. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

Stitzinger, James F. “Spiritual Gifts: Definitions and Kinds.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 14, no. 2 (September 2003): 143–76.

Viola, Frank, and George Barna. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Carol Stream, Ill: Barna, 2012.

Wanak, Lee C. “Jesus’ Questions.” Evangelical Review of Theology 33, no. 2 (April 2009): 167–78.

Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.

[1] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 303–4.

[2] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making Is…: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 39–40.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 216–19.

[4] Ibid., 214–17.

[5] Earley and Dempsey, Disciple Making Is, 42.

[6] Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Carol Stream, Ill: Barna, 2012), 106.

[7] Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, 843.

[8] See Moisés Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 81–84.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).

[10] Earley and Dempsey, Disciple Making Is…, 190–92.

[11] Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, 10–11.

[12] Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, 130.

[13] Jim Putman, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, DiscipleShift (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 140–42.

[14] James F. Stitzinger, “Spiritual Gifts: Definitions and Kinds,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 14, no. 2 (September 2003): 161.

[15] Earley and Dempsey, Disciple Making Is, 43.

[16] Putman, Harrington, and Coleman, DiscipleShift, 152–60.

[17] Ibid., 159.

[18] Earley and Dempsey, Disciple Making Is, 40-42.

[19] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 1120.

[20] Ibid., 1122.

[21] Craig S. Keener, The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 154.

[22] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 216–19.

[23] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness, 1122.

[24] Lee C. Wanak, “Jesus’ Questions,” Evangelical Review of Theology 33, no. 2 (April 2009): 170.

[25] J. T. Holland, “Jesus, a Model for Ministry,” The Journal of Pastoral Care 36, no. 4 (December 1982): 264.

[26] Putman, Harrington, and Coleman, DiscipleShift, 152–60.

[27] William Fay and Linda Evans Shepherd, Share Jesus without Fear (Nashville: B&H, 1999), 29. Emphasis mine.