The Basics of Discipleship Culture


By: Justin Anderson

Every pastor believes that discipleship is important. Most of us have memorized the great commission. All of us have made the point in a sermon that Jesus didn’t tell us to “go out and make converts, but to go out and make disciples.”

Yet how many of us have taken the time to build a discipleship plan that actually works? How many of us have built a discipleship process, but have little to no idea if it is actually working? How many of us have built a discipleship plan that would work, but can’t consistently get people to actually do it? How many of us are tired of my rhetorical questions? <Raised hand emoji>

Every church needs a discipleship plan. We need to teach people how to follow Jesus and be his disciple. That process could be built a hundred different ways, but we have to build one. For the next several weeks, we are going to talk about how to build a discipleship culture at your church. That’s right, not just a plan, not even a process, but a culture. Sounds fancy, doesn’t it?

Before we can build a culture, we need to build a structure or a process. Culture is the result of activity happening over and over for a long period of time. Culture gets built slowly, but plans can be built in an afternoon.

In this blog I just want to lay the groundwork for what I think a discipleship plan requires. It’s five steps, it's pretty straightforward, but you have to actually do it. Let’s get started.

1) Commit to it and call it discipleship

First, your leadership must commit to discipleship. It’s easily the hardest part of the whole church thing and so it requires the most commitment. Everyone loves preaching and the rockstars love worship. The needy people love counseling and the moms love putting their kids into children’s ministry (for just one holy hour). No one loves discipleship. Well, maybe not no one, but very few.

Why? Because it’s hard and repetitive and often not super sexy. (Although if someone could invent sexy discipleship, they’d kill.) It takes daily work and a long-term commitment, so what can start as exciting and interesting will often devolve into an afterthought. To combat this, you have to really commit to it as a church. You have to remind yourself - week after week - that discipleship is truly what the church is called to do, above all else.

And just call it discipleship. Don’t try to come up with a clever name like The Journey or The Way or something Greek. Call it discipleship. Why? Because no one else uses that word. Discipleship isn’t a killer band or a 1970’s cult or a Gen X college ministry. Discipleship is and has only ever been discipleship. It means being a disciple of Jesus. So, just call it discipleship and invest your brain power in actually doing it, not brainstorming another name.

2) Define what it is

Ask 10 randos in your church to define discipleship and expect 12 different answers. Does it just mean doing your devos? Is it walking through a curriculum? Is it just, like, being in the presence of the Spirit, man? Sure, it’s all of those things in a way, but not one of them alone. Which is the good and the bad about the word discipleship. It’s a unique enough word to only mean what it means, yet broad enough that it can encompass everything that it means to follow Jesus.

Your job is to define it in a way that makes sense to your people and reflects your process. Be careful not to conflate your specific process with what discipleship “is.” Define both discipleship itself and what it looks like to pursue it in your church. Be clear, be understandable, be intelligible, and be clear. You think I’m being redundant, but I’m trying to emphasize the fact that most Christians’ experience of discipleship is obscure. Clarify it for people, both the product (following Jesus) and the process (your plan).

3) Figure out how to measure it

You have to be able to measure progress to know if your process is working. This is admittedly hard. How do you measure spiritual maturity? We’ll have a blog post devoted to that in this series. Until then, give it some thought: How will you measure the success of your process, considering the fact that people are fickle, processes are often full of holes, and spiritual maturity is a really relative term?

Here are two ideas to get you started. First, measure the effectiveness of the process itself. Are people starting it? Is there a point at which people are consistently falling through the cracks? Are people finishing? The process isn’t going to disciple people ultimately, but it can certainly be a hindrance if it hasn’t been well implemented.

Next, measure the product. Are people growing? Are they learning more about God and the Bible? How do you know? Are they becoming godlier? Are they more consistent in their devotional life? Are their marriages and relationships healthier? Are they more engaged at church? Do they give and serve more? These are likely outcomes of a healthy discipleship process, so how would you measure those things?

4) Integrate discipleship into everything

For your discipleship plan to become a discipleship culture, you must integrate it into everything that you do. After you build the basic structure, step back and ask yourself, “How does this connect to the pulpit? Children’s Ministry? Groups? Men’s and Women’s Ministry? Worship?”

If your discipleship plan is ever going to become a discipleship culture, it has to be pervasive. The language that you use and the goals you establish need to be the language and goals of every part of your ministry.

For instance, if you decide that you want to use the language of “Following Jesus,” then nearly every sermon should include that phrase. The announcements/MC/Hype Man should welcome people to the church with that phrase. Your worship leader should make it part of the Call to Worship or Benediction. Your kids ministry team should teach kids how the characters in the stories are following Jesus. This kind of common language will build culture.

5) Do it yourself

If discipleship is going to be a truly central part of your church, so much so that you can honestly say that you have a culture of discipleship, it has to start at the top. Whatever you build, you’d better use yourself. If the pastor doesn’t participate, neither will the people. So, build something you’ll actually do. It’s likely that you are a pretty normal person. So what you will actually do is likely what other normal people will do. If you wouldn’t do it, neither would they.

This isn’t just an exercise in modeling the way as a leader - though it’s definitely that - but it’s also a great way to build something that works for real people. We’ll talk more about this in a later blog post, but it’s a really important point to establish at the beginning: Build a system that works for real people, not just seminarians. Build something that you would actually do, and then do it.

There is a lot to say about building a discipleship culture, and this series will guide your next steps with implementing this. Discipleship matters. This is our central purpose as the church. If you don’t believe me, listen to Tim Keller:

“I’m good with saying that the mission of the church is basically to “make disciples.” I like it because it safeguards the centrality of what the church alone can really do—bring people to faith in Christ. But I might differ with others on what those disciples look like. I’d say you haven’t discipled someone if they only have been equipped to evangelize and bring people to church. If they are truly discipled, they must be motivated and equipped to love their neighbors, to do justice and mercy. And they also must be equipped to integrate their faith with their work, namely, to engage culture. One problem I see is that many churches that insist that the church’s job is to only to make disciples do virtually nothing to help disciples grow in these areas, even though it is clearly part of the biblical job description for individual believers.”