Disciples Making Disciples?

One of the most recent trends and phrases among the “missional movement” is the notion of developing congregations who make “disciples that make disciples.” It sounds noble. It sounds good. In fact, it sounds rather biblical. After all, isn’t the point of the Holy Christian Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ? Absolutely! However, what this actually looks like, and exactly how this should take place amid the Holy Christian Church, is the issue today.

But first, a word to my critics: Please note that though I may often critique elements of the “missional movement,” I am by no means “anti-missional” in the sense of not desiring all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), nor am I above receiving, or even making, a critique of historic Lutheran practices.

I do love people and I do love Lutheran doctrine. And when it comes down to it, my practice as pastor is in fact to love people more than doctrine, with a tendency to err on the side of grace, while simultaneously striving and straining through the grey areas of pastoral care to uphold my doctrine, but letting my “desire for all people to be saved” be that which guides me. I am not as rigid as some of my readers may think. Perhaps my forthright desire to let Lutheran theology guide Lutheran practice makes me appear more unyielding than I truly am. Nonetheless, I do acknowledge that I have an affinity for a particular understanding and practice of the mission of the Holy Christian Church, along with the desire for honest, collegial, and frank discussion about that mission from a distinctly Lutheran perspective. Thus, on to the task at hand.  

Yesterday’s post from the missional website vergnetwork.org, entitled, “A Call to Radical Disciple Making,” articulates the urgent necessity to form congregations that “make disciples who make disciples”:

Disciple-making takes place through intentional relationships where spiritual life and maturity can be passed on from one person to another. A pastor cannot personally disciple hundreds or thousands of people by himself, but that is what our current church model expects him to do. The Sunday morning sermon is not discipleship. We need a new biblical model for doing church that equips all believers to be disciple-makers, not just the pastor. Here is one notable example from which we can learn.

From its founding, Real Life Ministries of Post Falls, Idaho has been committed to creating a new model for doing church. They determined that absolutely everything they did would be to achieve the goal of making disciples who can make disciples. They are based in a small town of just 26,000, but in just 12 years they have grown from a church plant of four couples to 8,500 members. They have also established six other church plants in their area, each with over 1,000 members. From 2002-2006, they were the fastest growing non-de- nominational church in America.

Every year hundreds of people come to faith in Christ for the first time through their 600+ home-based discipleship groups. It is not the pastor of the church who is leading these people to faith. It is the disciples of this church making new disciples… The church provides frequent training for church leaders in their discipleship model… The global Church must learn how to make disciples who can make disciples, or the task of discipling the nations will always remain a distant and unattainable vision. We must answer God’s call to radical disciple-making. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/11/10/a-call-to-radical-disciple-making-part-2/

The congregation is to be commended for its zeal and apparent growth of members. However, the claims of outstanding growth are not new. Countless other evangelical churches have held this title before them, and interestingly enough, through different methods.

The challenge, at least from my perspective, is that there is so much ambiguity about what a “disciple who makes a disciple” truly is. There are countless words written on this, but I still have yet to know what this truly means. First, what actually counts as a disciple? Are they measured on what they know? How they worship? Who they love? How they act? How much they give? Or whether or not they have ever used drugs, or alcohol, or had sex before marriage? And second, once this is determined, what do they then need to teach, pass on, give, and do to truly be a disciple who makes disciples? Is it just words about Jesus? Or do they actually give Jesus, i.e. absolve sins? Do they baptize? Do they confirm? Is doctrinal specificity necessary or just the basics about Jesus? And, if just the basics, which ones?

I ask not to be facetious, but to provide perspective for the Lutheran tradition of disciple making as well. The Lutheran tradition has historically used ritual/liturgical word and sacrament worship and formal catechesis to form disciples, but where parents also certainly disciple their children, along with neighbors serving and witnessing to neighbors. However, the recent claim is, “Look at the Lutheran Church. It’s shrinking!” which has caused some to conclude our historic forms of disciple making must not be working. And when compared with the “fastest growing” congregations like the one above, the corresponding conclusion is “Their discipling must be better, so let’s do what they are doing!”

However, what is being revealed is that what these mega churches are “doing” is not actually creating “disciples who make disciples.” Membership may be growing, but discipleship is not. One need only look at the flagship of all mega churches, Willow Creek, to see what has actually been happening and how it is actually a systemic issue among multiple churches of the same vain.

Since 1975, Willow Creek has avoided conventional church approaches, using its Sunday services to reach the unchurched through polished music, multimedia, and sermons referencing popular culture and other familiar themes. The church’s leadership believed the approach would attract people searching for answers, bring them into a relationship with Christ, and then capitalize on their contagious fervor to evangelize others.

 But the analysis in Reveal, which surveyed congregants at Willow Creek and six other churches, suggested that evangelistic impact was greater from those who self-reported as “close to Christ” or “Christ-centered” than from new church attendees. In addition, a quarter of the “close to Christ” and “Christcentered” crowd described themselves as spiritually “stalled” or “dissatisfied” with the role of the church in their spiritual growth. Even more alarming to Willow Creek: About a quarter of the “stalled” segment and 63 percent of the “dissatisfied” segment contemplated leaving the church.

 As Willow Creek expanded its research into churches of varying geographic locations, sizes, and ethnic and denominational backgrounds, the church said the same general pattern emerged, an indication that the problem extends beyond Willow Creek. (“Willow Creek’s Huge Shift,” Christianity Today, 5-15-2008, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/5.13.html)

Couple this with the September 14, 2011 post of missional guru Mike Breen (ironically also from http://www.vergnetwork.org) and the push to have congregations that “make disciples who make disciples” becomes suspect at best. As Breen summed it up: This is the crux of it: The reason the missional movement will fail is because most people/communities in the Western church are pretty bad at making disciples. Without a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional thing you launch will be completely unsustainable. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/09/14/mike-breen-why-the-missional-movement-will-fail/

In the end, perhaps Lutherans should consider simply staying with the long proven disciple making process they have had for centuries?

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge  of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


Rev. Woodford


8 responses to “Disciples Making Disciples?

  1. Rev. Woodford,

    Thank you for an excellent post. You bring up issues that we need to be talking about. And, as such, I find myself asking a few questions.

    First you say: “The Lutheran tradition has historically used ritual/liturgical word and sacrament worship and formal catechesis to form disciples, but where parents also certainly disciple their children, along with neighbors serving and witnessing to neighbors.”

    This process was indeed used to make me a disciple. As such, I can personally say that it works! However, I’m deeply saddened to report that of the 12 confirmands in my group, I know of only one other than me who actively practices the faith. Certainly there are others who still may believe, even if they have ceased to be attenders of churches. I readily admit that we are to be makers of disciples, not attenders.

    But we recently had a “reunion” of sorts and I could not help but struggle with the fact only a couple of us were still actively practicing Christianity (attending Divine Service, receiving the sacraments, active participation in growing in God’s Word, meeting together, etc.). I know my experience is not alone, and I know it is not the only outcome. I know there are successful stories that show my own experience is not the same as everyone’s. But all the stats I see is that my experience represents the majority.

    So I have this question: If we choose to reject numerical growth on the basis that it reeks of Church Growth ideology (and I don’t deny that it does), then how do we respond to the fact that the vast majority of confirmands do not stay in the church?

    When I read the book of Acts, I see the Holy Spirit (through His servant Luke) noting for the record the numbers of folks being added to the church on many different occasions. I don’t appeal to this fact to somehow import an ideology where numbers are our measurement for success, but rather to note that it seems we shouldn’t ignore them.

    I interpret your writings here to suggest that we should not blindly clamor for the activities that the evangelicals are participating in. You cite some of their very own leaders and their own admissions of failure as good reason for not jumping on their bandwagon. I agree with your thoughts on this!

    I don’t seek to put words in your mouth, but my further interpretation of your writings suggest that you are saying: “Since we see the evangelicals are not faring any better, then that means our historic practices aren’t so bad after all!” I know you would quickly point out that theologically we validate our practices from Scripture and the Confessions (no argument there), but my point is to talk about the elephant in the room: at present rate of decline combined with economic realities, our church body (as an organization) could very well be GONE in less than 20 years.

    So we agree we have the best doctrine. We agree that jumping on bandwagons is not the answer. But does that mean we just ignore the realities we are facing?

    Are there ways we can alter our approach to ministry according to the first article of the creed without sacrificing our adherence to the other two articles?

    Are we, as LCMS Lutherans, even capable of asking these questions without freaking out and hissing and gnashing our teeth and screaming CHURCH GROWTH?

    I appreciate your request for honest collegial dialogue, because it seems to me that there might be possibilities out there beyond the extremes that have been presented so far.

    • Dear Mark,

      Outstanding remarks and great questions!

      This is precisely the type of dialogue I hope to facilitate. What you have asked helps us to begin honestly assessing and diagnosing the maladies that are presently afflicting our Synod. What I offer here is sure to be incomplete and merely a beginning. Nonetheless, I will offer a few thoughts. First, to address the issue of our shrinking denomination we have to be willing to take a look at all possible reasons. With that said, if what we find is related directly to our theology, where the suggestion is made that perhaps we must be willing to change our theology, then we must simple say no, stand firm, and endure what comes our way. However, I think a thorough diagnosis would reveal a combination of things that would include reactions against our conservative theology, but where there would also be commonality of maladies that are present across all denominations. The diagnosis I might offer could be categorized in the following five areas, with a corresponding order of importance:

      1. Unbelief or lack of a truly repentant life (Christian Smith calls the latter, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism)
      2. Abandonment of vocational responsibility i.e. parents do not teach the faith and let their kids choose what they want to do, or they merely drop them off at church while
      they do something else saying, “its the church’s job to teach them that stuff.”
      3. Failure of pastors to lovingly teach and thoroughly catechize formative faith practices, where they wax and wane between two poles: fun loving evangelical like or old
      school rigid hard liner.
      4. Failure to understand the difference between entertainment and worship (Divine Service), stemming from a lack of formative faith practices.
      5. Lack of denominational loyalty, again stemming from a lack of catechesis and formative faith practice.

      This would be a beginning diagnosis, but I think there would also need to be some other diagnostic tools to help us in our assessment. And this is what I think your question aims to investigate. Namely, is there something present in our method of catechesis, preaching, or communication of the Gospel in general, that is somehow contributing to our shrinking denomination? If a uniform malady could be identified, then perhaps changes can be made. But my hunch is there will not be one uniform malady that is not also present in other denominations in various forms. The growth that various individual mega churches experience is not necessarily consistent with their denomination as a whole, but rather, as my post notes, only demonstrates the ability of the congregation to “attract” larger crowds (by whatever the current fad may be) rather than to truly disciple the masses.

      Again, thanks for the great comments!

      I am open for you and others to offer your assessments and further the dialogue.


      Rev. Woodford

      • Rev. Woodford…thank you for your response. I see what you mean about the many factors all playing a part. I readily admit that I have observed each of those factors in my own examples I mentioned here.

        You are right that my questions are about communication. I think using words like justification and sin in our current culture can only be done with educated Christians and I think this means (as you and others have discussed here) finding ways of renewing our our catechesis.

        I will continue to study this topic and the advice you are suggesting here. Thank you for your ongoing conversations!


  2. Another good post.

    I think something that gets left out of these churches who claim large numbers is that are they bringing in the nonChristian or are they just taking people from other churches?

    Three thoughts you could add to your list?

    Should we also consider in this list the reproduction rate of married couples which has certainly dropped.
    The “pressure” on the church from culture to accept the temptations of the devil (i.e. homosexuality and cohabitation.) which can be a lack of catechesis as well as the vocational responsibility of the adults but in this case not necessarily.
    Maybe most detrimental is the postmodernism that has infiltrated the church and so teaching the truth becomes difficult because everyone wants their own truth and how dare you tell me I’m wrong!

    I don’t have the answer, accept we must continue to teach, teach, teach, and administer the Word and Sacrament to a world plagued by sin.

    • Pastor Heinecke,

      Your three additional thoughts are well placed and the Church will do well to note them. And in the face of it all, you are absolutely right, the Holy Christian church must continue to teach, catechize, rebuke, love, and rejoice in the Gospel, knowing that though the earth given way, the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Lord’s Church!


      Rev. Woodford

  3. I want to start off by saying that “Real Life” Church is in my home town and I attended it for 6 months so I thought that was a crazy coincidence. This post addresses huge questions that we face as a Church. The current trend seems to be “every man is a minister” or “disciples making disciples” and as demonstrated it seems to be working, but maybe not as much as it appears at first glance. Along with Mark I was brought into the LCMS through Word and Sacrament. I certainly had my apprehensions in the beginning but my Pastor, at a slow rate (which is a good thing), taught me the confession of the Lutheran Church. Have the pure and true teaching of God’s Word has given me so much peace that I would never imagine stepping outside of the LCMS. With all this talk of a “shrinking” denomination doom and gloom seem to settle in. Do we forget that Noah and seven others were at one point the Church? The odds of the Church surviving those odds are slim, unless we remember that God will grow and preserve the Church.

    I want to add more to this conversation but I lack the brain capacity this evening.

    • Dear Marcus,

      That is a fascinating coincidence! And I appreciate the perspective that you offer. You are right to remind us to place our confidence in the Lord as he is certainly the Lord of the Church.

      Thanks for your comments!


      Rev. Woodford

  4. Several different thoughts on this.

    I remember reading an article written by Sally Morgenthaller from a few years ago, about the same time as the Willow Creek study. She said that they (I can’t remember the referent to that pronoun, but it was a very large and influential “mega-church”) thought that about 50% of their membership was previously “unchurched” (I’m assuming one of Barna’s definition’s are in play here). What they found was that the real number was only 3% of the congregation was previously unchurched. So for all the talk of “disciple making” in reality what happened was that Christians from other congregation started coming (either as “dual citizens” so to speak or full on “transfer”).

    But this strikes at what a disciple is. I think Matthew 28 is actually pretty clear: a disciple is a Baptized learner. No need to make it more difficult than that. Of course the latter part (learner) is rather important, as one must ask “am I learning what Jesus taught or something else?” Therefore right doctrine (that is, right teaching) does matter.

    Finally, I’m quite critical of putting the blame on the LCMS’s numerical decline solely on our lack of evangelism efforts. First,we must face the fact that we are having far less babies than we did when the baby boomers were born. Second, the last few generations have been adopting a worldview that is very antithetical to the Gospel (both modernity and post-modernity), which elevates emotivism or rationalism… both of which give cause to hardened hearts and shut ears. In other words, the Gospel may well be heard even more now than ever… but many are finding more and more reasons to reject the Gospel and harden their hearts. Finally, we have lost our identity. When we are willing to mimic the non-denominational/Pentecostal/Baptist/Methodist/E-Free church down the street (where you can walk in and not see much of a difference), it’s rather tough for a small church to compete with their less talented volunteer musicians and cheaper lighting and sound systems.

    Now really finally, I also find a bit of disharmony in what is said by the congregation in your article and the Biblical doctrine of election. To be honest… I think many “mission execs” in the LCMS suffer from this disharmony as well. We must remember that God does not make mistakes. Not one of His elect will not be saved. The delightful thing is that God carries this out through means of the simple external Word. So the takeaway from this is that we ought stop the guilt trip shenanigans when it comes to evangelism. If one thinks snapping their fingers to represent a person going to hell (who you could have saved had you not been sitting at your desk / in your seminary class / feeding your kids) or other such “method” is the way to motivate one to share the Gospel, they are still slaves to the Law. So what’s the solution to this disharmony? I’m convinced both a renewed appreciation for the doctrines of election and justification as well as a greater emphasis on Christian Vocation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s