I have been a Christian for fifty years, and during that time I have discipled scores of men. It’s been a labor of love. Some have gone on to be leaders in the church. Others have become better fathers and husbands. In a few cases, the results have not been positive. Some have remained totally unchanged, while others have completely fallen away from Christ. One even ended up in prison for molesting his daughters. I was not too surprised, unfortunately. Even Spurgeon had disappointing disciples. When asked about them, he responded. The explanation is simple. They were my disciples—not Christ’s.
Despite the ups and downs, discipleship is central to the local church’s mission. The Great Commission is to make “disciples”. It is not to get “decisions”. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” commanded Jesus, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).
To help you excel at this discipline, I will answer four questions. What is discipleship? Why should the church practice it? Who should the church disciple? And how should we go about it?
What is Discipleship?
“Making disciples” means cooperating with the Holy Spirit to help other Christians become like Christ for the glory of God. Notice we are cooperating with the Holy Spirit. We are not replacing Him. This distinction is crucial.
Because the Holy Spirit is the ultimate discipler, guilt-manipulation and other forms of external control have no place in our pastoral work. Guilt-manipulation binds them to the discipler, not Christ. By contrast, the Holy Spirit changes people from the heart outward, and therein lies the great pastoral problem—you can’t change another’s heart. Therefore, the leader’s job is to identify what the Spirit is doing in a Christian and encourage it. This means that every leader is totally dependent on the Holy Spirit’s prior initiative! You can manipulate Jack with guilt to read his Bible, or you can talk to him about the glories of Christ until spiritual hunger motivates him. The latter is Christian discipleship.
Why Should the Church Practice It?
Second, why should we prioritize discipleship? The first reason is that Christ commands it. As we have already noted, Jesus did not command us to get “decisions”. The Great Commission is more than that. It is about discipling nations. Making disciples is long-term—even years—but we haven’t obeyed the Great Commission until converts become disciples.
The second reason we should make disciples is that the glory of God is at stake. God’s end in creation and redemption is the display of His glory. We glorify God when we delight in Him and imitate the moral example He displayed at the cross.
There is a last reason making disciples matters. If you are a pastoral leader and your church grows, the stress will be intolerable unless you develop leaders to help bear the load. This means that after preaching, the pastor’s number one priority should be making disciples.
Pareto’s 80/20 principle is helpful here. Eighty percent of the average Christian leader’s efforts get twenty percent of his or her results. Whereas twenty percent of his/her efforts get eighty percent of his/her results. Therefore, effective Christian leaders identify the twenty percent and delegate everything else.
The twenty percent that get the long-term results are preaching and discipling. If a Christian leader is not investing wholeheartedly in preaching and discipling, then it is unlikely that you will have substantial long-term fruit.
Who Should the Church Disciple?
Who to target is the third crucial question. Children, husbands, wives, and singles comprise the average church. But the benefits of discipling these groups are not equal. Therefore, wise pastoral leaders intentionally prioritize those that maximize the long-term glory for God.
The members of your church will apply well-meaning social pressure to disciple the least fruitful groups. For example, parents will pressure church leaders to disciple the children. I’m thinking of children’s and youth ministries. But discipling children is the least effective way to maximize glory for God.
The second pressure will be for women’s ministries, and although the women matter greatly, this will also be less fruitful. This is who the average evangelical church targets. “The church and the Titanic have something in common,” writes David Murrow. “It’s women and children first. The great majority of ministry in Protestant churches is focused on children, next on women.”[i]
Discipling men, not children or women, is the most fruitful way to fulfill the Great Commission. It’s not that men are more important than women. They are not. It’s because discipling men provides the long-term results we really want. It is the rock-solid foundation upon which fruitful local churches build. Why would I say this?
The Bible assigns the task of discipling wives and children to husbands. Therefore, the local church that goes around the men, directly discipling women and children, when the men are not doing it at home, will be mostly ineffective. This is why fruitful pastoral leaders aim all their arrows at their men. What do they teach them? They start by teaching them to establish personal devotions then to disciple their wives and children. This foundation is the necessary prerequisite for discipling other men.
God does not give the task of discipling wives to the women’s ministry. He gives it to husbands. Husbands discipling wives is God’s priority, and it is foundational to all that follows.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25–27).
I have emphasized the discipling language— “sanctify,” “washing of water with the word,” presenting her “without spot or wrinkle…holy and without blemish.”
The problem with obeying this text is that your wife is often the most challenging person to disciple. Maybe she knows the Bible better than you? Perhaps she actively resists your efforts to lead her? Maybe she isn’t even a Christian? In some cases, wives look down on their husbands, discouraging their efforts. After all, who knows your sins and weaknesses better than she?
Nevertheless, when a man disciples other men but ignores his wife, he is acting hypocritically. Worse, he is sowing seeds of long-term fruitlessness. The men he disciples will imitate him. They will ignore their wives, and the entire congregation will suffer. In addition, because this is the priority God most cares about, God will resist you.
The same priorities apply to married woman discipling other women. Before a woman disciples other women, she should start by encouraging her husband to disciple her. Why?
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22–24).
God gives authority to those under authority. Is your discipling ministry squarely under your husband’s authority? Are you doing it with his permission? Is he encouraging or resisting you? Unless your ministry is directly under your husband’s authority, like Balaam and his donkey, the angel of the Lord will stand in the road resisting your progress. Worse, the women you lead will imitate you.
In the same way, God holds fathers, not local churches, responsible to disciple their children. If you are not actively discipling your children, the children’s ministry in your local church will probably be mostly fruitless.
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
A teacher at a Christian school shared his experience. He told me that there is a direct correlation between the father’s spiritual involvement with his children and the school’s ability to reach that child spiritually. Again, notice Paul’s words in Ephesians 6: “discipline and instruction.” It’s the language of discipleship.
The conclusion is radical but foundational. A man not willing to start with his wife and children has no business discipling other men. By “discipling” at home I mean regular family devotions, talking with your children about the Bible and spiritual things, sacrificially loving your wife, and—above all—setting an example of spiritual hunger for your family.
Churches that prioritize discipling men get bundled rewards. The women and children usually follow. “On the main, if men are growing the rest of the church follows,” writes Jim Eliff. “I can’t feel good about a church that isn’t mentoring men in a serious way.”[ii]
Therefore, wise elders motivate and persevere in men’s discipleship. Unlike women’s discipleship, building a culture of men’s discipleship requires significant spiritual sweat. It does spontaneously happen, but it produces three big-time rewards.
First, it provides a pool of future leaders. Second, it attracts other men to your church. Churches with vibrant male leadership are attractive to outside men. Third, it makes your church attractive to wives, single women, and children. Reach the men and you get everyone else thrown is as a bonus. Reach the women and that is all you will reach. According to David Olson, many churches have discovered that reaching men “is crucial to their success…In most cases ‘the impediment to family faith was, in a word, men…If they go over the tipping point, women follow, children in tow.’” [iii]
I have personally experienced the truth of these statements. I planted a church in 2002, and immediately established a men’s discipleship group. I met with eight to twelve men each Saturday morning from 8:00 to 10:00 AM. We discussed and applied articles by various Christian authors. We discussed and applied chapters from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. We discussed and applied appropriate sections of scripture. We had one goal—to help the men establish personal devotional habits and then to disciple their wives and children.
The men that finished the program began to lead other groups. It took five to seven years of dogged perseverance, but once established, our now-dominant church culture of male discipleship funnels new men directly into the men’s discipleship program. It’s just what men do in our church. Afterward, we introduced women’s discipleship, and to the lady’s credit, it took off with little effort. Youth ministry followed. Healthy, fruitful churches prioritize men.
How Should We Go About It?
Scripture, prayer, and living example are the three tools of discipleship. As we have already noticed, the Holy Spirit alone changes people. Obviously, He uses human leaders, but the work is essentially God’s. Only God can create spiritual hunger, and that hunger is the motor that drives authentic discipleship. It will always be more robust in some than others, and it is always a response to God’s Word.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12–13).
In essence, effective disciples are motivated and changed by a word-saturated culture. It starts with preaching and its application. But ultimately, the word of God culminates in the cross. Therefore, cross-centeredness[iv] is crucial to fruitful discipleship. A rich understanding of what happened at the cross, and its application to his life, arms disciples to discern God’s will in most situations.
In addition to the word, prayer is crucial. Prayer that the Holy Spirit would deeply root God’s word in the disciple’s heart is vital. Prayerless disciplers are an oxymoron, testifying to our self-reliance. “What gives a ministry its motivations, perseverance, humility, joy, tenderness, passion, and grace,” writes Paul Tripp, “is the devotional life of the one doing ministry.”[v]
The third tool is a living example. If there is a conflict between what you teach and what you do, your disciples will generally imitate what you do, not what you teach. Therefore, your devotional life, your humility, your efforts to disciple your own wife and children, your prayer life, etc. are all absolutely crucial to the discipling process.
Discipleship occurs when we help other Christians grow in godliness and holiness. It matters because God’s glory is at stake. It matters because Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not just acquire decisions.
Preaching and discipling men are the two activities that get the long-term results we really want. Effective discipleship starts by teaching men to disciple their wives and children.
Because we are completely dependent on the Holy Spirit, the word of God, prayer, and living example are the three tools that fundamentally change those we lead. We fulfill the great commission when we disciple men, then families, and lastly nations.
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all men…teaching them to do all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19). That is our mission. When we apply ourselves to this work, Christ promises to be “with us to the end of the age.”
[i] David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church, pg. 8,41,43, ff (Nashville, Nelson, 2005)
[iii] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) pg. 87-88
[iv] There are many excellent books on this subject. Stott’s The Cross of Christ is a good example. My book Outrageous Mercy might be helpful. Also, The Cross-Centered Life, by Mahaney is excellent.
[v] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012) pg. 35
William P. Farley is a retired pastor and church planter. He has been married to his best friend, Judy, since 1971. They have five children and 22 grandchildren. Bill is the author of seven books, including Gospel-Powered Humility (P&R), Gospel-Powered Parenting (P&R), and Marriage in Paradise (Pinnacle), Secret to Spiritual Joy (Cruciform), Outrageous Mercy (P&R), and Hidden In the Gospel (P&R). He blogs regularly at www.Williampfarley.com.