The Disciple-Makers Diagram
I recently posted a question on Facebook asking for the essential steps in discipleship. I received dozens of responses, and many were insightful. Interestingly, the greatest insight I gained wasn’t found in what respondents shared but in what they didn’t share. Several described a grand vision for discipleship, but few could articulate the steps needed in seeing that vision become a reality.
From this short experiment, it appears that a majority of believers are able to passionately express the importance of discipleship but only a small percentage are able to detail its practice. This is worth noting because church leaders can’t expect their members to strive toward a goal if each step isn’t clearly defined. Vague vision might excite for a time, but it rarely excels. If we want to fulfill the Great Commission, then we not only need to proclaim the greatness of that mission, but we need to provide clear instruction on how it is to be accomplished in our churches, friendships, and homes. With that said, I’m going to lay out four essential steps for making disciples. These steps (which are part of the “disciple-makers diagram”) can be used in local church strategies, one-on-one discipling relationships, and in the home among families. My prayer is that these steps help you move discipleship from inspiration to implementation.
Outcomes (The Fruit You Hope to See)
Christian discipleship isn’t a temporary endeavor. It’s a life-long process of people growing in their love and likeness of Christ as they are developed in His truth and directed in His ways. While this overarching goal never changes, there are several short-term objectives and outcomes that followers of Jesus should be meeting or experiencing in their lives as they mature. The biblical language for this is “fruit.” A Christian should be displaying fruits of discipleship, no matter how long he or she has been following Christ. Of course, we wouldn’t expect a person who has been a Christian for 2 years to have the same amount of growth and fruit as a person who has been a Christian for 20 years, but we should still expect to see fruit from the younger believer. I think healthy disciple-making struggles to take off the ground for many individuals and churches because short-term outcomes (or fruit) haven’t been thoroughly considered or put into place. Outcomes must be set for every age and stage of growth for discipleship to have clear direction and momentum.
If a church’s leadership hasn’t taken the time to map out what a new convert should know or be able to do after one year of attending their church, then discipleship probably isn’t happening (at least in a healthy way). If churches want to create a discipleship culture that thrives, then they need to take the time to sit down and answer questions like: “What should we expect a believer to know, experience, and be able to do after 5 years of being a member at our church? What about 10 years? 15 years?” You get my point. If there aren’t detailed answers to these questions, then there isn’t a specific target at which anyone is aiming. This is just as true for children and students. Kids ministry leaders need to consider what type of community, Biblical knowledge, and spiritual practices they want their kids to exemplify once they age out of their ministries. The same goes for youth pastors and their students as well as parents and their kids. When outcomes are vague or non-existent, discipleship will seem elusive or commitment to Christ sporadic. A destination is reached one step at a time, and we need to ensure that steps have been clearly defined for those we seek to disciple.
Actions (How You Hope to Cultivate the Fruit)
Once outcomes have been determined for a specific person, small group, age range, or stage of life, the next step is to create actions that most effectively lead to those outcomes. Obviously, the Spirit is the one who brings change, but prayerfully chosen actions in discipleship are often the tools the Spirit uses to transform us. Keeping the Spirit’s work at the forefront can safeguard a leader, parent, or church-goer from choosing action steps that are unhelpful or disproportionate to the outcomes being pursued.
For example, let’s say a church’s leadership has prayerfully observed their congregation and noticed that most interactions in the church appear surface-level or shallow. The leadership knows that discipleship flourishes in rich, biblical community, so they’ve determined that one outcome in need of special attention in their church is stronger community. Recognizing this outcome is great, but how is it cultivated? The leadership can declare their desire to see fellowship deepen from behind the pulpit or print the need for it in the church’s weekly bulletin, but if specific actions aren’t presented to the congregation that clearly articulate how this form of community is cultivated, then a preverbal target is being set up without any arrows to shoot at it. People need to be equipped to hit the targets placed in front of them. But how do we do this? It can be done by addition, subtraction, or adaption. Here are some examples of how each of these can look:
Addition – A parent may want to increase their child’s biblical literacy. An easy action step for this outcome would be adding daily Bible reading into their morning routine.
Subtraction – Going back to the example used earlier, a church’s leadership might desire to cultivate deeper community among its members. As they review their structure and calendar, they determine the best course of action is to remove certain activities to free up time and energy for their members to engage in small groups.
Adaption – Maybe a Children’s pastor wants to teach the Bible with a greater focus on Christ and the gospel. Instead of adding or removing an element from the ministry, he adapts the curriculum that is currently being used to teach Christ in every lesson.
These quick examples show that the outcomes being pursued should dictate the actions that are chosen and championed.
Time Frame (When You Hope to See the Fruit)
After your outcomes and correlating actions have been established, the next thing you need to put into place is a time frame for when you expect your chosen actions to produce the desired outcomes. This step is crucial because, without a time frame in mind, disciple-makers can either get discouraged or cling to unrealistic expectations. We not only need to establish WHAT will produce fruit but WHEN we believe that fruit should be produced. Again, the Spirit is the one who transforms hearts, and we can’t force change on anyone. Nevertheless, we still need to have expectations for when spiritual fruit should begin to sprout, otherwise, we’ll work in an endless loop of activity or quit too easily at the first sign of difficulty.
A good time frame gives disciple-makers adequate space to evaluate the effectiveness of an action and strengthen resolve to keep pushing forward when things get tough. With that said, you might be wondering how a person, church, or parent can determine the best time frame for a given action to produce fruit, and to be honest, it isn’t an exact science. Much of it depends on the outcomes being pursued, actions being done, and the specific person or group that is being discipled. It may take several months of daily scripture reading before parents see any fruit in their child’s apprehension and appreciation of God’s word. It could take a year or more for a church to see a shift in its community and culture. It might take weeks of trial and error for a Children’s pastor to adequately adapt the ministry’s curriculum and train his volunteers to adjust to its changes, and it could take a couple of months for a middle school small group to get in the habit of memorizing scripture. The best time frames always flow out of consistent prayer and care for those being discipled. When the complexities of a person’s age, background, stage of life, and spiritual maturity are brought to an all-knowing Father in prayer, He generously provides disciple-makers with the wisdom they need when setting time frames.
Accountability (How You Hope to Stay Focused on the Fruit)
This step CANNOT be skipped. No matter how well you’ve pondered your outcomes and established your actions and time frames, there isn’t a guarantee anything will come to fruition if a system of accountability hasn’t been put into place. Accountability may conjure thoughts of micromanaging or nagging, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Accountability is an act of love that seeks to preserve the vision of discipleship for which you have fought and prayed. It keeps the focus where it needs to be and avoids unnecessary detours along the journey. Grace-filled accountability ensures that outcomes stay a priority, actions continue to be practiced, and time frames are consistently met. I say “grace-filled” because situations can arise that impact the shape and extent of your accountability. The key is to see outcomes, actions, and time frames as means to an end and not as ends in themselves.
Accountability could look like a pastoral staff checking in with small group leaders every month to see how things are going and if Christ-centered community is being formed. It could look like friends meeting for breakfast once a week to pray, celebrate victories, and continually push one another toward spiritual maturity. Accountability could be a children’s ministry volunteer asking her kids if they can recite the previous week’s memory verse, or a middle school small group leader asking his students if they have consistently read their Bibles.
Again, accountability is not meant to be a guilt trip, but a form of checks and balances that celebrates consistency, questions inconsistency, and offers help when needed.
The Disciple-Makers Diagram
Not only are the steps above essential, but they’re connected, meaning that they must be done together for discipleship to be fruitful. I’ve come to see these steps as pieces of a diagram. If one is missing, the diagram is either incomplete or ineffective. Here are a few equations demonstrating the issues that can surface when one step is removed from the diagram.
- Outcomes + Actions + Time Frame – Accountability = Excuses and Frustration
- Outcomes + Actions + Accountability – Time Frame = Unrealistic Expectations
- Actions + Time Frame + Accountability – Outcomes = Lack of Direction
- Outcomes + Time Frame + Accountability – Actions = Lack of Clarity
I think these equations are helpful, but it’s crucial to remember that discipleship isn’t a strict formula. While we do the best we can to study, plan, and execute strategies, people are fickle, seasons change, and the Lord works as He wills. We can do everything in our power to faithfully prepare, but the results are ultimately up to God. The diagram is simply a tool that gives guidance and specificity to the disciple-making process. I pray it serves as a beneficial resource whenever and wherever you make disciples.
You can download the “Disciple-Makers Diagram” tip sheet and template here.