How a Pastor Can Implement Discipleship Churchwide

Patrick-Morley-smallDiscipleship is cycling to the top as a priority for many pastors. Many churches are trying to change their culture to one of making disciples. But how would you actually implement a change of that magnitude—especially on a sustainable basis?

I’m a men’s discipleship specialist, but what we’ve learned working with 35,000 churches also applies to discipleship in general. What follows is a plan I shared with a pastor recently. Of course, you can adapt this in many ways:

Dear Pastor,

Here’s what I would do if I were in your shoes. My thought is to keep the plan as focused on discipleship and as simple as possible. The following represents a plan to help each person understand and implement discipleship for themselves and others in three ways (salvation=call, growth=equip, service=send).

  1. Recast your vision, mission, and BHAG(Big Holy Audacious Goal) to focus on making disciples. The vision is "why we exist"—example: “Bringing people to maturity in Christ.” The mission is "what we do—example: “We help you become disciples by calling you to live in Christ (salvation), equipping you to live like Christ (ongoing growth), and sending you to live for Christ (abide in Christ, neighbor love, serving).” Your BHAG is "what we’re trying to accomplish—example: “80 percent (or whatever percent you choose) called, equipped and sent within five years.”
  2. Your role is the visionary and key cheerleader. If I were you, I would drop in on every meeting I could and share the vision and plans for turning making disciples into the church’s Job One, as well as answer questions, ask for support and identify potential small group leaders (more on this below). Many leaders simply want to be asked.
  3. I suggest you also appoint a discipleship czar. Pick someone with a passionate calling to make disciples who is not easily distracted and has no other job responsibilities to operationalize the plan—this could be a part-time position.
  4. Appoint an implementation team for the plan. This team should be comprised of about a dozen key leaders—a few dreamers but mostly doers.
  5. Depending on the size of your church, have the czar run a weekly 1- to 4-hour implementation team meeting. You also meet with them at the start of the meeting and restate the vision every time but, if you can and unless you’re brilliant at operational details, then leave the meeting so they can get down to nuts and bolts. Join them at the end of their meeting to help them with any decisions they just can’t make without your input. Whenever a decision presents itself, leaders and staff ought to ask, “How does this help us call, equip or send someone?” If it doesn’t do one of those three things, then the idea can be easily rejected. (This approach helps answer the question, “How do decisions get made around here?”)
  6. Remember this is a multiyear process. But everything should be initiated within the next few months or so.
  7. Develop a communication package. This can include scripts for oral and written communication, videos and tweaks to your website. While the implementation team can roll this out, it’s something I recommend you personally oversee to make sure it’s what you want.
  8. Seek adoption by existing leaders and, as a result, the congregation. As applicable, roll this out to senior staff, staff, elders, deacons and ministry leaders. Hold meetings to explain the new direction; let them express concerns, ask questions, get their minds around it, adopt it and get on board; and help each leader find their place in the new vision and this plan. Allow however long is needed to gain widespread adoption of the vision and plan. If not, ten years from now you’ll be sitting in a room asking, “Why is this so hard?” And the answer will be, “Because they were never with you.” Since belief determines behavior and people do what they want to do, winning the leadership, staff and congregation to the vision God gives you is job one. Shoot for a highly believable vision, since only a believable vision will win adoption. Focus on spending however much time is needed with each leadership group until you either have their full support or they’ve been allowed to gracefully bow out. Don’t start by asking people to do things (strategies, tactics). Do explain why God wants your church to make disciples. Common mistakes: underestimating the inertia against a new idea and asking people to do things before they become true believers. Here's an insight: When Americans have a problem, we tend to ask, “How do we fix it?” When the Chinese have a problem, they ask, “What are the relationships we need to put in place to solve this problem?” (This is a good question to recruit implementation team members.)
  9. Roll out the discipleship plan.
      1. Call each person to live in Christ. Help them understand the gospel of Jesus and receive Him as their Savior and Lord.
    Equipeach person to live like Christ.
      Assume you will have each man, woman and child for five years. What are the things that are so important for them to learn and do that if they were to leave after five years without them, you would feel like you failed them? This becomes your discipleship curriculum. For example: 
      1. Community: to be part of a small group that develops authentic relationships 
      2. Spiritual Disciplines: what they are and how to do them. For example: To develop the skills to read, understand and apply the Bible; prayer; evangelism. 
      3. Gifts, calling, ministry of Holy Spirit
    1. Send each person to live for Christ. Identify and adopt a personal ministry (John 15:8), commitment to neighbor love (John 13:34-35) and the particulars of how to abide in Christ (John 8:31-32). 

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There are plenty of published curriculums for whatever you decide.

  1. Implementation (tasks for the implementation team)
    1. Benchmark-starting point: Estimate the size of congregation and percentage of people called __ percent, equipped __percent, & sent __ percent.
    2. Measurables: Once a year, ask people three questions (adjust wording as desired): 
      1. Salvation: Have you received salvation through Christ? Yes No
      2. Growth: Are you involved in a small group, class, home group or similar? Yes  No
      3. Service: Are you involved with service/ministry either inside or outside the church? Yes  No
        Tally the results to see what kind of progress you’re making.
    1. Get people involved. The question is, “How do we routinize discipleship as the engine of our church?” In addition to the communications package already mentioned, designate a physical location (e.g., The Gathering Place or The Hub) staffed with people before/after every worship service who can help any member or visitor learn how to do any of the following:
      1. Information about how to become a Christian           
      2. Sign up for a small group (also, to receive training on how to lead a small group)
      3. Sign up for discipleship training (e.g., spiritual disciplines, sharing faith, service opportunities)
      4. Learn about personal ministry opportunities (also, how to learn spiritual gifts and calling, join or start one)

Improve your culture so people personally invite other people to get involved—that will increase participation. Examples:

      • Personally invite to church
      • Personally invite to new member classes
      • Personally invite to small groups
      • Personally invite to become Christians
      • Personally invite to visit the staffed gathering place
    1. Use preaching and small groups as the primary delivery mechanisms for discipleship. Shoot for 80 percent of your people in a small group with an average of eight people. For example if you have 200 people, 80 percent = 160 divided by 8 = 20 small groups. Determine how many trained small group leaders you have, then how many small groups, and then train enough new leaders to get to your total needed small groups. This is a five-year process, but the census can be completed within 90 days.
    2. Pick a “sustainable” model. The No. 1 issue in implementing discipleship is sustainability. You will need a sustainable model to repeatedly create, capture and sustain momentum. This is different than the discipleship curriculum; this is a sustainable process to continually recruit new disciples and move them along. Suggest adapting our No Man Left Behind model to general church use—it’s proven, so you’re not betting on a maybe.
    3. Other tasks
      1. Create a common language so when someone says, for example, “disciple,” it means the same thing to all.
      2. Understand and create a written inventory of what you’re already doing that calls, equips and sends. This is the current situation. For example: worship service, which is #1 discipleship opportunity in terms of sheer numbers.
      3. Diagnostics: What do we keep doing? What do we stop doing? What are the new priorities to add?
      4. Identify and ride coattails of true believers.
      5. Who is having trouble buying in? Plan special meetings for them.
      6. Publicly celebrate all things done and doing right.
      7. Leaders and staff: Provide multiple training opportunities to help them acquire required skills, release anyone who can’t adjust, change the staff and church culture to “discipleship.” 
  1. Messaging ideas
    1. What does it mean to be mature in Christ?
    2. Relevance: How does becoming a disciple solve the real and felt needs I’m dealing with?
    3. Promise: We provide a clear pathway for you to become a disciple.
    4. Why are we making discipleship the focus of our church (create gravity and sense of urgency)?
    5. Making disciples is the portal priority through which all other priorities are achieved.
    6. What is a disciple? How do you become one?
    7. Here’s what it means to be a man at (church name)?
    8. Here’s what it means to be a woman at (church name)?
    9. Here’s what it means to be a child/teen at (church name)?
    10. How people are transformed: worship together, preaching of Word, small group, private study, Spirit.
    11. Affirm distinctives to keep—examples: great worship, preaching, service opportunities, doing “big” things.

May God give you favor and success with every person in your congregation as you seek to follow Christ’s command to go and make disciples.

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