“I’m already a believer. Why do I need to become a disciple?” You may hear comments like this when discussing discipleship. It’s not uncommon to meet with confusion or even skepticism when talking about our call to carry out the Great Commission.
In some cases, it’s a matter of fearing what we don’t understand. Confusion often results when we focus on what discipleship is not, rather than on what it is. We may have heard accounts of discipleship gone wrong, where the discipler attempted to control and exercise authority over those being discipled. Situations like these are anomalies. They’re not biblical examples of discipleship.
The apostle Paul was a consummate disciple maker. He wrote to Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). He explained to the Christians in Ephesus, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11, 12).
Paul understood the importance of teaching and equipping believers to do the work of the ministry. Jesus instructed his followers to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), not just converts. This is evangelism with the purpose of producing fruit that will last.
The Christian Church at Cogan Station was planted in 1981 by the Lycoming Christian Church in Linden, Pennsylvania. I was called to be the evangelist. The church was growing and we were baptizing many people, but the turnover was too great. We knew we had to find a way to close the back door. We were producing fruit, but it wasn’t lasting.
In 1987 we began to look closely at the process of making disciples. We invited a speaker from California to our church to explain their process of discipleship. Our leaders traveled to Florida to talk to people who were discipling there. In addition, my good friend, Chuck Fordyce, who was involved in a disciple-making ministry in Philadelphia, encouraged and helped us.
We scoured through the available materials on discipleship and developed 10 basic lessons from “Seeking God” to “Sharing Your Faith.” We teach these lessons one-on-one, men teaching men and women teaching women.
It was a slow process at first. But gradually, as people were discipled, they began to share their faith. Not everyone in our church was interested in or understood discipleship. We emphasized it constantly from the pulpit. Eventually the proof was in the fruit of people’s lives. Those who had been discipled established daily quiet times and began to grow in their relationship with God. We continue to use the same lessons today. Our experience shows that believers who commit to these studies become seekers and lovers of their Creator and strive to be accountable to him. Those who are being discipled meet weekly with their discipler. As a result, they remain faithful and loyal to Jesus Christ.
As we understand the process, making disciples involves training and equipping individual believers one-on-one. We’ve designed the material we use to accomplish two things: to lead people to become Christians and to challenge believers to become rooted and grounded in God’s Word.
We challenge those who are growing in discipleship to consider discipling others as well. As far as our programming goes, this isn’t mandatory, as we want those who make disciples to choose to do so, not feel forced to do so.
Disciples-in-training meet weekly with their discipler. The two study together and share mutual accountability for a daily quiet time. Almost without exception, those who ignore their daily quiet time do not complete the discipleship training. We believe this is because a personal quiet time builds a personal relationship with God, resulting in a deeper commitment to the things of God. Without this personal relationship, a person will see little value in the teaching and the challenge of the Word that produces a change in lifestyle. And yes, discipleship requires a change in lifestyle. While the process begins with a certain dependency on the discipler, ultimately the one being discipled finds himself completely dependent on God. That dependence is cultivated in a daily, personal quiet time.
Does discipleship really matter? Ask 10 people who have been discipled and you’ll have your answer. We believe people can be saved through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ through conversion without committing to discipleship, but we don’t believe people can obey the Great Commission without it. Here are a few things we’ve learned in the process.
Disciples are made, not born. While we’re born again spiritually in Christ, a disciple is a specially trained follower of Jesus Christ.
Disciples are truly the “called out” ones. They are the “fourth soil” followers (see Matthew 13:1-10). They have counted the cost and gladly paid it. They ask only for opportunities to bear fruit and be used by God. Their prayers are for boldness and direction, rather than for self.
Disciples are Word-conscious quiet time seekers. They hunger and thirst for righteousness. They have a constant desire to grow in their personal relationship with God. They are Word-feeders, not self-seekers.
Disciples are fruit producers. They are driven by a deep spiritual desire to disciple others. They know that the way to assist in producing fruit that will last is to take the necessary time to invest in the lives of others. So they take time to meet, study, and pray with those they’re discipling. And they stay with it until those they are discipling are actively discipling others. The process of discipleship isn’t complete until those who have been discipled are reproducing themselves in other disciples.
Disciples are cross bearers. They understand Jesus’ statement, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). They take cross bearing seriously. They take their stand daily against sin in their lives and in the lives of others. They confront sin when they discover it. They are the light on a hill, the salt of the earth. They view this as a commitment of a lifetime, not a short time.
Disciples are few in number. Jesus said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). While many people acknowledge Jesus, he has the final say in our salvation. He calls us to total commitment and reserves stern words for those who call him Lord but refuse to do what he says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). While they may be few in number, true disciples are the happy, fulfilled, excited, sold-out, blood-bought, turned-on individuals who make a difference for the kingdom.
My only regret is that I did not focus on making disciples earlier in my ministry. We knew what Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-20, but we didn’t know how to implement his command. If we want to produce fruit that will last, we must make disciples. It’s not a program but a process—a process that worked for Jesus and works for his church today.
Through the years I have had the privilege of teaching about discipleship in the U.S. as well as in Poland, Russia, Dominican Republic, Chile, Honduras, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. My study of Scripture and my personal experience have taught me that disciple making is the biblical way to evangelize. It may seem like a slow process, but it’s the best way to lead people toward true transformation and kingdom expansion.
Harry “Bud” Yoder attended Eastern Christian College and began his ministry with The Christian Church at Cogan Station (Pennsylvania) in 1981. The church began in a storefront and now owns 56 acres of land, has conducted two building programs, and has an average weekly attendance of 500. Bud continues to serve the church in his retirement.