The discipleship challenge

What is the ultimate measure of success in a church?

Michael Dörnbrack pastors in the Baden-Württemberg Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Isny, Germany

How do you measure the success of your congress?” This question really struck the Youth in Mission Board, responsible for the Youth in Mission Congress in Germany.1 We pondered it while discussing a renewed vision for this youth congress. Is our congress successful because we regularly have more than 1,400 young people from all over Europe attend? Is it because a certain number of them decide to be baptized or commit to one year for service?

While these decisions are valuable and a reason to rejoice, it became obvious to our team that these decisions are just the beginning—but not an ultimate measure of success. Jesus stated what really counts: “ ‘The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest’ ” (Luke 10:2).2 So the question that really describes the success of our work is: How many young people will go back to their local churches as workers, missionaries, and leaders, committed to continue their training? This is the key question not only for a youth event like the Youth in Mission Congress but for every level of our church organization, including the local church.

A closer look at discipleship

In His great commission Jesus commanded us to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, 20). “Teaching all things” means more than teaching a set of fundamental beliefs before baptism. Jesus gave His disciples sound biblical doctrine, taught them the way of salvation, showed them how to grow spiritually, and trained them for service. Therefore, the Great Commission involves not only evangelism and leading people to baptism but also nurturing believers and training them to share their faith after they have been baptized. The ultimate goal is that they become mature disciples of Jesus and, in turn, are prepared to lead others into discipleship with Christ. The Great Commission’s focus means to multiply the disciples.

In simple terms, the model of the discipleship path describes the growth process of a disciple. This shows that discipleship is a process of continual spiritual growth through four stages.3

The first stage concentrates on evangelism that leads people to conversion. A converted Christian understands the gospel, personally accepts salvation through Jesus Christ, and experiences assurance of salvation. The second stage describes the spiritual growth of a disciple who lives a spirit-filled life, regularly prays and studies the Bible, and experiences victories in his or her Christian life. In stage 3, the missionary and worker understands the basic principles of evangelism and has learned to lead people to Jesus. He or she can lead others to stages 1 and 2. The leader and trainer in stage 4 goes one step further and has learned to train people for service and lead them through the whole discipleship path (stages 1–4). Only when we have people in stage 4 can we experience a multiplication of disciples. Of course, this model has its limitations and is only a simplified representation of reality because a new convert can start to share his or her faith right away. Discipleship is not a status, but rather a process of ongoing spiritual growth with interdependent and yet different focuses. 

The Bible makes plain that this process must be intentionally fostered by disciple makers. This is what Jesus did with His disciples, what Barnabas did with Paul, what Paul did with Timothy, and what Timothy did with others. Paul wrote to Timothy: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). So discipling is not just leading people to Christ and baptizing them but guiding them through the whole discipleship path.

Ellen White emphasized the importance of this kind of training again and again. “There should be a well organized plan for the employment of workers to go into all our churches, large and small, to instruct the members how to labor for the upbuilding of the church, and also for unbelievers.”4 “The greatest help that can be given our people is to teach them to work for God, and to depend on Him, not on the ministers.”5 “Many would be willing to work if they were taught how to begin. They need to be instructed and encouraged.

“Every church should be a training school for Christian workers. Its members should be taught how to give Bible readings, how to conduct and teach Sabbath school classes, how best to help the poor and to care for the sick, how to work for the unconverted. There should be schools of health, cooking schools, and classes in various lines of Christian help work. There should not only be teaching, but actual work under experienced instructors. Let the teachers lead the way in working among the people, and others, uniting with them, will learn from their example. One example is worth more than many precepts.”6 “The spiritual life of the church can only be kept alive as the members make personal efforts to win souls to Christ. . . . 

“The work of the minister is incomplete if he does not educate the souls newly come to the faith to be laborers together with God, visiting and praying with families, showing to the world what Jesus has done for them.”7

It becomes obvious that our focus in ministry should not be just the number of baptisms but rather the number of workers. The number of growing and working disciples says much more about the health of a church and the success of a pastor than the number of baptisms, members, or church attendance. Jesus: Our Example As we come to understand this concept of discipleship, we naturally ask ourselves: How can this be done? The best reference point for discipleship is Jesus Himself. Jesus did not just command His followers to make disciples. For more than three years He modeled how to make disciples. His challenge was to prepare His disciples to lead the young church after His ascension. When we observe Jesus’ way of disciple-making, a few principles stand out: 

Jesus: Our Example

As we come to understand this concept of discipleship, we naturally ask ourselves: How can this be done? The best reference point for discipleship is Jesus Himself. Jesus did not just command His followers to make disciples. For more than three years He modeled how to make disciples. His challenge was to prepare His disciples to lead the young church after His ascension. When we observe Jesus’ way of disciple-making, a few principles stand out

1. Instead of focusing on large numbers, Jesus concentrated on training a few because He knew that discipleship works best in the context of transparent, open, highly accountable relationships.

2. Jesus was an example of all that He taught.

3. Jesus made the Word of God the basis of His teaching.

4. Jesus lived a life of prayer and taught His disciples to pray.

5. Jesus trained His disciples for service, gave them the opportunity to work together with Him, and sent them out.

If we want to help people move forward on their discipleship path, we must follow these principles. Sermons, seminars, and books have their proper place; but they are not enough. Discipleship consists of investing oneself in the life of someone else. It takes courage and patience to invest time and strength in a few in order to see results in the long run. Leroy Eims observed: “Disciples cannot be mass produced. We cannot drop people into a program and see disciples emerge at the end of the production line. It takes time to make disciples. It takes individual attention.”8 And Robert Coleman wrote: “The best work is always done with a few. Better to give a year or so to one or two men who learn what it means to conquer for Christ than to spend a lifetime with a  congregation just keeping the program going.”9

Discipleship groups

In my work as director of the Josiah Mission School,10 it was clear from the beginning that we needed to teach discipleship. So, we started with using the first whole week of our training program to teach this topic. It soon became obvious that a week was not enough because the students have to digest and apply what they have learned, and that does not happen within a week. So, we decided to have weekly classes 

Discipleship groups In my work as director of the Josiah Mission School,10 it was clear from the beginning that we needed to teach discipleship. So, we started with using the first whole week of our training program to teach this topic. It soon became obvious that a week was not enough because the students have to digest and apply what they have learned, and that does not happen within a week. So, we decided to have weekly classes on discipleship, which was already a lot better. But soon we realized that something was still missing: the element of transparent, open, highly accountable relationships.

We took the next step and divided our students into small discipleship groups. These groups made a real difference in the spiritual growth of our students. Our students get to know a way of discipleship that they can easily apply in their local churches no matter whether the church is big or small, alive or asleep. All they have to do is to find a few people and start a discipleship group in someone’s home.

A discipleship group is characterized by the following key elements:

  • A small number of people (about 2–6) that commit to meet once a week for 90–120 minutes during the course of a year.

  • Fellowship with transparent, open, highly accountable relationships. This fellowship is not restricted to the group meeting.

  • The members commit to memorize a memory verse each week and review it regularly. They test each other in the group meetings.

  • The members commit to study the discipleship lessons in advance and come prepared to the group meetings.

  • The group makes a list of people they want to pray and work for and reaches out to them.

  • The members pray for each other and for the people they want to reach.

  • The clear goal is to start a new discipleship group and/or a soul-winning small group.

  • The members hold each other accountable to follow through on their commitments.

The discipleship course

About a year after we started to teach discipleship at our school, I realized that we needed a discipleship course that puts discipleship in an Adventist framework, teaching all the lessons in the context of the Adventist message. Besides helping our students become disciples, I wanted them to develop a balanced, Christ-centered, solid Adventist identity. I also wanted to help my students know the most beautiful statements about discipleship in the writings of Ellen G. White. So during the last few years I developed a discipleship course with four modules that meet these criteria and reflect the four stages of the discipleship pathway.11

The lessons of module 1 (“Jesus, My Life”) deal with the everlasting gospel and the experience of salvation from different perspectives. Even though newly baptized members have had Bible studies on salvation, it is very helpful for them to go through these lessons in order to gain an in-depth understanding about what conversion is and how it works. This will also help them share the good news with others. From my experience, longtime church members also benefit from a study of module 1.

Module 2 (“With Jesus Ahead”) is designed to help one grow spiritually and starts with lessons on how to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Then this lesson shows how to study the Bible personally and how to have a meaning­ful prayer life. The other lessons deal with different aspects of a victorious Christian life.

Module 3 (“My Life for Jesus”) focuses on teaching basic principles of evangelism and ways to share Jesus in the context of relationships (friendship evangelism). In addition, it provides training on how to start and lead a home Bible study group and give personal Bible studies.

The lessons of Module 4 (“Leaders for Jesus”) deal with a thorough under­standing of the discipleship path. The goal of this module is to equip the members to start the process of multiplication by beginning a new discipleship group in order to inten­tionally lead people through the four stages of the discipleship path.

Wherever you are in your ministry, ask God to show you people (newly baptized or longtime members, young or old) to start this journey with you. On this journey, you will see them grow in their love for Jesus and their everyday walk with Him. And at the end, you will be blessed to see new workers and be richly rewarded yourself.

 

1.  The Youth in Mission Congress is a youth convention run by the Baden-Württemberg Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (SDA) but, for the most part, was started, owned, and organized by young people.

2.  All scriptures used in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible.

3.  Adapted from Leroy Eims, The Lost Art of Disciple Making (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1978), 183.

4.  Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 117.

5.  White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, 19.

6.  Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 149.

7.  Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1990), 199.

8.  Eims, The Lost Art of Disciple Making, 45, quoted in Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 75.

9.  Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1963), 117, quoted in Ogden, Transforming Discipleship, 67.

10. The Josiah Mission School is an evangelism training school run by the Baden-Württemberg Conference of SDAs that offers young people a ten-month training program. It was started in 2007.

11. This discipleship course is translated into English. If you are interested in learning more about this discipleship course and the concept of discipleship groups, go to our Web site http://www.discipleshipcourse.org/.


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Michael Dörnbrack pastors in the Baden-Württemberg Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Isny, Germany

May 2016

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