Tim Madding, DMin, is director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

When I was assigned to the Renton Seventh-day Adventist Church,1 about 25 people attended regularly. It was once a thriving congregation, but in the few years prior to my arrival, it had been in a state of constant decline and was on the verge of closure. The conference administration asked me to serve as the pastor in hopes of revitalizing it. Collaborating with the local church leaders and spending considerable time in prayer and study, we were able to clarify the church’s purpose, get it back on mission, and develop an intentional discipleship pathway that restored it to health and significance again.

A lack of clarity

Renton Church was not unlike many churches today. Most congregations in North America are either plateaued or declining, and nearly a third of them are not baptizing a single person each year.2 Why are churches struggling? Though many factors are involved,3 I believe the greatest cause is a lack of clarity among the local church leadership. Most churches do not fully understand the reason for their existence. Week after week, they gather for worship and host a variety of programs without defining the reason behind them. Such churches lack purpose and do not take the time to clarify their mission.

As a result, many congregations often default to other nonbiblical, non-missional factors in shaping their ministry. Some of the most common driving forces are tradition (doing things the way we always have), finances (making decisions based on a scarcity mindset as resources continue to decline), and types of events (most for their own internal benefit). Such churches continually fill the calendar with one event after the other, feeling productive yet never taking the time to evaluate whether what they are doing is fulfilling the real purpose of the church. Sadly, it takes them off mission, making them more internally focused.

“Many churches get involved in good projects, and people feel good about doing them, but if those projects are not helping the church fulfill Christ’s commission, then they are only camouflaging disobedience to Christ.”4 That was the case for the Renton church. Though they had several yearly events and were continuing with many of the regular church functions, the congregation and its leadership had lost their missional purpose. If the Renton church was to experience revitalization and growth, our first task was to stop and reflect on God’s purpose for it because, as Solomon wisely penned, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Prov. 19:21, NIV). I asked the church board, both in meetings and in one-on-one visits, “What is the Lord’s intent for our church?” We had to move the church leadership from a church ministry based on their internal goals to searching the Bible earnestly for the Lord’s purpose and asking, “Why are we here?”

Although God can use sermons, Bible study guides, books, podcasts, and classes, His primary method of disciple-making is through relationships with other people.

Ellen White says the first work of the church should be to diligently search the Bible for clarity in mission and then develop ministry around it. “The members of the church should give diligent attention to the word of God, that they may understand their duty, and then labor with all their energies of the mind and heart to make their church one of the most prosperous in the land.”5

What is our mission?

The Christ-given mission of the church has always been that of making disciples. More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus established the church’s reason for existence.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19, 20, NASB).6

Churches struggle today because they focus on things other than our mission. Not convinced? It is a well-known principle that you measure what you value. On any given weekend, church leaders can often share data on what they consider important. They know how many programs are on the church calendar. They know how many people attended the church service, Sabbath School, or an event. They know how much tithe and offerings were given. They share the number of baptisms from year to year and how many members are on the church books. That is all good data to track, but ask them how many disciples there are in the church, and they look at you with a bewildered expression.

Because church leaders cannot define what a disciple is, they are unable to track how many are in a congregation. When metrics focus on details other than disciple-making, the church does not develop disciples. And when the church is not fostering disciples, it plateaus and declines.

How can you measure what you cannot identify? Once Renton church leaders realized that their mission was to make disciples, they began to reflect on what a disciple is.

What is a disciple?

Someone employed by a business should know with certainty what their company produces. If they do not know, we would question the organization’s success and strength. The Renton church was supposed to be in the business of making disciples, and yet most of our leaders lacked an understanding of what a disciple is—they did not know what we are supposed to be producing. Once we determined that we were to be making disciples, we then had to define what a disciple is.

The Greek word mathēteuō is translated as “disciple.” Mathēteuō is often defined as “to be the disciple of one; to follow his precepts and instruction.” In the Christian context, we understand that a disciple is someone who chooses to follow Jesus’ teachings and life. That occurs when an individual willingly surrenders their will (Luke 9:23–25; 14:25–33; Matt. 16:24–26), dies to self (John 3:3–7; Gal. 2:20), and follows Jesus (Mark 1:17; John 1:43; Matt. 4:19). They believe what Jesus taught (John 8:31, 32; Acts 2:42) and live like Jesus did (Matt. 20:26–28; 4:19; John 20:21–23). Biblically, the person will demonstrate their decision through baptism (Rom. 6:4–8). Baptism is a public proclamation that an individual seeks to become a disciple.

Discipleship is a journey—not a destination

According to the gospel commission, the mission of the church is disciple-making, not baptism. Baptism is a crucial, exciting beginning part of disciple-making and something to track, but it is not the mission itself. The church is to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them . . .” It is not the goal; it is just the first step in discipleship. The purpose of discipleship, then, is to see disciples grow in their spiritual journey, ultimately to a level of maturity (Heb. 6:1; Phil. 3:12–14).

As disciples mature, they continue to become more and more like Jesus in their lives. It reveals itself in ministry in the church (Eph. 4:11, 12;
1 Cor. 12), love for one another (John 13:34, 35), the manifestation of spiritual fruit in the life (John 15:8; Gal. 5:22, 23; Col. 1:10), and discipleship of others (Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8; 14:21). In time, mature disciples will make disciples of others.

Discipleship happens through relationships

Although God can use sermons, Bible study guides, books, podcasts, and classes, His primary method of disciple-making is through relationships with other people.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:23–25, NASB). Paul says that the church assembles “to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (v. 24) and should be “encouraging one another” (v. 25). This is discipleship in practice.

When Jesus was actively discipling His followers, He did it by personally and relationally connecting with them. “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing” (John 3:22, NASB).

Jesus’ methodology of discipleship involved spending time with His disciples. In verse 22, John uses diatribō to explain how He accomplished that. Although translated as “spending time with,” a literal translation would be “to rub against or to rub off.” Note the personal connection. Jesus rubbed against or rubbed off on His disciples.

When the Renton church began to focus its church ministry on fulfilling the gospel commission of making disciples, it began to develop a ministry that created opportunities at the church and in the community in which relationships could develop, places where God could use disciples to disciple others. Ultimately, it involved establishing an environment in which God used disciples to make disciple-makers.

Once the Renton church leaders understood their mission of making disciples (bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus) and had identified what a mature disciple was (empowering them to grow into maturity so that they, in turn, are discipling others), we began breaking down the steps in a discipleship process so that the church’s entire ministry focus was on disciple-making.

Creating a discipleship pathway

Again, if an employee knew not only what the company makes but also the steps or process of producing it, even if not directly involved with each step of the process, they would be even more valuable to the organization.

How does the church make disciples? To do this, Renton church leaders, when studying the mission of the church, identified the process of developing mature disciples. Church leaders asked, “When I see a person fulfilling the mission of the church, what steps would be involved?” Understanding their mission was to develop mature disciples who, in turn, would make disciples of others, the church leadership identified four steps in the discipleship process that created growth in the disciple, articulating them through alliteration:

  1. Membership—to see people giving their lives to Christ and becoming actively involved in the local church.
  2. Ministry—to see people contributing their lives to Christ by serving in the local church.
  3. Mission—to see people connecting their lives to Christ by sharing His love with others in their community.
  4. Maturity—to see people committing their lives to Christ and growing in spiritual maturity.

Once the steps were identified, church leadership either created new ministries or realigned existing ones and modeled everything around each phase of the disciple-making process. Everything! The worship experience, Sabbath School, ministries, events, and the budget were either adjusted or repurposed toward the process of disciple-making.

As a result of intense time in prayer, Bible study, and making intentional changes, the Renton church was harmoniously working together in a shared mission of disciple-making. In addition to baptisms and attendance, church leaders began tracking the number of disciples we had in each step of the discipleship process.

We could see the manifestation of the Holy Spirit as people were coming to Christ. Baptisms became a regular part of church life. People shared their faith in Jesus, invited others to attend church, and gave Bible studies. People were using their gifts in ministry, getting involved in serving the community, and discipling others. Back on mission and spiritually healthy, the revitalized Renton church grew.

  1. I served as pastor of the Renton Seventh-day Adventist Church of the Washington Conference for four years starting in 2002.
  2. Statistics are from Barna Research Group, Rainer’s Church Answers, and eAdventist Membership.
  3. Among the factors that prevent church growth are spiritual consumerism, spectator spirituality, church conflict, spiritual feebleness, pastoral-centric ministry, and a general lack of love for the lost.
  4. Russell Burrill, Waking the Dead (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald., 2004), 23.
  5. Ellen G. White, “Scattered Churches,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Sept. 6, 1881, 1.
  6. The Great Commission passages: Matthew 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46–49; John 20:21; Acts 1:8.

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Tim Madding, DMin, is director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

June 2024

Ministry Cover

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