Chapter Four: Making Disciples
Billy Graham is one of the world’s most widely known and respected Christian leaders. Millions have heard him preach the gospel. Many thousands have responded to his call to commitment. Yet the churches have been able to assimilate only a fraction of the people who have made decisions for Christ at the meetings. In northern England, for example, a large number of young people made commitments to Christ during a major preaching mission in 1984. Now few, if any, attend a church. This is sad. Belonging to a church is essential to discipleship and a vital spiritual life. What went wrong?
For Christ and the Church
Christians must present the gospel in such a way that new people understand the role of the church before they make a commitment, rather than afterward. If the church is seen as an afterthought to the plan of salvation, people won’t grasp the full importance of membership and participation in the body of Christ. Even a quick reading of the New Testament will demonstrate the centrality of the church in the plan of God. Consider two passages from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus:
God placed all things under his [Christ’s] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body/ the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Eph. 1:22-23).
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:10-11).
God wills to bring everything under Christ’s authority. Christ has chosen the church to be his agent. The local church exists to please Christ and extend his kingdom. The church has genuine power and authority under the rule of Christ. Each community of faith must submit to the lordship of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures, through the power of the Holy Spirit. When people accept Jesus as lord, and are born again, they need the nurture and care of a local church.
Too often the preaching of the gospel is separated from an emphasis on membership in the church. It’s true that being a church member doesn’t make one a Christian. But it’s equally true that belonging to Christ means belonging to the church. Conversion and church membership are part of the same "package."
Russell Chiswell, pastor of a growing church in South Wales (noted in chapter three), declares he won’t lead to Christ a person not willing to make an equal commitment to the church. Perhaps this is why 90 of the last 100 conversions in his church have "stuck."
Jesus told his disciples:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).
The imperative in this saying is to make disciples. The rest of this "great commission" relates to it. If converts simply make decisions to follow Christ, rather than becoming disciples, the work of evangelism is unfinished.
Baptism is closely related to discipleship. This event marks the beginning of new life, a pledge to Christ and the church. It’s a public witness of dying to the old life and being born to the new (Rom. 6:1-4). It’s the pledge of a good conscience toward God (1 Pet. 3:21). It may mark receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) and joining the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).
One becomes a member of the church by being baptized into the body of Christ. The act of baptism is both spiritual and social. It marks a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It marks also joining a fellowship of believers. To be "born again" without joining a family of faith is like being born, then left on a hospital doorstep.
Teaching and obedience are also essential parts of Christ’s plan for discipleship. The apostles were to teach their converts to obey everything Christ had taught them.
People often come to faith in contexts outside the local church, including business luncheons, preaching rallies, youth concerts, church camps, and campus ministries. If those who respond to Christ have no local church, it’s crucial to provide an advocate to introduce them to the church. Perhaps one could call such a person a "bridgebuilder."
Bob Reed served as a kind of bridgebuilder in a Brethren in Christ church in Canada. He was an enthusiastic elder in the church who loved to welcome new people. Most of the people knew him because he wore a badge with his name on it.
Whenever Bob’s pastor led people to Christ, he encouraged them to call Bob with word of their new commitment. Even if it was late at night. Bob responded enthusiastically to such phone calls. The next Sunday, he met the new believer at the door and showed him or her special care and attention. The pastor testified that Bob provided an important helpful "receiving blanket" in his middle-sized church.
Whether or not bridgebuilders are appointed in your church, new Christians need some form of advocacy. How does your church welcome new people who have made commitments to Christ outside a local church?
Nurturing Disciples in the Local Church
The best way for evangelism to happen is for church members themselves to take responsibility to lead others to Christ. But how can this happen? How can the church develop an outreach which will draw people to both Christ and the church?
David Macfarlane, pastor of the Islington Evangel Centre in Toronto, offers an example. He looked for creative ways to win people to Christ and welcome them into the fellowship of his church. He has not been afraid to try new things. He discovered that non-Christians are most often present in the Sunday morning service, since this is the typical time people go to church. Consequently, Pastor Macfarlane always gives an evangelistic invitation in the middle of his Sunday morning sermon.
The first half of his message is geared to the unbeliever or the nominally committed. Here he tries to avoid "churchy" language and unfamiliar concepts. Then he gives an invitation. He invites adults who make a first-time commitment to raise their hands. They are immediately given some Christian literature and are invited to leave the service with counselors who meet with them in another room. Spouses of the respondents are invited to attend the counseling session. They often make their own commitment to Christ in that setting.
As the new believers are being counseled, Macfarlane finishes his sermon. He concentrates on the same theme but now focuses on those who are already committed. Using this approach, which balances a call to commitment with challenge to deepened commitment, the church sees an average of four or five adults make first-time commitments in each service.
"The key to successful nurture of new believers is relationships," says Macfarlane. "This is more important then taking a course or going through a study guide. After all, the church is relationships."
But how are these relationships formed? In this church, nurture groups are where new Christians find love and acceptance. There they also find special help to overcome problems such as alcohol or drug addiction.
Each Thursday night, the new believers from the preceding Sunday come to the church. They are personally interviewed to confirm their commitment to Christ and address special needs. At the end of this interview, they are introduced to the person who will lead a 16-week nurture group.
Whenever possible, the group consists of two committed Christians and three new converts. This ratio and umber have proved key to the success of the nurture groups. During the nurture group sessions, people develop lasting relationships. In addition to the group interaction, new believers are encouraged by telephone calls and personal visits. At the end of the 16 weeks, "graduates" can join another 13-week course with a larger group. A broader range of relationships is established during that time.
Six months after committing their lives to Christ, these new believers have formed many new friendships. They have also been encouraged to invite their friends to church. Many of these friends become Christians and join the network of new believers in the nurture groups. Having friends come to Christ encourages new believers in their walk with Christ.
An Italian Catholic couple once visited the church after receiving a fruit basket from the church at Christmastime. They called to thank the church for the gift, and were invited to attend the services. They indicated that they had no car, so the church provided transportation. They came to church and made a commitment to Christ that Sunday, and joined a nurture group. Immediately, they began to invite others to come to the church. Within a matter of months, they saw 18 of their friends and neighbors make first-time commitments to Jesus Christ in the church services.
Of those who make a decision for Christ at Islington Evangel Centre, 75 percent choose to become part of a nurture group. Of those who join a nurture group, 95 percent stay in the church. As a result, the church has grown steadily over the past ten years.
One woman, a member of a neighboring church, often attends with a non-Christian friend. She knows there will be an evangelistic invitation in each service. If the friend comes to Jesus Christ, she invites her or him back to her church for nurture and fellowship. Neither church minds, since this helps build a spirit of cooperation. They believe there is so much evangelistic work to be done they can’t afford to compete with each other. In the words of another pastor, "Arguing over who should evangelize in a neighborhood is like two ants arguing over who should get to eat the elephant."
Growing as New Disciples
We have noted the importance of building relationships between new and older Christians. It’s equally important that new Christians develop a deepening relationship with Christ reflected in practical living. As a churchman once said, "No one can truly know Christ, unless he follow him in life." The apostles Peter and Paul both wrote to new Christians, expressing their concern for their ongoing growth.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness (Col. 2:6-7).
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good (1 Peter 2:2-3).
Sometimes, new believers are disappointingly slow in their progress. The writer to the Hebrews seems to have experienced this.
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:11-14).
How can the church best help new Christians really become disciples? How can the church provide a context for steady Christian growth? Beyond the regular fellowship of a nurture group, how can a church lead a new disciple to become mature in Christ? These questions will help focus the remainder of this chapter.
Praying for New Believers
One essential ministry to new believers is to pray for them. In a sense, intercessory prayer is a form of advocacy. In his letters to new churches, the apostle Paul told the new Christians how he was praying for them. As you read the prayers that follow, think of a new Christian you know, and breathe the same prayer for him or her.
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe (Eph. 1:17-19).
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you…may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ . . . (Eph. 3:16-18).
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ . . . (Phil. 1:9-10).
… we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you … (2 Thess. 1:11-12).
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ (Philemon v. 6).
New Believers Class
Some congregations have had great success with a special class for new believers. On one hand, this may simply be another name for a nurture group. On the other hand, it may be more focused on curriculum materials to be mastered by the student. At the end of this chapter, you’ll find a listing of materials you might consider using if you don’t presently have such a class.
Al Wollen (noted in chapters one and eight) encourages churches to use printed curriculum materials sparingly for new believers. Otherwise they may feel they can’t study Scripture without them. He believes it best to help them learn to study the Bible. He has training materials to help small-group leaders ask stimulating questions. These can then help new believers dig into the Scriptures for answers.
It can also be argued that written study guides give students a chance to study alone and prepare a written lesson ahead of time. Students can then come together to share what they have learned. In this way, new believers can develop the discipline of personal Bible study. Whatever method you use, you must provide a structured opportunity for new Christians to learn and obey the Scriptures. And in every situation of life, teach them to ask, "What would Jesus do?"
For Review, Study, and Action
- Discuss the relationship between conversion and church membership. How can new Christians be taught the importance of the church?
- Think of the bridgebuilders, if any, in your church. How might they serve more effectively? For whom could you be a bridgebuilder?
- Consider the example of the Islington Evangel Centre. What appeals to you about the way new believers become part of that church? What would you ask the pastor if you had the opportunity?
- Do you give opportunity for people to make a first-time decision for Christ in your worship services? Make a list of opportunities your church provides for people to become disciples.
- How does your church provide for the nurture of new believers?
- Study the apostle Paul’s prayers for new believers. Underline or make a list of the things he was praying for. In what way does your church encourage and practice prayer for new believers?
- What kind of new believers class, if any, do you offer? What is the ratio of new believers to older church members?
For Further Help
Being God’s People, by Ervin Stutzman (Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, Pa. 15683-1999). This is a 13- lesson study for new believers.
Churches Alive, Box 3800, San Bernardino, Calif. 92413. This agency serves the local church with materials to help make disciples.
Improving Your Serve, by Charles R. Swindoll (Waco: Word Books, 1981). A helpful book on practical spirituality.
The Serendipity Bible for Study Groups, Lyman Coleman, editor-in-chief (Serendipity House, 1988). Using the entire text of the New International Version of the Bible, this study guide can help to stimulate group study on any biblical passage. It’s as helpful for mature Christians as it is for those who have little acquaintance with Christianity.