Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a six-part series of articles commenting on the missionary task. For the official and complete version of the missionary task as defined by IMB, please refer to the IMB Foundations Magazine. Each article in this series covers a single component of the six-part missionary task in the following order: Entry, Evangelism, Disciple Making, Church Formation (forthcoming), Leadership Development (forthcoming), and Exit and Partnership (forthcoming).
The Great Commission of Christ is centered on the command to make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). Teasing that out further, the apostle Paul taught that the church’s mission is making disciples who make disciples (2 Tim. 2:2). And to sustain healthy discipleship multiplication, IMB has clarified the missionary task.
The task includes six elements, beginning with entry into a new culture. Once among a new people, the opportunity for evangelism begins, which, in turn, leads to discipleship. Any discipleship effort will be short-lived if it doesn’t lead to other pivotal aspects of the missionary task such as church formation, leadership development, and strategically planned exit and partnership.
To be clear, by disciple we mean more than a person who has mastered a certain body of information or is practicing a set of spiritual disciplines, including sharing the gospel. The aim of discipleship is nothing less than the complete transformation of the believer’s heart, mind, affections, will, relationships, and purpose.
Since every area of life, then, is to be ruled by the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:9), we pray, teach, and lead toward that end, trusting the Holy Spirit to create what is by nature completely foreign to fallen people—a genuine hunger and thirst for righteousness and progressive growth in godly character (Titus 2:11–14).
“The aim of discipleship is nothing less than the complete transformation of the believer’s heart, mind, affections, will, relationships, and purpose.”
A Healthy Plan
The essential tools for disciple making are the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the people of God. First, all disciples of Jesus need a thorough knowledge of Scripture. We’ve found that new disciples need to grasp at least three aspects of the Bible. They need an understanding of the big picture of the Bible—God’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. They also need the ability to study the Bible effectively and responsibly for themselves. And finally, they need to be taught the major themes of the Bible such as the nature of God, holiness, sin, judgment, salvation, love, and truth.
Secondly, only the Holy Spirit can take the Word of God and use it to transform every area of a disciple’s life. New Christians must embark on a lifetime of discipleship in conscious dependence on the power and work of the Holy Spirit. They must learn to live and walk in the power of the Spirit of God to grow in godly character.
Finally, Scripture makes it clear that discipleship ordinarily happens in the context of the local church. Biblical discipleship requires the gifts and input of everyone in the body of Christ. It’s important to note that where there are no churches, church planting—the fourth element of the missionary task—becomes a non-negotiable component of making disciples.
All missionary teams—and church partners—should have a robust, healthy discipleship plan for new believers that includes elements such as baptism, local church membership, and basic spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, worship, fasting, and sharing the gospel. Furthermore, new believers need ongoing training in areas like biblical marriage, parenting, family life, a biblical understanding of work, the church, suffering and persecution, integrity, and a new identity in Christ that supersedes any earthly identity.
As 2 Corinthians 5:17 clearly instructs, anyone in Christ is a new creation—the old passes away and the new replaces it. Discipleship that does not lead to transformation and the obedience of faith is not biblical discipleship.
Pitfalls and Benefits
One pitfall that can happen in discipleship is failing to aim instruction at the deepest level of the hearer’s core beliefs about identity, origin, meaning, ultimate value, morality, and destiny—in other words, one’s worldview. Without intentional aim toward true transformation that penetrates a new believer’s worldview, syncretism results. Syncretism—the mixing of Christian-like changes in belief and behavior with non-Christian beliefs—undermines a pure, biblical foundation that is absolutely necessary for discipleship multiplication.
A second pitfall is the temptation to embrace a solo faith. Disciples must learn to regard themselves as responsible for each other’s spiritual health. Every believer should be trained and encouraged to involve themselves in one another’s lives and to exercise their gifts in service to one another.
Thirdly, while missionaries and churches may focus their attention on those whom God has gifted to be leaders, we must not neglect others or relegate them to second-class status in the church. We must establish discipleship patterns and practices that value all members of the body of Christ.
Finally, anchoring discipleship in the local church is paramount in order to avoid serious pitfalls to effective discipleship. The preaching, teaching, worship, fellowship, and ministry of the church are all necessary components of the discipleship of each believer. Effective discipleship also benefits the foundational health of the church.
Discipleship in the Framework of the Six-Part Missionary Task
Discipleship, then, is at the very heart of the Great Commission. Its purpose is to present every man and woman complete in Christ. Disciples include strong believers and weak saints, dynamic leaders and quiet servants.
Effective discipleship follows entry and evangelism in the missionary task. However, as we will see, discipleship is not the end of our task. Disciples must be gathered into newly formed churches. And to ensure the health of new churches, leaders must be trained before missionaries can exit to leave them to lead on their own.
D. Ray Davis serves on the mobilization team at IMB. He and his family previously served among Sub-Saharan African peoples. You can follow him @DRayDavis.