Church Planting and Disciple Making: How Mission Makes Us More Like Christ

The priority of disciple making is undeniable in the Bible. Jesus made it abundantly clear that we are to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). Put one way, the heart of the church’s mission is making disciples who make disciples.

So where does church planting fit into this mission? What is its relationship to disciple making? And what exactly do we mean by biblical discipleship?

The Core of Discipleship

In many contexts when people think of “discipleship” they think of “mentorship.” They imagine older folks who are reaching the end of their journey and are now blessing others with the fountain of wisdom they’ve discovered. But discipleship also includes friendship, casual conversations, formal gatherings, and so on. Almost anything, in fact, can be a part of discipleship if it’s pursued with theological clarity and intentionality.

“The heart of the church’s mission is making disciples who make disciples.”

This is why Mark Dever defines discipleship as “helping others follow Jesus.” That is something that every Christian is called to do. Indeed, everything in the life of the church finds its place in relationship to the calling to help others follow Jesus.

If a person is far from Christ, this means introducing them to the truth about Christ (i.e., evangelism). Yet if a person is new in Christ, this means helping them take the first steps of following Jesus in repentance and faith. That, in turn, means baptizing them and teaching them how to obey all that Jesus has commanded (Matt. 28:20).

How Discipleship Relates to Planting

When you define discipleship as “helping others follow Jesus,” the relationship of discipleship to church planting becomes clear. For just as some have said that missions is church planting or it’s not missions, in a similar way church planting is discipleship or it’s not church planting.

That’s because we are discipling others—and being discipled by others—as we plant a church. For in every activity at every stage in the life of the church, God uses the same message to accomplish his work. The gospel both saves and sanctifies. It’s what first made us disciples of Jesus, and it’s what continues to build us up after we have believed in him (Acts 20:32). We never graduate from the school of Christ (2 Tim. 3:14–15).

“Church planting is discipleship or it’s not church planting.”

In this way, church planting is not merely the end of the line for the disciple making process, as if planting were a result that emerged after many other practices (e.g., evangelism, training, pastoral appointment). Rather, church planting is an aspect of, and catalyst for, the church’s disciple making mission.

Churches Need a Culture of Discipleship

If we want to see God glorified in the world through the mission of the church, discipleship must be one of our highest priorities. This is not only because it is biblically mandated but also because making disciples who make disciples remains the surest way to grow the church. (This is not pragmatism, by the way. We’re not saying that disciple making is right because it works. We’re saying that disciple making works because it’s right!)

Almost everywhere except (maybe) the buckle of the Bible Belt, churches do not grow through big, flashy programs and advertisements. Instead, churches depend on the engagement of every member in their workplaces and neighborhoods, in the market, and around the dinner table. These are where real, effective conversations about Jesus take place.

Church planters, therefore, must be able to develop a culture of biblical discipleship in their churches. They must equip men and women to own their roles as active participants in the life of the church and the work of church planting (Eph. 4:11–16).

Planters Need a Putting Game

It takes more than one kind of teaching to make disciples. By way of analogy, consider the variety of clubs needed to play golf. You need drivers to cover a lot of ground. You need irons for their balance between distance and finesse. Lastly, you need putters for extreme precision. In the life of the church, preaching in the large gathering would be like the drivers. Small group discussions would be the irons, and one-on-one conversations would be the putters.

“Church planting is an aspect of, and catalyst for, the church’s disciple making mission.”

Now if you ever watch guys practicing at a golf course, the amateurs are usually swinging away with their drivers. But the real pros are practicing with their irons and working on their putting game. (You drive for show but putt for dough, as the old saying goes.)

Too many church planters have flashy drivers, but they lack a putter. This is a problem when it comes to making disciples because most of the real work takes place in iron- and putter-type conversations. You need all kinds of teaching, to be sure. But more time is spent doing 2 Timothy 2:2 ministry than 2 Timothy 4:2 ministry. Getting this emphasis wrong won’t help others follow Jesus as much as we otherwise could have.

Growing by Disciple Making: God’s Sanctifying Mission

Shortly before he was crucified, Christ prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17 ESV). In the next sentence, he said that he’s not asking God to take us out of the world but to send us into the world (John 17:18). So, then, Christ’s intentions for us are twofold: he sets us apart from sin and he sets us apart for mission.

Yet we are not only sanctified for mission, we are also sanctified through mission. This is because sanctification, or growth in Christ, does not come merely by learning about Jesus. It also requires doing what he has asked us to do (James 1:22). Thus disciple making is not the finish line of sanctification. We don’t attain the status of “disciple maker” or “missionary” as the final sign that we have arrived. Rather, missions is a means of sanctification. It is one of the primary tools that God uses to mature our souls.

“We are not only sanctified for mission, we are also sanctified through mission.”

Simply put, mission has a sanctifying role in our lives that is only achieved through obedience to the disciple making mandate. As we seek to be faithful to Christ, the size of the task, the stakes at hand, and the limited nature of our resources will rightly make us feel desperate. It will ignite our prayer lives. And it will reinforce the significance of Christ and the world’s need for him all while we continue to grow as disciple-making disciples.

This article is adapted with permission from an episode of Churches Planting Churches, a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting.