Build Leaders by Making Disciples

Jim Whelchel - Christ's Commission Fellowship

Today it is popular to talk about our need for more spiritual leaders. We are laser-­focused on leadership development. We are told it is the key to grow churches and expand the kingdom. Particularly in the West, programs have proliferated in the past 20 years to meet the great need for leaders. Many such programs have been exported to the church around the world.

Unfortunately, we still have a dearth of spiritual leaders. With all these leadership development opportunities, how many churches or Christian organizations today have an overabundance of leaders? Even many of those we train lack spiritual depth, prove to be ineffective or – worse – leave the ministry because of moral failure.  

Perhaps the solution is not more or better leadership programs. Perhaps the real need is more disciples and disciple-­makers.  

Jesus’ strategy to build leaders was to make disciples. He didn’t establish formal training institutes

Jesus’ strategy to build leaders was to make disciples. He didn’t establish ­formal training institutes (even with “Great Commission” in their name). He didn’t found the Jerusalem Bible College, or write cutting edge leadership articles for the Sanhedrin Business Review. He didn’t even publish a curriculum for equipping future pastors. He just made disciples.  

Few people today, especially in legacy churches, have ever experienced personal discipleship. The methodology of Jesus is alien to our formal, classroom-­oriented, curriculum-­based discipleship programs. He just spent time with his disciples, and used His own teaching, the Scriptures, His example and real-­life experiences as His curriculum.  

Over the past ten years, I have been privileged to watch a church movement to grow in South Asia – from a few house churches to thousands today. Along the way, God has raised leaders organically from within these house churches. Almost everyone came to Christ through that movement. Tens of thousands of lives have been transformed. They have lived out Acts 2:42-47. Today there are thousands of lay pastors, trainers and movement leaders who are helping to grow the movement.  

This has happened because house churches effectively replicate Jesus’ discipleship process: growing believers in a loving and accountable small group environment, and mobilizing them to reach out and do the same with others. These disciplers (our preferred term for movement leaders) naturally rise up and reproduce.  

The key leaders must start with discipleship DNA learned in the context of the house churches.

As we grow we have added training for organizational leaders. The movement is so large and dynamic we need to continue to upgrade our leaders. But the training builds on the foundation that has already been laid through discipleship in the house churches. It is not a separate track to recruit and “import” leaders from outside. The key leaders must start with discipleship DNA learned in the context of the house churches.

How does this relate to those who are not developing house church movements? The principles are the same. My wife and I are part of a church that is structured around the same discipleship process. Thirty-­two years ago it started as a small group Bible study that multiplied and became a church. Today its membership is over 60,000, the vast majority of whom are discipling or being discipled in small groups with characteristics similar to house churches. What works in house churches also works in large churches – making multiplying disciples in small groups.

Discipleship is an explicit command to Jesus’ followers – to you and me. And multiplication is implicit in the Great Commission: … “go therefore and make disciples…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”

If you find yourself spending most of your time teaching a curriculum, conducting training activities, participating in leadership conferences, devising leadership programs, etc., you may want to step back and evaluate. Are you making disciples?

If you are not sure, probe a little more. Who are you meeting with regularly to intentionally pour your life into? Are they doing the same with others? If you asked them, could they confidently say they know how to disciple others?

If you want more leaders who can fulfill the Great Commission of Christ, make disciples who multiply.

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