Why Discipleship Stunts Church Growth: Discipleship vs. Disciple-making

You’ve probably seen one of these humorous grammatical sayings:

Let’s eat grandma!
Let’s eat, grandma!
Punctuation saves lives!

There are two different meanings separated by the proper use of grammar. A small comma can make a significant difference; a distinction that changes everything. As it is with discipleship and disciple-making. One root word, disciple, with significant differences and outcomes. This is where the road divides – your definition on these two drastically different words will change the trajectory of your church. We don’t want to split hairs on issues that are not mission critical – but this one is.

How would you define the term discipleship? Try it out with some friends. Ask them to define discipleship and find the common theme. Here’s what was commonly communicated to us from friends and colleagues regarding discipleship:

  • The growth and maturity of the Christian to follow Jesus
  • A deeper study and growth group
  • It is a process of becoming equipped to overcome trials or temptations
  • Daily pursuit of spiritual disciplines
  • Assisting and helping others grow in their walk with God
  • Helping learn and implement tools for evangelism


What about disciple-making? How would you define this term?

The definition is rooted in a verb found in the New Testament Greek: mathetuo, to make disciples. Acts 14:21, “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.” In this verse, making disciples is connected to evangelism.

Matthew 28:19-20 defines making disciples as the whole process of conversion, baptism and obeying the commandments of Jesus. Matthew 28 holds a command to “make disciples who can make disciples.” The process is intended to be repeated and ongoing. It is a lifetime of followership to the ways of Jesus; mimicking His pattern and priorities to make disciples in ordinary rhythms of life. “Disciple” becomes an action, a way of life.

What is interesting is that the word “discipleship” isn’t used in the Bible. I don’t blame people for using the term. It is a concept that I readily used until recently. I have close friends and trusted ministry leaders who use the word discipleship as a holistic process from evangelism to maturity, but they are the few. Discipleship has largely become a term related solely to our growth as believers. Jesus didn’t command us just to go deeper and have a “discipleship” study to mature. He asks us to make a disciple and teach them to follow Jesus. Many of us (myself included) often get stuck in traditional “discipleship” methodologies without actually first making a disciple. Disciple-making encompases both evangelism and teaching to obey. Like two wings on the plane, both are equally important. Growth comes through reproduction… reproduction that continues to multiply.

Pause and think about the values and definitions used in your ministry.

Steps to embrace a disciple-making culture in your church:

  1. Use the language. Who is your disciple? Name them and pray for them.
  2. Ask several key ministry friends to define “discipleship” and listen to what they say.
  3. Check your heart, attitude and actions toward making disciples.
  4. Start equipping your people to reproduce… not just to “grow” but to “make.”