Don’t Make Disciples


I’ve noticed a trend in American churches over the past fifteen years or so: an increased focus on discipleship as the core of our mission[1]. I haven’t studied enough church history, either early or recent, to know if this is a new or a renewed focus; in either case, it is a good thing. After all, didn’t Jesus commission the apostles, and therefore the church, to “go and make disciples”?

Well, yes… and no. As the late missiologist David Mays states, “Make disciples is NOT the core of the Great Commission.” Mays suggests that “make disciples” is at best a poor translation, and explains the grammar of the Greek text to provide a more accurate rendering of the heart of Matthew 28:19: “disciple all nations.”[2] That doesn’t change the church’s mission, however. Mays acknowledges, as do I, that the church is certainly in the business of making disciples, and that one of her biggest failings is her failure to do that well. His concern, though, was that the church has focused her disciple-making efforts locally and neglected the global—the “all nations”—emphasis of Jesus’ command.

I agree with Mays’ global concern; it is one of my passions as a disciple and as a pastor. But for the present I want to focus attention on a different result of the poor translation of Jesus’ words. When we focus on the two words, “make disciples”, we put ourselves in a production mindset. We identify a product, disciples, and the characteristics the product should have; then we build a production cycle to turn out that product. An unfathomable array of books and manuals and programs is offered to churches and individuals to guide, streamline, and improve the efficiency of the production.

But we are not producers, we are reproducers. In the English Standard Version, the word disciple appears 269 times: once in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 8:16; 238 times in the gospels; 30 in the rest of the New Testament. The overwhelming majority of those references are simply identifying a certain group of people—Jesus’ disciples, John’s disciples, the disciples of the Pharisees. Very few provide either description or prescription about what a disciple is or should be; fewer than a dozen, in fact. in other words, Scripture offers no schematics, no blueprints, no engineering plans detailing what the product—a disciple—should look like.

Yet we have systematized the Great Commission. We have laid disciple-making on an assembly line, trying to turn out disciples the way Henry Ford turned out Model T’s. Think about this, though: you’ve never seen an assembly line in a hospital maternity ward. Babies are not produced. Adolescents are not “new and improved” versions of their younger selves. (I can here all the parents of teens shouting “Amen!”) Adults are never finished products. The linear, piece-by-piece-by-piece assembly line that revolutionized manufacturing production is a miserable failure in the reproduction of disciples.

If the church is to recover her discipleship mission, she must shift her mindset from production to reproduction. She must view the Great Commission (Matthew 28) through the lens of the first commission (Genesis 1:28): Be fruitful and multiply. Indeed, some of the most helpful passages to guide our thinking about discipleship use this word “fruit”; it is the language of farming, not the language of manufacturing. Paul calls both Timothy and Titus “my true son” [1 Tim 2:2, Titus 1:4]; he likens himself to a nursing mother and the Thessalonians as his own children [1 Thess 2:7]. These are not images of manufacturing, but of parenting.

When churches emphasize making disciples, we get sidetracked by discussions that never crossed Jesus’ lips. When we strive instead to reproduce disciples, it will change our language, our perspective, and our efforts. Next week I will look at some key differences between making disciples and discipling—between production and reproduction.

[1] This post is an expansion of thoughts originally posted online in response to a blog from Ed Stetzer, “Overcoming the Discipleship Deficit“.
[2] David Mays, “Shooting Sacred Cows,” Keynote address, Harvest Conference, San Jose, CA, May 1, 2010.

© 2015 by Randall J. Ehle. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *