Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Difficult Task of Disciple Making


The Difficult Task of Disciple Making

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," Jesus announced. "Go therefore and make disciples." When it comes to the mission of believers in this world, few would question the importance of these marching orders. Carrying them out, however, isn't so easy. Consider two scenarios:
1. A middle-aged woman is approached by a young single mom with a full-time job and two kids. The busy mom has been a Christian for decades and is solid on biblical doctrine, but she's currently struggling with personal issues and wants someone to help walk her through this season of life. Because of her work schedule, she can only meet for the summer.
2. A Christian college student is trying to invest in a group of high school athletes. Most of them are brand-new believers, struggling with typical high school issues, and can meet for at least the next year.
Would you recommend taking these people from different backgrounds---with different needs and time commitments---and handing them the same discipleship curriculum?
Consider Downline Builder, a customizable curriculum designed to meet people where they are and foster spiritual maturity in the context of real relationships. In contrast to a one-size-fits-all format, the Downline Builder enables users to personalize scriptural content to fit their specific needs. I corresponded with Downline Ministries director of resources Jason Seville [Twitter | email] about their promising new disciple-making tool.
Downline Ministries has trained thousands of disciple-makers in the past five years through your institute program and summit weekends. What do you find people struggle with most when it comes to making disciples?
There are many reasons people struggle, but the biggest one in our experience is that they either lack a clear understanding of what it looks like to disciple someone, or they have an image of discipleship that is far too shallow. For instance, many people think of discipleship merely in terms of Christian education---going to a coffee shop every Wednesday morning to read the Bible or a Christian book together. This lack of a clear picture of true discipleship results in not feeling qualified or competent to make disciples. Around Downline, we like to speak of discipleship as "truth and life transference in the context of real relationships," which is something almost anyone can do.
So the short answer to this question is "competency." In general, people won't gravitate toward what they feel incompetent to do. We think we have some training (and a new tool) to help with this weakness, but it is still the most common problem we encounter.
Discipleship has always been valued and talked about in the church, but it currently seems to be even more of a trending topic. Why do you think this is the case?
Downline works closely with hundreds of local churches, and the majority of the leaders we talk to say that discipleship is a glaring weakness in their church (and the same is true of our interaction with parachurch leaders). This is no secret, as the recent influx of studies, books, articles, and blogs on discipleship will attest. Discipleship is "trending" because everyone's recognizing it as a huge need.
Perhaps more importantly, we attribute this to the sovereign grace of God as he guides his church. He has raised up some incredible pastors, elders, and leaders around the world, and when they all have a common word on their hearts, at the risk of sounding cliché, it's a God thing. We feel that he is graciously leading his flock toward a return to biblical discipleship. If Downline were the only group talking about discipleship, we'd be very discouraged. But we feel like we're part of a huge movement of churches and believers who want to see a restoration of biblical discipleship.
In your opinion, what does the current world of discipleship curriculum get right and get wrong? 
After extensive research on discipleship curricula, I am greatly encouraged by the sheer volume of rich theological and practical content on the market. I also rejoice at some of the stalwart resources that have been out for decades and stood the test of time.
However, there are two things that I can't help but see as huge oversights. First, there aren't any easily accessible avenues to train disciple-makers to use this rich content to, as we say, "meet people where they are." Most resources seem very cookie-cutter to me, as if I should use the same ten lessons with a 22-year old New York urbanite that I would with a 37-year-old small business owner. Second, the problem with most---if not all---curriculum is that it doesn't force, or even provide accountability for, authentic relationships. Any curriculum should complement the relationship, not replace it. The relationship has to drive true discipleship in order for it to be truly transformative.
What led you to develop the Downline Builder?
Ironically, for the reasons listed above, I've always been anti-curriculum, because I never found a resource that easily allowed for contextualization and majored on relationship. So the genesis of the Builder was really the weight that culminated from the first three questions above.
When Downline asked me to work on a new curriculum, my previous experience and research led me to the following conclusions: (1) it had to be based on Scripture; (2) it had to somehow have a major focus on both truth and life transference: it couldn't be a "let's just sit down and study systematic theology" curriculum, and it couldn't be a "let's just share about our feelings" curriculum; and (3) it had to somehow allow the user to customize it to meet the specific needs of the folks they were pouring into. The only way we could conceptualize a curriculum that would do these things was to move away from printed material and make it a web-based tool.
What makes this resource unique in the vast world of discipleship curricula? 
First, the ability to customize the Builder equips you to do contextual ministry. Once you log in, you have to fill out a page on the person you are discipling or group you are leading. Based on that information, we'll give you a blank table of contents and list of suggested lessons to cover.
Second, it requires relationship building. When you build a curriculum, you must plan what we call a "life on life" session after every two lessons that you put in your table of contents. You can't download or print your curriculum unless you include these fields. These will be things like working out together, running errands, sharing a meal, doing evangelism, engaging in a service project, and so on.
Third, the process equips you to be a disciple-maker as much as the product does. Thinking through various growth areas for each person you're discipling and personalizing a plan will hopefully train you to think more intentionally about what the next spiritual growth steps are for brothers and sisters in your areas of influence.
fourth uniqueness is the ever-expanding library of doctrinal and practical lessons. You will never have to pay for a "volume two" of the Builder. We'll keep adding lessons (even ones that you suggest) and as long as you have access, you can use the new lessons we add.
Finally, we feel that our payment philosophy is rare, as evidenced by the fact that we've driven our marketing consultants crazy. Our primary objective has always been to have a tool that could help equip and ignite a movement of biblical discipleship across the globe. For this reason, we went with a subscription model that allows you annual access for a very affordable price. If you buy an annual subscription, it's "all you can eat" for the whole year. We could have gone with a pay-per-lesson model, but we didn't like the idea of people trying to see how little they could do and still be effective.
This affordable price meshes well with our desire to get the Builder in other languages as quickly as possible. We have a fairly aggressive translation strategy that will attempt four new languages every year.
We truly hope that God would use this tool to equip pastors, elders, missionaries, and laymen/women worldwide. 
Downline has decided to give the TGC family a 40% off coupon code up through April. Go to and sign up. Enter the code "TGCdiscount" at checkout to receive your discount. 
Matt Smethurst is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.


  1. Praise God for this! Very very very timely. I have been working to encourage exactly this kind of discipleship at my church and this article will be invaluable in assisting me in providing structure to this.
  2. Thank you for spotlighting this very important resource. I can see so many uses for this around the world to train up brothers and sisters in Christ in their faith.
  3. I had not heard of this resource. I would be interested in a direct comparison of the philosophy of this tool versus the coming Gospel Project.
  4. maybe I am young and naive, but I don't understand why discipleship isn't life on life relationships......centered around the Bible. Why don't we open the Bible and read/study it while sharing life?
    My assumption is that either:
    1)we don't think its interesting enough.....or we cannot make it interesting..... so we seek books "based" on the bible...or even book studies outside the bible all together!
    2) we don't know how to read it and therefore we seek curriculum to disciple people and perpetuate this problem of not getting into the bible. We let others do the hard exegetical work and get spoon fed the context and application.
    You mentioned Jesus. What curriculum did Jesus use? Unfortunately I am not God and can speak the words of God, but I do have his words written down....I choose that as curriculum.
    If the goal of the disciple is to become Christ-like and sanctified and that is accomplished by getting to know God more.....and God's word is the best way we can know God.....why don't we dig into it?
    Again, I assume the above I thinking too simply? Always willing to hear when I am wrong.
  5. David,
    I think you're exactly right! Discipleship relationships should be life-on-life relationships centered around the Bible. I also think this is exactly what the Builder strives to accomplish. It helps people gather around God's Word in the context of real relationships.
    A couple thoughts:
    - Using a curriculum doesn't have to be at odds with digging into the Word. It can be, and I'm sure we've all seen such examples, but to assume that it is necessarily so would be a false dichotomy, in my humble opinion.
    - Regarding your two assumptions, in my experience, people don't get together and open up the Bible not because it isn't interesting but because they don't feel competent to do so (among other reasons, but it is rarely an issue of “interest”). Part of my goal with any guy I'm pouring into is to help him become confident in this area (and others). So, for some people I hope that the Builder could function as “training wheels”; giving them a paradigm for how to contextualize the Word to intersect it with someone’s life.
    - Moreover, lest I be too apologetic, I’ve found great usefulness of other tools, books, etc in my personal discipleship experience (being discipled as well as pouring into others). I never want to stray away from the Bible—and by God’s grace, I haven’t in over a decade of discipling guys—but this doesn’t mean other resources are not helpful. For example, two of the most important things that older men have shown me is how to study the Word and how to share my faith. In both pursuits, they have brought in other resources to help in that training. We might need to bring in some principles of hermeneutics/homiletics (even if I don't use those terms) as well as modeling it before him consistently and faithfully. I assume someone did this with you at some point in your Christian life, no? If I want to walk someone through 5 weeks of hermeneutics in order to help equip him to study the Word (which I'm doing right now in my SS class at church), is that bad? I could just tell them to “dig into Scripture” but drawing on some other resources as I show them how to dig into Scripture (BY digging into Scripture together) typically proves useful to me.
    - The Builder curriculum is designed to be firmly based in Scripture... It would be fallacious to say that this curriculum was antithetical to digging into Scripture. Instead, the whole point is to dig into Scripture together.
    - Finally, I would caution anyone with a seminary degree to not forget that your training didn’t just consist of sitting in a classroom reading the Bible together. Seminaries use all kinds of tools and resources outside of showing up and “digging in” together.
    I sincerely believe that the Bible is sufficient for all we need for life and godliness. But, I also realize that people often need help with accessing that truth (even if for a brief period of time). To deny this as a seminary grad would indeed be to see it too simplistically, in my opinion. Unless, of course, I’m unwilling to afford others the same things that were once afforded to me in my growth and training.
    I definitely wouldn't say you are wrong, though.
    Just my 2 cents. May God bless your ministry, brother.
  6. man- you know I just went back and read my post and I think I came across as a big jerk. Sorry about that. You responded very graciously- you are a better man than I!
    I really appreciate your heart for discipleship and the success you have experienced in it over the past ten years.
    you bring up some great points. Other resources are very helpful. Including blogs like this one.
    And the Bible and curriculum don't have to be at odds, but it feels like we can depend more on the curriculum than the Scriptures.
    Walking people through 5 weeks of hermeneutics is NOT a bad thing, and I wish it happened more in the church than feeling like we have to go to seminary to get that type of training.
    Yes. I have sat down with people, and by far the best was with a man named Wally Norling who didn't pull resources but instead gave me practical stories from his life about sharing faith, the word, etc. We simply opened the Bible and went through it. He didn't explain hermeneutics to me, just showed me how to read the Bible. Ephesians, Corinthians, Timothy...
    In seminary the classes that were the best were by far the ones were teachers would walk us through the text. Knowledgeable guys with a passion to make scripture come alive! John, Mark, Thessalonians, Daniel, Revelation, Genesis...blew my mind! Literally no extra biblical tools, just the bible....and sometimes an interlinear...but I don't expect people to learn greek--we got great english translations with men who have devoted their lives to getting as close to the original language as possible.
    Now I find myself in Kosovo with no formal seminary within multiple country limits. First gen. Christians who have a bible and not much else. Does this mean I should transport resources that they would have a hard time replicating or instead model a method of tapping into a resource that also happens to be the greatest resource...the Bible?
    I love your heart, and appreciate your willingness to go back and forth with me a little! As with you- may God continue to multiply your ministry and see many men and women transformed through your discipleship methods!

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