Making Disciples
Completing the Trinitarian Commission

The Developmental Process of Discipleship

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Making Disciples: Session Four
GBC Saturday Seminar


A Practical Plan of Attack

Making disciples is job #1 for every Christian. So far we’ve identified the three target levels of discipleship: we evangelize unbelievers, we edify all believers, and then we aim to equip believers to make disciples themselves. Those are the goals of discipleship, or where we’re going, but how do we get there? How do we make a disciple? What is the process?

Many Christians simply don’t know. Even if their discipleship radar is plugged in and turned on, there are precious few resources or examples of what to do. No doubt there are some believers who are doing a lot of the right things but who couldn’t define their approach or pass it on to someone else. That’s why we need to outline a practical discipleship plan of attack.

There are (at least) five stages for developing a disciple. The stages overlap; they are not entirely exclusive, but isolating each phase in our discussion should be helpful in the equipping process. Just as everyone fits somewhere on the bullseye, so everyone (even the unbelieving, too) is found at some stage of development.

It is also important to say that this is not new or original. I’m simply trying not to drop the baton that’s been handed to me. In particular, the seed of these stages grew in the soil of The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman.1 It is the classic study on discipleship and a must read. I believe every Christian should own a copy and it continues to be one of the top five most influential books I’ve ever read.

In Coleman’s words:

[This book] is an effort to see controlling principles governing the movements of the Master in the hope that our own labors might be conformed to a similar pattern. … One might call it a study in his strategy of evangelism around which his life was oriented while he walked on the earth. (20).

At first glance it might appear that Jesus had no plan. Another approach might discover some particular technique but miss the underlying pattern of it all. This is one of the marvels of his strategy. It is so unassuming and silent that it is unnoticed by the hurried churchman. But when the realization of his controlling method finally dawns on the open mind of the disciple he will be amazed at its simplicity and wonder how he could have ever failed to see it before. Nevertheless, when his plan is reflected on, the basic philosophy is so different from that of the modern church that its implications are nothing less than revolutionary. (24-25)

What follows is a mindset or a paradigm through which all our relationships can be considered.

Stage One

Each stage in our practical plan of attack includes the Task, the Purpose, the Role, the Motto, and the Principle. In Stage One we insert a disciple into the very beginning of the process. This state is missing in the greater Evangelical pie though it’s the one we probably think about most (or entirely).

To make disciples we start by proclaiming good news, specifically the gospel of Christ as revealed in Scripture. Our first TASK is to instruct and our PURPOSE to educate. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Therefore, Christianity requires communicated truth and discipleship depends on properly understanding doctrines of theology rooted in God’s Word.

We received a message from our Lord. Our responsibility is to pass that message on to the another person and the next group and the following generation so that they will do the same. Disciples aren’t made if the baton of truth is dropped anywhere along the way.

The apostle Paul explained that all believers–those who are no longer slaves of sin–have been committed to “the standard of teaching” (Romans 6:17). Disciples are delivered into a form of truth, into principles that mold their lives. Christians are those shaped more by doctrine than by sin.

So our first ROLE as disciple-makers is teacher; we explain and defend the truth. Jude called us “to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). “The faith” is the objective, fixed body of truth, not personal belief (since it makes no sense to say any particular person’s faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”). Trustworthy “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2) love, protect, and pass on the truth.

The kernel of disciple-making includes “teaching [disciples] to observe all that [Jesus] commanded” (Matthew 28:20). We can’t be faithful to our commission without knowing and instructing. That’s why our MOTTO is “I tell you.” Paul explained the process in a similar way: “”what you heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2)”.

Jesus modeled this better than anyone. He regularly preached in front of large crowds and instructed His disciples in private. Whether by sermons or conversations, teaching was at the heart of our Lord’s disciple-making plan.

And every Christian can follow His example (Colossians 3:16). The teacher typically knows more than his student. Most of the time the educator is also the elder, that is, they are older. Titus 2 describes a pattern of the older teaching the younger and more maturity brings more responsibility to disciple. But anyone who knows more truth than someone else can and should participate. You can always find someone who knows (at least a little) less than you do. Just because you’re learning from someone doesn’t mean you can’t also be passing that on to someone else.

This Stage incorporates a few PRINCIPLES from The Master Plan of Evangelism such as Selection (of faithful men just as Jesus chose His disciples), Association (being with people just as Jesus appointed disciples “to be with Him” (Mark 3:14)), and Impartation (giving what has been received to others).

Disciples never move beyond the need for instruction. Though Stage One could conceivably be done independent of the others (resulting in delayed growth and therefore a defective plan), the other stages depend on teaching for effectiveness.

Stage Two

Making disciples requires instruction, but verbal communication isn’t the end of the process.

Teaching others the truth is crucial. So is practicing it in front of them. Therefore our second TASK is to illustrate; to put doctrine on display (cf. Titus 2:10). The PURPOSE is exposure to the difficulties and delights of being a disciple. Our Lord left us an example in order for us to “follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Likewise, we are to live as examples for our disciples to watch.

A master trains his apprentice both by telling him what to do and by showing him how to do it. We take the same hands-on, eyes-on approach. Therefore in Stage Two the ROLE of the disciple-maker is that of a model. Our MOTTO is “You watch me.”

At least two benefits come from disciples seeing their discipler’s personal obedience. First, they see the pattern of obedience. But second, the teacher establishes credibility and underscores the believability of the truth. Expecting others to do what we won’t or don’t do undermines discipleship. On the other hand, living out the truth corroborates our knowledge and love of the truth. People pay attention when we practice what we preach.

This presumes the “life on life” precept. We cannot make disciples remotely; it requires a relationship. We cannot effectively model–or watch for that matter–from faraway. Living rooms and waiting rooms supplement classrooms. Yes, truth can be taught in a living room. Yes, some life on life occurs in a classroom. But this component of training puts a discipler’s lifestyle at work and play on the board for everyone to see.

We must spend a quantity of quality time or else our disciples will be ill-prepared. We’re all busy, but Stage Two must be intentionally included at every opportunity. Dinner time isn’t sufficient for “diligent parenting” (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7). Kids need car rides and late night conversations. Part-time shepherds put the sheep at risk. An hour long counseling session every week is not enough. So discipleship is the product of many moments, but it is never momentary.

This is the reason for every retreat we run, why we drive 20 hours to and from the Shepherds’ Conference and View Weekends at The Master’s College, why we have small groups, and why we work to schedule life “path crossings” like running errands, drinking coffee, or scraping gum off the gym floor: to be together.

While Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the primary purpose of the incarnation, His life on life discipleship was part of the reason as well. God could have dropped a copy of His Word from the sky instead of sending His Son to earth for so long. Jesus called His disciples to “follow Him” (Matthew 9:9) and “to be with Him” (Mark 3:14). They watched Him in public and in private. They saw Him spend nights in prayer, respond to religious authorities, care for little children, teach the masses, heal the sick, and do all sorts of miracles. They observed Him when He was tired, hungry, interrupted, angry, and sorrowful. As the time of His crucifixion came closer He focused more personal attention on His disciples, not less.

The apostle Paul also understood the importance of being a living object lesson. He exhorted the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). He told the Philippians to “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example” (Philippians 3:17) and that they should practice “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (Philippians 4:9).

I know some people are uncomfortable with the arrogance of asking another person to imitate them. Instead, they say, we should tell everyone just to follow Jesus. That’s fine as far as it goes, but exposing our lives and letting others see we’re sinners gives us an opportunity to repent and show how that works too.

This stage of discipleship is hardly flashy, not easily evaluated, and often unappreciated. But it is relevant, effective, and as we’ve seen, it was the Master’s plan.

For those who want to grow, listen to good teaching and find a good follower of Christ. Get in their back pocket. Make yourself available to serve them and hang out with them as much as possible. Watch how they respond to everything. Don’t isolate yourself from those who are further down the discipleship road than you.

Examples without teaching are useless without knowing what the example is for. Of course, instruction without personal illustration won’t have the same influence. Truth must be proclaimed, believed, and practiced to make disciples.

Stage Three

Teaching biblical doctrine and demonstrating how to follow Christ is fundamental to making disciples. But that’s not all we can do. Just because we run ahead, plant a flag and tell everyone about it doesn’t mean everyone immediately runs to join us around the pole. Since we also want our disciple to make disciples of his or her own we must bring them in to the process. So the third TASK of a disciple-maker is to involve the disciple in service and ministry for the PURPOSE of giving them experience.

Explaining Scripture and being a Christian example isn’t necessarily the same thing as discipling proper. It is possible (though not as valuable) to watch someone from a distance and listen to good teaching on the radio. I assume there are probably people watching me who have little to no relationship with me. That’s okay because I can still model obedience for people I don’t know. And I can certainly instruct people without ever talking to them individually.

But disciplers get involved. They open the hood, take the engine apart (or put it back together), and get four hands dirty, not just two. The ROLE is more than teacher or example, it is partner. The MOTTO is “We do together.” The discipler says, “I’ve told you about it, you’ve seen me do it, now we’re both going to do it.”

Jesus lived with His disciples for three years. As they matured He increased their responsibilities. Jesus wanted His disciples to work side by side with Him. He assigned them to pass out the loaves and fishes. They listened to Him, watched Him, and worked alongside of Him. The Master’s plan followed the PRINCIPLE of delegation. No doubt there were discipleship purposes, not just logistical advantages, when Paul took young men along on his missionary journeys.2

Practically speaking, Stage Three requires a focus on the few to reach the many. No one has enough time to be involved and be partners with everyone. Jesus Himself didn’t do that. He had 12 key disciples, three of them were even closer than the rest, and one was closest of all.

We cannot experience growth and ministry with everyone. Besides, are we likely to have greater influence by spending 60 minutes with one person or one minute with 60 people? How will we maximize our investment? By pouring much time and energy into a small number of disciples (maybe only one at the beginning) the earlier they’ll be ready to pour into others, multiplying our ministry. More life “path crossings” are needed. While it isn’t crazy to disciple or be discipled by someone in another ministry (let alone church), to the degree that time is limited, those relationships are likely to be less effective.

Working shoulder to shoulder exposes not only the disciples’ weaknesses and shortcomings, but ours too. Sometimes we can hide certain elements of our example. But we can’t work together very long before our partner realizes what we’re good at and what we’re not good at. It takes humility to involve someone else in our lives and in our ministry, but it is a necessary part of the development process. It’s good for them to see our deficiencies because it isn’t about our perfection, it’s about participation. Distant and defensive disciplers usually lose influence, whereas available and repentant (when necessary) disciplers usually gain even more influence.

Stage Four

By this point in the process the disciple should be busy reaching out to others. He’s been pushed out of the comfort of the nest and is learning to fly on his own. If he’s normal he will suffer through at least a few crashes. So the fourth TASK of a disciple-maker is to help the disciple improve, not only in personal obedience but in ministry. The PURPOSE is to increase their effectiveness. Though no technique exists that guarantees spiritual success, the discipler can give guidance and encouragement even when it appears the disciple flopped.

As the disciple ventures out on his own the discipler takes the ROLE of a constructive critic. This evaluation isn’t to berate but to better. Maybe an evangelism exchange could have used more boldness or a counseling conversation could have used more gentleness. But mistakes and failures are not the doom of discipleship, instead they provide platforms for development. In this stage the MOTTO is “I watch you.” and then help make it better.

Again, the Master lived with His disciples, taught them, trained them, modeled for them, sent them out, and then debriefed them. For example, in Mark 6 He sent them out in pairs and gave them directions for their short term assignment. Later they “returned to Jesus and told Him all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30). This retreat was for rest, but also so that they could discuss their successes, setbacks, and what they could do better next time.

The PRINCIPLE is supervision; follow up for the sake of adjustment, correction, and encouragement. In order to make progress disciples need to make decisions and do the work without always having their hand held. But diligent and regular review will realign and reinforce where necessary.

Maturing disciples don’t always need their discipler present. But they do need faithful follow up in order to move forward with only one more stage to go.

Stage Five

If all goes well by God’s grace, in Stage Five the disciple exits the process as a discipler.

The disciple has been taught. He’s watched how it’s done. He’s rolled up his sleeves in the work of the ministry alongside his discipler. He’s received constructive criticism to help him get better. The bulk of his training is complete and he’s ready to be on his own. So the fifth TASK of the disciple-maker is to inspire. This is probably my least favorite word, but it fits (for more than just alliteration). The PURPOSE is encouragement. Making disciples is hard work. Difficulties and heart heaviness are regular occurrences. Sometimes disciples need a shot in the arm.

The ROLE of the discipler becomes that of a resource. The need for regular interaction diminishes, but the disciple turned discipler may run into something he hasn’t encountered before. Maybe an unusual circumstance or knotty theological question surfaces. Maybe he needs seasoned counsel, wisdom from experience, or just someone to pray for him. But he has access to advice whenever he asks. Therefore the discipler utilizes the MOTTO of “Keep it up.” and is always available for assistance.

The PRINCIPLE is spiritual reproduction, much like the proper goal of parenting. Good parenting isn’t about providing or doing everything for the children. It aims to train kids how to be adults; how to accept and fulfill responsibilities. That doesn’t happen if dad always builds the Soap Box Derby car or never lets his son make a decision. Mom hinders growth by always being the one to braid her daughter’s hair or by constantly defending her. Yes, kids need more care at the beginning and it may be a slow train to maturity. But parents find out whether they were successful when their young person steps outside the house, not by keeping them inside forever. Even then, however, they provide a different kind of attention when the kids are grown and have families of their own. So a discipler knows he’s succeeded when he sees spiritual grandchildren.

Jesus was gone when the disciples took the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. He could do that because “everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). (Of course, Jesus didn’t leave His disciples “without a Helper” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7)). When we “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2) the process continues even when we’re absent.

Our goal is “to see every person complete in Christ”. Another way to say it is, we work to see each person independently dependent on Christ. An independent person is one who looks for things that need doing and does them without someone else constantly looking over their shoulder. A mature disciple doesn’t need constant supervision, though every disciple remains dependent on Christ. So a discipleship purpose statement might look something like this:

We labor to help every person establish godly habits, motivated by love for Christ, that will cause them to be independently dependent on Christ for the rest of their lives and to help others do the same.3

The relationship between a disciple and his discipler purposefully changes over time if discipleship is effective. We’re effective if we’re working ourselves out of a job. But whether disciples move on to minister near or far, disciplers are always ready resources.


The Practical Discipleship Plan of Attack aims to take in a disciple and produce a discipler.

To recap: the discipler instructs his disciple in doctrine, illustrates truth in daily practice, involves the disciple in the work of the ministry, helps the disciple improve his effectiveness, and inspires the disciple when he’s discouraged. These five stages of development span the Biblical Discipleship Bulls-eye from evangelism to edification to equipping. Disciplers labor to help new coverts grow in Christ and train them to make disciples in fulfillment of the Great Commission. Maturity and multiplication are beautiful things.


  1. I had the privilege to hear Dr. Coleman in person when I was in high school along with my youth pastor who, not coincidentally, was my first real discipler.
  2. Discipleship Evangelism utilizes the same procedure. At the start, verses and the evangelism outline must be memorized. Then there are visits where the trainer does all the talking as an example. At a certain stage, the trainer involves the trainee in the discussion. Eventually the trainee is expected to do all the talking and the trainer is just a resource. But that’s an upcoming stage.
  3. We don’t expect to complete this objective in student ministries, even by the time a senior graduates. But we do aim to equip students as much as possible in the six years we have them and hope they enter the next stage of life more like Christ in character and service than when we got them.