Lessons from a disciplemaking coach
by Larry Austin
I came to faith as a young businessman. Shortly after I responded to the gospel, an Ethiopian graduate student noticed me sitting in my usual Sunday morning worship position near the rear of the church. He invited me to begin meeting with him to read and memorize Scripture, pray, and eventually do personal evangelism.
In this relationship, I learned the value of community, and I also learned how to daily walk with God and serve in His mission. When Ben moved two years after we started, I repeated the process with three other men from my church. It is a process that has been part of the fabric of my life for more than 35 years.
So I am not the fruit of any formal program or curriculum. My growth and fruitfulness as a follower of Jesus is a direct result of many people investing in and mentoring me. You might say that I was discipled in spite of my church.
True, disciplemaking can happen both “because of” and “in spite of” church cultures. But the EFCA is calling the churches in our movement to become “because of” disciplemaking cultures—those that deliberately empower each disciple to turn around and disciple others. This call has been at the heart of my labor with church leaders.
Learning in community
Early in my tenure with the EFCA Central District, our team focused on the question, “What should a church devote itself to over time that produces fruitful, God-glorifying, kingdom-advancing outcomes?” We settled on three functions of a healthy church, and chief among these was disciplemaking.
We found that the Spirit was already working in advance across our district, stirring a measure of sacred discontent in pastors, on this very topic. So a group of us began meeting together in a learning community to look at Jesus’ model, teaching and methods. Using a modified version of Live 2:6 by Sonlife, we launched our first learning community with 10 central Iowa pastors.
One of the things crippling a disciplemaking emphasis in local churches today is the absence of hands-on experience in the lives of its leaders. Yet the learning community is itself a disciplemaking process: a 12- to 15-month journey of digesting and applying Jesus’ teaching and example—where the Word, in relationship, over time, is key.
Thus, the environment as well as the content drips disciplemaking.
Where to start?
After four years and four learning communities across our district, what have we learned about building a disciplemaking culture that permeates a church?
Learn from Jesus. It is impossible to launch a disciplemaking movement without being a disciple. Jesus’ way of fashioning the environment and cultivating followers obviously yielded sustainable and reproducible outcomes. From Him we learn the disciplemaking core: the Word, Spirit-empowered obedience and relationship.
Focus on reproducing disciplemakers. People change culture. Structures only sustain the change. So don’t focus on structure (programs and curriculum); rather, start developing the kind of people who will reproduce the life and mission of Jesus in others. After all, disciples (not study guides) are the ones who make other disciples.
Fight for simplicity in language, measures and methods. Craft a clear, uncomplicated definition of a disciple and a few corresponding measures of maturity. This will help disciplemakers focus their investment and redeem the experiences of everyday life—those experiences that form such a large portion of the curriculum for disciplemaking.1 Avoid complex methods and patterns that are difficult to reproduce.
Repurpose structures instead of discarding them. For example, while small groups have been effective at assimilation and shepherding, they yield mixed results in producing disciples. So place a disciplemaker in each small group, and watch him or her naturally focus on people’s growth in the life and mission of Jesus (as opposed to simply “facilitating a meeting”).
Start small. Instead of herding people not yet ready for discipleship into a massive programmatic emphasis, start with small groups of willing individuals. Build a process that will serve the not-yet Christian, quasi-Christian and long-time-but-immature Christian. Build into a few and repeat.
Don’t omit the mission. Too much of what passes for disciplemaking stops short of equipping disciple as missionaries in their context and settles for “making good church members.” If we are not equipping people for the mission of Jesus, we are not making disciples as Jesus made disciples.
Don’t lose heart. We are building a culture. We are transforming character and priorities. So it will be messy, heart-wrenching and glorious. And it will take time.
If you are a local church leader weary of keeping all the programmatic plates spinning and uncertain you are doing your best at disciplemaking, there’s great hope. Start by recommitting yourself to personal disciplemaking. Then, join other leaders in the journey.
It’s a sad irony to even think of leading a disciplemaking movement on your own. Instead, form a learning community of three to four other leaders. Find a seasoned disciplemaker to serve as your coach. Then hold on for an exciting adventure of launching a “because of” disciplemaking culture.
1This is where Christo-centric training platforms like Live 2:6 or Cadre are helpful. Neither is selling a curriculum or program; instead, they give local church leaders freedom to design a pathway for their unique church context and resources.
Larry Austin is a follower of Jesus who for 35 years as a family man, friend and pastor has been making disciples. His current role is director of church health for EFCA Central District.