On Creating a Disciple-Making Culture

Tim Brister —  March 25, 2013 — 13 Comments

Last week, I gave a talk on discipleship at the “Building Biblical Churches Conference” hosted by the Spurgeon Fellowship of Florida. One of the points I argued had to with the responsibility of the leadership to create a culture for disciple-making. It just doesn’t happen by accident, and it should not happen by exception. In order for disciple-making to become normative in the life of a church, I argue that one of the most fundamental steps to take is to create a culture through robust means spearheaded by intentional leadership.

Disciple Making CultureHere are six means I believe church leaders should be intentional with implementing in order to create a disciple-making culture:

On Creating a Disciple-Making Culture

1.  A Philosophy That Focuses on Disciple-Making [PURPOSE]

From the very beginning, church leaders should have a clear understanding of the mission of the church. The church does not exist to satisfy the preferences of members or cater to the demands of religious consumers. The church exists to make disciples, and a philosophy that undergirds that mission focuses the life of the church toward that end. The practical benefit of purposeful thinking encourages a straightforward and simple approach to ministry rather than a busy calendar and complex, compartmentalized approach.

2.  Leadership Who Model Disciple-Making [PRAXIS]

Like priests, like people. Those most influential in creating culture are the leaders and the example they set. If church leaders are not the lead disciple-makers, then it is disingenuous to pursue a culture of disciple-making when the leadership undermine it. The Apostle Paul was such a discipler that he could send one of his disciple-making disciples in his stead to teach, serve, and live in a manner consistent with the life he modeled for churches. This did not come about on a platform or in an office. It happened because Paul was on mission in all of life to make disciples of Jesus. A model either magnifies or marginalizes the making of disciples.

3.  Structures to Facilitate Disciple-Making [PERMISSION-GIVING]

Churches can be structured in a way that communicates to the people only the gifted, paid professionals should do the work. The structures of the church which facilitate disciple-making are permission-giving in that aspiring disciples and emerging leaders find opportunity to meaningfully participate in the life of leading disciplers as well as the work they are doing. Do your structures provide latitude for amateurs or leverage for professionals? Permission-giving structures exist for the former and demystify the latter.

4.  Systems to Foster Disciple-Making [PATHWAYS/PROCESSES]

A professionalized culture cuts off pathways and processes, and internal systems are not necessarily since the work is reserved for the uniquely qualified. However, a disciple-making culture necessarily must have systems in place to foster the relational work of growth in the gospel, community, and mission. What systems are in place to make disciples? Mature disciples? Mobilize disciples? Multiply disciples? What pathways and processes exist for not-yet believers to hear and respond to the gospel? For new believers to become covenant members? For members to be integrated into the mission and vision of the church? For disciples to own the mission to make more disciples and lead others in the process? When there is a disciple-making culture, you will find a farming system composed of pathways and processes that foster disciple-making in a comprehensive manner.

5.  Assessments to Measure Disciple-Making [PROGNOSIS]

In the past, there have been various kinds of assessments, including the notorious B’s (building, budgets, baptisms) and N’s (nickels and noses). These are not entirely wrong, but they are also not necessarily helpful either. They don’t tell the whole story. In the same way, a busy church with a lot of activities does not mean it is a disciple-making church. In fact, such busyness could be a substitute for a failure of real discipleship. I would suggest that a better assessment would be the R’s, namely (1) Renewal based on the gospel, (2) Relationships built on the gospel, (3) Rhythms established for gospel mission, and (4) Reproduction born from faithfulness in making disciple-making disciples. Assessments are like scorecards. It helps you evaluate successes and failures. In that way, assessments provide a prognosis for church health and vitality.

6.  Values to Filter Out Distractions to Disciple-Making [PRIORITIES]

Aiming to please everybody and attempting to do everything that appears to work is a quick way to lead the church to failure. The church should not be a laboratory to try out the latest trends. It should be viewed as the people who stubbornly value the things of God because He knows what is best for us. To have a disciple-making culture, you need to know (1) your pre-commitments to govern how you invest your time and energy, (2) your pre-determined parameters to guide where you should spend your time and energy, and (3) pre-scripted emphasis to steer your time and energies to the appropriate goal.

I believe the implementation of these robust means through the intentionality of church leaders will serve them well in creating a disciple-making culture. There is a danger that we all face: we can become committed to doing things that don’t matter and good in the things that don’t register in the kingdom of God. When a disciple-making culture exists, a church will more easily detect the distractions to the heart of the mission and diseases to the health of the body.

Let me ask you: are there other aspects of a disciple-making culture that I have not mentioned? What else would you add or suggest for creating a disciple-making culture?

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  • Great article. Let me add that the pastor or leader needs much grace from God as he attempts to build a disciple-making culture – especially if attempting to transition the church from a program-based mentality.

    In my own experience, as programs “die out” or God stops calling people to lead them and more attention is given to disciple-making some people will claim that the church is dying. The pastor will then need to confront these dissenting opinions before they spread and harm the church.

    Disciple-making takes time and many people in the church are impatient.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Charlie. A lot of wisdom there. A culture of disciple-making cannot exist apart from much grace. I think that is why so often programs and events replace disciple-making. They are efficient and manageable rather than messy and unpredictable. The former requires no grace; the latter depends on the existence of grace like the air we breathe.

      Patience is key. Both in the process and in assessment. Mushrooms are grown in 6 hours; oak tress are grown in 60 years. If we desire “fruit that remains” (John 15), we must be willing to remain committed to the task of making disciples over the long haul with perseverance (and not feel tempted to go for the easier, more manageable and efficient alternatives that are at best tangentially related to the mission).

  • So helpful. We are looking to bring on a discipleship pastor soon at http://arbc.net and that will be primary task #1 is developing a culture of this nature. Keep this coming!

    • Thanks for the encouragement Matthew! I hope these posts continue to be a help to you and the church you lead in the future!

  • Very helpful post, thanks! One thing that may be lacking in many churches today, due to so many years of no one making disciples, is practical knowledge and skills in how to disciple someone. So, I know guys who say,”I want to disciple but I’m not sure what to do.” While discipleship is very organic and not curriculum based per say, there are fundamental truths and activities to do with a new believer or a growing believer. What resources do you use for this?

    • Matt:

      I’m going to get a little triperspectival with my response, but bear with me as I try to explain my answer. 🙂 (ahem, this should probably be a future blogpost)

      A healthy and growing disciple will be developed in head (text), heart (subtext), and hands (context). I think you should employ resources for all three areas, not just one. For example, going through a discipleship curriculum (head) does not a disciple make. I am all for Bible Studies and doctrinal development, but the text of Scripture needs to be applied to the context of a person’s life (world) as well as their heart (subtext). I hit on a lot of this in my series on gospel-centered spiritual formation.

      The Triperspectival Framework for Spiritual Formation

      The Three Gospel Forms for Spiritual Formation

      The Spiritual Disciplines for Spiritual Formation

      Disciples need resources that apply to the head (understanding truth), heart (experiencing truth), and hands (applying truth). This includes not only the traditional spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, but also the functionality centrality and sufficiency of the gospel. Furthermore, disciples should know how to live out their new identity in Christ on mission in the world where God has placed them to be a witness and citizen of the kingdom under the reign of Christ.

      So I could recommend some resources, they would include:

      Text: Basic Christian doctrines, Bible overview, systematic theology, etc.

      Subtext: Biblical counseling, learning how people change, helping disciples find their identity in Christ, uproot and repent of idols, grow in repentance and faith, rest in the gospel, etc.

      Context: Show people how to live as a Christian in the power of the Spirit according to the gospel in every situation in life, whether at home, workplace, neighborhood, etc., and in every relationship, whether family, friends, neighbors, unbelieving community, etc.

      One of the greatest resources is the stories of redemption in the lives of your people. When we think of resources, our minds quickly go to books and articles rather than transformed people and the work of the Spirit in their lives. Disciples learn best by example and modeling, and the more people (think “resources”) are actively involved in disciple-making, the healthier the culture will become over time.

      When disciples are not resourced in their head, their ignorance of the truth will cause them to make errors in belief and behavior as their thinking is not being renewed and rewired by God’s revelation.

      When disciples are not resourced in their heart, their lack of experience of truth will cause them to live as functional atheists, questioning God’s nearness and power, failing to applying the gospel to their own heart, and turning either to pride in the form of self-righteousness or self-pity (false humility). They will not be useful to others because they will not receive criticism or experience change and think they are unqualified to give criticism or encourage change in others.

      When disciples are not resourced in their hands, their lack of application of truth will prevent them from adorning the gospel in their behavior and living under the reign of Christ as Lord of their lives.

      I would could perhaps give more specific practical resources for each of these three, but I would start with an approach that incorporates all of them in making disciples. Then, in ordinary ways and with ordinary people seek to bring the good news of the gospel to bear upon fellow believers to help them walk in repentance and faith, in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:27).

      • Timmy, I’m all in for that future blogpost. Your triperspectival explanation is spot on. I was encouraged as well by your point on “resources” compared to transformed people.

  • Nick Horton


    How does your church live out the implications of your post? Is that perhaps another blog post? I serve in an old church setup like most “traditional” (and I don’t mean that theologically) baptist churches. Sunday school, etc. I’m not sure how a transition to disciple making looks for this particular body of believers. A lot of theory rattling around in my head, but I haven’t seen it done in older churches. In many ways this is far easier with church plants, or younger churches.


    • Nick,

      Thanks for asking. To answer your question, I think it depends on what (1) influence and (2) opportunity. For those not in leadership, it may be concluded that nothing can be done, but I would disagree. The best way to implement a disciple-making culture is to begin by making disciples yourself, so that the culture you created in your own life will begin to permeate others. The church is the sum total of its disciples, and if there is a gradual change in one or a few disciples who seek to make disciples intentionally, that will make a difference regardless of the structure or tradition that has hindered it. It may take time, and it may not catch on immediately, but where you have influence and opportunity, maximize it for the good of the church and advance of the gospel by making of disciples of Jesus.

      In my case, I have considerable influence and opportunity in a traditional church open to ongoing reformation. But even then, the transition or change in the culture cannot come haphazardly or without biblical teaching and personal modeling. So I have been teaching for the past 40 weeks on disciple-making disciples and investing my time in disciples who I believe are or will be ready to invest in others in the near future. Along those lines, I encourage you to check out my post on creating a relationship investment plan…


      Hope that helps a little!

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  • Freddy

    Great post, Timmy. Very helpful.

  • Timmy,

    You’ve been teaching disciple making for forty weeks, any chance of your sharing your notes or syllabus as a resource?

    I plan to lead a series on “disciples making disciples” but have had little success in finding existing resources.

    For what it’s worth, I convinced of the triperspectival reality, I’m just hoping to avoid reinventing the wheel.

    BTW, loved this post, am using this with our elders to chart the course toward a disciple making culture.

  • rwinestock

    I think this takes time to steep and melt into one’s conscience. It is not merely a checklist but an attitude, a decision to invest a ton of our time, money, resources toward a greater end. It’s a long-term, silver-lining playbook.