The First Question You Should Ask in Making Disciples

Since Jesus’ command to us is to make disciples, we probably ought to know what it is we are making. In other words, the first question we need to ask is, what is a disciple?

Without a clear picture of what a disciple is, your church strategy will be impotent. Your attendance may rise due to some attractive programs or events, but you will not be making disciples who make disciples. Certainly, God’s Spirit trumps man’s plans and wherever His church preaches the gospel some disciples will always be produced, but without a clear picture of what you are making, disciples will be made in spite of your programming, not because of it.

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In fact, I believe most, dare I say all, problems in the church boil down to a discipleship issue. If you have fights over worship, it is a discipleship issue. If people don’t share Christ, it’s a discipleship issue. If people aren’t generous, it’s a discipleship issue. If there is conflict over leadership, it is…well, you get the point. Until you are clear on what a disciple is your expectations for people will not be clear and they will drift.

Without a clear picture of what a disciple is, your family discipleship plan will be unintentional. Family worship and Bible study will drift away from desire toward duty and children will not be clear on why having that time in the Word matters. Your parenting will be reduced to a be good, feel good, behavior modification approach to child-rearing without a clear picture of why you are raising your kids in the first place.

Bill Donahue is one of my heroes in the area of small group ministry. This week I have been at the 4Groups Conference sponsored by LifeWay where Bill, Dennis Pethers, Claude King, and Allan Taylor have been training leaders of various sorts of groups. In one session, Bill asked the audience to complete this sentence, “A disciple is…” Go ahead and give it a shot. Do you have a clear picture in your head of what a disciple is? If you are not clear on what a disciple is, you will not be effective at making them. Period. Any so-called strategy for producing disciples in your home, church, or community will be hamstrung if you do not know what it is you are producing!

Needing clarity of purpose seems obvious, but I have found few people that have a clear, concise answer to the question: What is a disciple? However you define “disciple” will determine how you make “disciples.” If a disciple is simply a “learner,” one of the literal definitions of the Greek word, your focus of discipleship may be heavy on knowledge and content. If your definition is “follower” your focus likely will be on behavior. Your definition may be short or long, but however you define “disciple” matters!

Over a decade ago I was travelling with one of my mentors, Randy Millwood. Randy was the first person to pose the question to me, “What is a disciple and how do you make one?” His question gripped me like no other I had ever been asked. On that trip as I was reading 1 John I found what was for me the clearest and simplest answer to the question. 1 John 2:6 says, “whoever says he abides in him (Jesus) ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6 ESV). That was my “you had me at ‘hello'” moment. That’s the essence of who a disciple is. My friend and colleague Rick Hughes sums it up by saying, “A disciple is someone who is abiding in Christ and doing what Jesus did.” It’s simple yet thorough. Truly, this definition leaves much work to be done in the areas of what abiding means and understanding what Jesus did, but the sentence gives us boundaries within which to work.

Until you are crystal-clear on what a disciple is, you will never be effective at making one, much less creating a disciple-making culture. Over the next few posts I will be unpacking what I believe are the essential dimensions of discipleship. But before I do, what do you think? Spend some time in John 15 this week. Wrestle with what Jesus is teaching His disciples there.

So, what’s your definition?


  • As a disciple of Christ, I long to sit at His feet (Bible study and prayer), get up and follow His lead (ministry), and reach out to the people He touches (evangelism). Yet my discipleship is not complete unless I am inviting others to join the journey (mentoring).
    Great post, Brian. Looking forward to this series.

  • Lee

    You present a great question; “What is a disciple?” We can string various words together as we answer the question and use different words to convey the three statements from Christ about being His disciple. What every we say and however it is said, Jesus identified three characteristics of the life of one of His disciples.
    Abide in His word (John 8:31)
    Love one another (John 13:35)
    Bear much fruit (John15:8)

    • Brian

      Jeremy and Lee,
      Thanks for the comments! Both of you offer great biblical insight and I’m tracking right along with you. Looking forward to the continued discussion.

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