In the New Testament the word disciple was used to describe Christ’s followers much more than the word Christian. Jesus commands the church to make disciples, not just evangelize the lost (Matt. 28:19). Despite this lopsided focus, discipleship is not always the norm in the contemporary church. The following eleven indispensable principles are things I have learned as a pastor and disciple-maker for almost four decades.

Learn to be a spiritual parent.

In this day and age of broken families many new believers have no reference for submitting to authority, understanding a Father’s love, keeping a covenant, and having a godly household. Since the church is a family of families and functions as the household of God, a primary function of a church in certain contexts should be to “re-parent” new believers, which is usually a very long process. Consequently in order to make disciples, we have to sometimes function as a spiritual parent more than merely a dispenser of biblical truth.

Don’t focus on crowds, marketing, and budgets.

Many contemporary churches primarily focus on gathering crowds through marketing and providing a great Sunday experience. However, in order to make disciples, churches need to prioritize pouring into serious believers who are committed to the cause of Christ. The church will advance the kingdom through a holy minority, not through a compromised majority!

Be people oriented more than program based.


Discipleship cannot be done merely with an institutional program. It cannot take place only from the pulpit or with a weekly event. Not only did Paul the apostle preach the gospel; he also poured his life into the disciples. Disciples do life together, not just attend meetings and Bible studies together.

Consequently one of the most successful things I do to make disciples is have certain men travel with me when I minister so we can spend time hanging out and so they can observe how I interact and minister to those outside of our Sunday church context. I have found that spending quality time with a man for one week during a ministry trip is equal to six months of them going to weekly Bible studies; hence, it greatly accelerates their spiritual development.

Have a relational more than an institutional paradigm.

Along with the previous point, serious discipleship involves a very informal approach with those being mentored and does not merely rely upon formal church structures. Many pastors attempt to make disciples merely by sending potential leaders away to Bible school or by creating a Bible institute within their church. These methods may be good for giving people head knowledge but will not produce mature spiritual sons and daughters. Giving head knowledge without a personal connection affirms a worldly construct that can result in creating gifted leaders without godly character. Many of these models produce church splits because unproven leaders are installed who have no integrity.

Adopt the New Testament pattern for church life.

The New Testament pattern for church involves a lead pastor who is committed to one region until enough leaders are raised up to maintain the congregation. The assignment of the lead pastor is based upon the leading of the Lord and not politics and bureaucracy. The New Testament model for church also makes room for elders and deacons to be developed in addition to the lead pastor; hence, the lead pastor doesn’t have to do all the work of the ministry. Furthermore, the New Testament also teaches that the body of Christ should be built up in love by that which every member supplies (Eph. 4:15–16) so that ministry is not relegated merely to professional clergy. All this makes room for discipleship because it leaves the door wide open for people to mature in Christ through serving God’s household and beyond.

Espouse church life rather than a religious church culture.

Many church contexts are so religious that they don’t engender genuine relationships necessary for discipling others. Religious cultures in congregations produce superficial relationships, church politics, and hypocrisy in the followers rather than true disciples. Since we cannot disconnect the relational dynamic from disciple making, a religious spirit is one surefire way to hinder a disciple-making culture in a congregation.

Focus on developing godly character more than promoting talented individuals.

Many churches are tempted to elevate carnal singers, musicians, and gifted preachers to fill a need in their congregation. However, in order to nurture mature disciples, the church needs to focus on developing Christlike character before a person is allowed to minister in public. When we allow spiritual babes to function in a leadership position, they can be tempted to be lifted up with pride and fall into a satanic snare (1 Tim. 3:5–7).

Develop leadership teams to anchor the lead pastor.

Many lead pastors focus on putting out fires, visiting the sick, and counseling the wounded as well as handling much of the management of the congregation. In addition to all this, they are expected to preach once or twice per week.

This leaves the pastor with no energy to pour into potential leaders and stymies the disciple-making process. Consequently the only way a church can regularly produce disciples is by the lead pastor focusing on building leadership teams who will bear the burden of the ministry with him so that they can focus on the ministry of the Word, disciple making, and prayer (Acts 6:2–4). Apart from having strong leadership teams around lead pastors, discipleship is almost impossible.

Adopt the father-son wineskin to counter the orphan spirit in the churches.

The Trinitarian model of Father, Son, and Spirit is the biblical model for oneness, unity, and households. In light of this, both the Old and New Testaments are models of a household of households under the leadership of the elders (or fathers). Hebrews 1:1 teaches that the prophets spoke in time past to the fathers, not the kings or priests, because the fathers had ultimate earthly authority. In the New Testament the qualification for elders (or spiritual leaders) was to be able to manage their own households well (1 Tim. 3:5), not to be great preachers. Why? Because the church is organically a household of households, or a family of families, just as the nation of Israel was in the Old Testament; hence, the church needs to adopt this father-son wineskin. The Holy Spirit functions maternally as the Comforter of the church. This is the only model the church can function in that has the power to break the orphan spirit over potential disciples who cannot function optimally until their generational curses of fatherlessness are broken (Mal. 4:6).

Practice consistent corporate prayer for spiritual vibrancy in the church.

Over the years, I have observed that the most significant disciples I developed had an intense hunger to seek God, not just say their prayers. Spirit-led prayer opens the individual up to the Spirit of God, who deposits into that person divine passion, power, and guidance. Since Jesus only ministered through the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1–2), true disciples are those trained and endowed by the Spirit to minister. The best way to learn how to pray is by participating in powerful prayer meetings. Prayer is caught rather than taught. Acts 1 illustrates how the early church was birthed and empowered by an elongated time of seeking and waiting upon God. If the early church lived and breathed prayer to release kingdom purpose, how can today’s church ever expect to produce culture-shifting disciples apart from fervent prayer? (See James 5:16–18.)

Build upon the local church paradigm rather than the parachurch paradigm for disciple making.

Finally, there are many well-meaning parachurch ministries who attempt to make disciples apart from the participation of the local church. They are strong regarding mission but weak regarding ecclesiology. They probably subconsciously reason, “Jesus made twelve disciples before there was a church, so we can do the same.” However, even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows that the church was always the objective of Jesus’ disciple-making plans. (See John 14–17 as an example.) As one who lived within the Trinitarian Father-Son wineskin.

Jesus knew the only way to advance His kingdom was by producing a family of families that would eventuate in fulfilling the promise the Father made to Abraham—that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1–3). Hence, the original cultural mandate would be fulfilled by empowering spiritual and biological families (Gen. 1:27–28). Of course this involves a lot more than just getting men together for a weekly Bible study. I have learned that unless a person’s biologically family is connected to a spiritual family of families, its capacity to release God’s purpose will be greatly limited.

This is an adapted excerpt from The Jesus Principles by Joseph Mattera. Copyright ©2019  Published by Charisma House. Used by permission.

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