Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus by Mark Dever is one of the most practical books on discipling I’ve read on the subject. And the reason why it is so practical is its unrelenting focus on the local church.
While many books on discipleship talk about how Jesus discipled others, or how we can make disciples, Discipling sets discipleship in the context of the local church. More than how-to book for individuals, it persuasively argues that the church is theplace for discipleship. In fact, only as churches disciple will they grow in vitality. And only as discipling takes place in the church will disciples grow in the place designed by the Lord.
Indeed, because this focus on the church is often missed in discussions about discipleship, I would highly commend anyone who cares about the church or the growth of Christians to read this book. This week, our church men’s group will be discussing its contents, and in preparation for that, let me share a dozen or so quotations from Discipling. These quotes highlight the ecclesial nature of discipleship found in Mark Dever’s book, and hopefully they both capture the shape of his argument and whet your appetite to read the book.
Discipleship is a participation in the “we-life.” It is not meant to be lived alone. We are to follow others who follow Christ and we are to call others to follow Christ. Thus, in “rebellion” against the individualism of our age, we should pursue disciples and discipleship. Mark Dever gets at this life together when he says,
At the heart of Christianity is God’s desire for a people to display his character. They do this through their obedience to his Word in their relationships with him and each other. Therefore he sent his Son to call out a people to follow him. And part of following the Son is calling still more to follow the Son. Then, in their life together, these people display the we-life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Together they demonstrate God’s own love, holiness, and oneness. (12)
Importantly, disciples are called to be a people who follow Christ, not just an aggregate of individual disciples. The great stress in Discipling is disciple-making placed the context of God’s holy community.
Rather than making discipleship a complex program that only trained professionals can do, it is simply the large-hearted, open-handed encouragement for others to follow Christ according to his word. As Mark Dever defines it,
Discipling is deliberately doing spiritual good to someone so that he or she will be more like Christ. (13)
And more fully,
Christian life is the discipled life and the discipling life. Yes, Christianity involves taking the road less traveled and hearing a different drummer. But not in the way that Frost and Thoreau meant. Christianity is not for loners or individualists. It is for a people traveling together down the narrow path that leads to life. You must follow and you must lead. You must be loved and you must love. And we love others best by helping them to follow Jesus down the pathway of life. (13)
Discipleship and the Church
Too often personal discipleship is perceived as an individual’s work, or even as specially-qualified individual. Yet, Mark Dever rightly assigns the call of disciple-making to the whole church. As I’ve noted here, churches are the ones who identify disciples (through baptism) and mature disciples with the gifts God has given to the church. Accordingly, discipleship can never be reduced to a one-on-one relationship. Instead, “biblical discipling largely occurs in and through churches” (19). Dever continues,
The first place Christians should ordinarily look to be discipled and to disciple is through the fellowship of the local church both gathered and scattered. David Wells has observed, “It is very easy to build churches in which seekers congregate; it is very hard to build churches in which biblical faith is maturing into genuine discipleship.” (19)
The goal of his book Discipling is meant to foster this kind of disciple-making culture in every true church. And truly, it needs encouraging because too often disciple-making and church-building are split apart, rather than held together.
Discipling Trusts in God’s Timing
Stressing the rigors of discipling and the absolute need we have for God to work within us and in those whom we serve, Mark Dever sets our sights on the long-term impact of discipling.
We don’t always see immediate fruit. To disciple, you must be like the patient farmer who plants his crops, trusting that they will eventually spring up. We trust God to use his Word, even if we never see the fruit. As one writer said, “The seed may lie under the clods until we lie there, and then spring up!”
For me, discipling is the only way I can evangelize nonChristians and equip Christians in that one place where I can never travel—the future beyond my life. Discipling others now is how I try to leave time-bombs of grace. (34)
This is an incredible insight, one that esteems the work of Christ to build his church and one that thinks of the upbuilding of the church more than our own personal ministries.
Discipling Makes Use of the Time God Gives
Practically-speaking discipleship takes advantage of routine rhythms and the mundane schedule of life. As Ephesians 5:16 puts it, a faithful disciple(r) will learn how to “redeem the time,” and that redemption centers on encouraging others to know and love their Redeemer.
When the church scatters, the ministry of teaching and oversight should continue in the lives of members. This happens over weeknight desserts or Saturday morning breakfasts, while folding laundry or taking trips to the grocery store. Discipling lasts all week as members meet to talk, pray, encourage, and assist one another in the fight for love and holiness. (37)
The local church is the best place for such relationships to grow, as I will observe shortly. A church can be thick with mentoring relationships even if they are not formally called “discipling relationships.” After all, discipling really is just a bunch of church members taking responsibility to prepare one another for glory, . . . It’s one way we see the New Testament idea that we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). How much pastoring gets done in the ordinary life of a congregation when it’s characterized by a culture of discipling! (43)
No church will thrive on the ministry of a few overburdened leaders. That was never God’s plan. Instead, when every member takes up the call to disciple (= love, encourage, instruct, correct, check-in-with, pray for, and serve) one another, the body of Christ is built up. When the mundane moments of the week are filled with discipleship, the church grows deep and wide.
Diligent Discipler, Don’t Leave the Church Behind
For decades the chief proponents of disciple-making in the American Church have not been churches. Or at least, countless Christians have been introduced to discipleship by para-church ministries like the Navigators and Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) rather than local churches. Mark Dever highlights this historical trend and pushes for the reunion of disciple-making and the church. Citing the goodness of these ministries and their insufficiency, he calls for disciple-making in the church.
Yet the Bible teaches that the local church is the natural environment for discipling. In fact, it teaches that the local church is itself the basic discipler of Christians. It does this through its weekly gatherings and its accountability structures …, as well as its elders and its members … These in turn provide the context for the one-on-one discipling we have been considering so far.
The gathered local church is responsible to preach the whole counsel of God through those gifted for this purpose. Through baptism it affirms credible professions. Through the Lord’s Supper it declares the Lord’s death and makes the many into one. And through excommunication it removes anyone whose life unrepentantly contradicts his or her profession.
That much provides a church’s skeletal structure. Then we come to the realm of relationships, which are like the church’s flesh and muscle. In their life together, the members Of a church practice loving one another as Jesus has loved them, ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). With what kind of love did Jesus love his disciples? He loved them with a love that continually pointed to the words of the Father. That demonstrated his love through obeying the Father. That assured them of a place being prepared for them. That ultimately laid down his life so that they could be forgiven. Now think: Where can we, too, best love like this? Answer: In an environment where we can love by pointing to the words of the Father and Son, by affirming repentance through baptism, by affirming that the many are one through the Supper, and by sacrificing our own agendas and vendettas through forgiveness. Flesh and skeleton come together. In these most basic ways, the local church is the primary discipler of all Christians. (53–54, emphasis mine)
A Disciple-Making Church
What does a disciple-making church look like? In chapter 6, Mark Dever answers with six practices.
- Pastors Disciple and Equip with God’s Word
- Pastors Lead in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
- Pastors Provide an Example
- The Congregation Receives and Supports the Pastors’ Ministry
- The Congregation Must Sometimes Reject the Pastors’ Ministry (When the Pastor’s Reject the Word of God)
- Members are Responsible for One Another
When these six things occur, a “culture of discipling” will emerge. And others have observed one of most powerful agents of transformation—for good or bad—is the community in which we immerse ourselves. Accordingly, a church where disciple-making is thick will be the most healthy of churches. And thus Mark Dever—who’s had a few things to say about healthy churches—helps us once again to see why discipleship should be taking place in the church.
The local church—this Father-designed, Jesus-authorized, and Spirit-gifted body—is far better equipped to undertake the work of discipling believers than simply you and your one friend. Jesus does not promise that you and your one friend will defeat the gates of hell. He promises that the church will do this. You cannot recognize yourself as gifted and called to teach God’s Word, or to baptize and administer the Lord’s Supper, like a local church is so authorized. (68–69)
Church, Make Disciples with the Power of the Spirit
After laying out why discipleship is so important for the church, Mark Dever spends the last four chapters (ch. 7–10) outlining how to disciple. He addresses how to choose someone to disciple (ch. 7), what to focus on (ch. 8) and how much discipleship costs (ch. 9), and how to raise up leaders (ch. 10).
In short, these final four chapters, plus Jonathan Leeman’s closing section on discipleship are vital for putting into practice all that Scripture says about making disciples. I could keep quoting Dever and his imminently practical counsel for discipling, but I’d rather you pick up the book and discuss it with some of your fellow church members.
That’s what we will be doing tonight, and I encourage you to do the same!
Soli Deo Gloria, ds