Discipling Christians Unto What?

A problem that we face, especially in the West, is that perceptions of disciple-making have been shaped by Christendom-bound ecclesiology which defines “church” by the kind of building in which a congregation meets, the doctrinal beliefs that it holds, and the full-time pastors it employs. Worship, discipleship, and mission are highly compartmentalized, programmatic, and individualistic in application. Worship is defined by an hour on Sunday, discipleship is described as a twelve-week series of classes, and mission is limited to supporting missionaries financially.

Even evangelical churches that historically identify in the free church tradition of gathered believers, in contrast to state churches, have defaulted over time to the Christendom parish model where little more is expected of Christians than to attend divine services, sit neatly in rows, listen attentively to the preacher, and give faithfully of their finances to the church. Nevertheless, free church traditions historically have had significant differences in ecclesiology from the Roman Church and the Protestant Magisterial Reformers who upheld the territorial church—coterminous with the state or city-state with its system of parishes that include all citizens. In contrast, free churches or free mission societies held meetings on the pattern of Philipp Jakob Spener’s conventicles as voluntary gatherings of believers in homes and meeting places where they read the Bible, discussed writings such as Johann Arndt’s True Christianity, and encouraged friends, neighbors, and family toward conversion as the “one thing needful.”

As with the early church, free church traditions emphasized discipleship and church discipline as components to strengthen and preserve the church and mission to extend it. With time, however, free churches have defaulted to Christendom-bound practices, and in some cases abandoned intentional disciple-making, as well as mission in community. Many have simply assumed uncritically that cultural Christendom-bound ecclesiology is “church,” and thus conformed to it, sub-contracting “serious” disciple-making to para-church ministries.

The twentieth-century church growth movement—a stream of cultural late-Christendom in the West—had as its goal to persuade people to faith and to incorporate them into the church. Often churches equipped small group leaders to lead new groups in order to assimilate new members. While the aim was conversion and addition of members into the local body, little attention was given to mission, witness, and service to the broader community where the churches were situated. If not individualistic, disciple-making programs were ecclesio-centric or church-serving. The local church was the end or aim, rather than equally a means or instrument of God’s mission to the broader community. Christians were “discipled unto” distributing worship bulletins, parking cars, serving on the welcome team, and leading small groups. Little if any attention was given to preparing Christians to engage in mission, service, and witness in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places such as cafés, pubs, gyms, or community organizations. As in Christendom, the pastor and staff became distributors of religious goods and services. Little was expected of members other than to attend worship services and serve programs that served the local church.

In this context, the church produced members who are knowledgeable of the Bible and points of doctrine but weak in bearing fruit in witness and engaging in mission. In what has been described as the attractional model of the church, Christians were encouraged to invite others to come to the large meeting where seeker or seeker-sensitive services addressed the needs of those who came. Alan Hirsch states:

Essentially, [the] attractional church operates from an assumption that to bring people to Jesus we need to first bring them to church. It also describes the type or mode of engagement that was birthed during the Christendom period of history, when the church was perceived as a central institution of society and therefore expected people to “come and hear the gospel” rather than a “go-to-them” type of mentality.

In the attractional model, the gospel was presented in a winsome manner. Those who came to faith in turn invited friends and family to the services in order to hear the preacher, enjoy the music, and drink the coffee. New believers assimilated into the church often through small groups or programs that met their felt needs and wants, with the overall aim and metric of numerical growth. Sometimes this model resulted in mega-sized churches, especially when located in suburban areas with freeways and space for new buildings and large parking lots.

In the missional model of the church, however, the aim and metric is not to become a mega-sized church. The missional church exists (and grows) as a means and instrument of God’s mission to the broader community. The church exists to worship the triune God and build up Christian disciples who in turn engage in works of service, compassion, and gospel proclamation in their contexts, both individually and with one another in community. These disciples are prepared and sent to engage in mission in the spaces where they live, work, and recreate. With prophetic insight, Charles Colson stated:

We must take the church to the people. Too often we sit in church as spectators, waiting for the needy multitudes to come watch the show with us. But for those in need—spiritually and physically—a fat, lethargic church preoccupied with its own entertainment holds no appeal. Jesus didn’t set up counseling hours in the Temple; He went into the homes of the most notorious sinners, to the places where the lame, the beggars, the needy could be found.

Clearly, there must be missional disciples if there is to be a missional church and there must be missional disciple-making if there are to be missional disciples. Missional disciple-making is shaped by a missional ecclesiology that moves beyond assumptions and patterns of Christendom. It is characterized by a “go to others” approach in which disciples participate in God’s mission in their contexts as sent people.




(1) David M. Gustafson, “Swedish Pietism and American Revivalism: Kindred Spirits in the Evangelical Free Tradition,” in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, edited by Christian T. Collins Winn et. al., (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), 199–204; Arndt states: “In a word, he who does not live here in time with Christ will not live with him there in eternity. Christ will not live in that person there, in whom he has not lived here. … Note with whom you have most conformed and unified your life here, with Christ or with the Devil. With whomever you have done so you will remain united after death in eternity.” Johann Arndt, True Christianity (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 76. Cf. Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2006), 99–102. (2) Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical and Global Perspectives (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 62–64. (3) Ralph Winter posited that whenever the church has been effective in mission it has utilized both modality (congregation) and sodality (mission) structures. Ralph D. Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission” Missiology 2:1 (Jan., 1974), 121–139. In contrast, Newbigin maintained that congregations must engage in mission, holding that “An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church,” and “a Church which has ceased to be a mission has certainly lost the esse [essence] and not merely the bene esse [well-being] of a Church.” Newbigin, The Household of God, (London: SCM, 1953), 2–4, 24, 163, 201. Also see: Jerry E. White, Church and the Parachurch: An Uneasy Marriage (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1983), and Leroy Eims, The Lost Art of Disciplemaking (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978).
(4) Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd rev. ed. by C. Peter Wagner, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990), 24. (5) Gary McIntosh and Glen Martin, Finding Them, Keeping Them: Effective Strategies for Evangelism and Assimilation in the Local Church (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 89; Larry Osborne, Sticky Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 70–71; 75 –81. (6) Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 14. (7) Although writing from a church growth perspective, Charles Van Engen developed a missional model of the local church that drew upon the church’s mark of apostolicity. Charles Van Engen, God’s Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991) 78 – 79 (8) Spiritual gift inventories were conducted often to identify where members might serve within the church. See: C. Peter Wagner, Spiritual Gifts and Church Growth (Pasadena, CA: Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth, 1982). While Eph. 4:11–12 speaks of gifts to groups of people “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” this must be understood in the context of the work of the Spirit through the church as a witness to “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” (Acts 1:8). Maturity of the church toward Christlikeness is not mutually exclusive from Christ-like mission in the world. (9) Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 183; Marshall and Payne, The Trellis and the Vine, 96. (10) Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 275. (11) Gary V. Nelson, Borderland Churches: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008), 135. (12) Mark C. Powers, Going Full Circle: Worship that Moves Us to Discipleship and Missions (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2013), 19–20. (13) Charles Colson, Who Speaks for God? Confronting the World with Real Christianity (Westchester, IL: Crossway
Books, 1985), 96. (14) Guder, Missional Church, 240; Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 120, 129; Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 150. (15) Guder, Missional Church, 185, 240.

David M. Gustafson