What is Missional Disciple-Making?

Our task is to make disciples on the pattern of Jesus Christ; he sent them out as missionaries while forming them spiritually. He prepared them in a high-discipleship, high-mission culture. He formed and equipped them for sustainable mission. Similarly, we are called to makes disciples that function like missionaries, knowing that mission is messy, for the long haul, and unsustainable without discipleship.

Thus, missional disciple-making is defined as the process of making disciples, rooted in the worship of the triune God, within a context of mission for the purpose of mission. Disciples are equipped to do the work of ministry not merely in church sanctuaries, classrooms, and Bible studies, but in neighborhoods, streets, and natural places of connection in the world. Missional disciple-making forms disciples around the practices of worshipping the triune God, sharing ecclesial life in community, and proclaiming the gospel of words and ways of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In missional disciple-making, Christians learn missional practices by participating in them. They are formed not simply by hearing, reading and talking, but by going and doing, by serving, listening, caring, visiting, and sharing the good news. This broadens disciple-making to encompass not merely spiritual practices of Christian formation but missional practices that shape Christian formation. In the book Going Full Circle: Worship that Moves Us to Discipleship and Missions, Mark Powers states:

Jesus sent his followers out on mission. … Had they seen everything Christ could do? No. Had they learned everything he had to teach them? No. Had they seen enough to become missionaries? Yes! So, Jesus gave them power and authority, and he sent them to preach and heal…. It was risky for Jesus to send his disciples out so early in their ministry. But Jesus sent them anyway. Going on mission is the hammer and heat through which a disciple is forged.

Missional disciple-making is an intentional process of forming Christ-followers to become more like Jesus for the sake of God’s mission in the world. Jesus Christ is both the model and goal of missional disciple-making. The imitation of Christ is the fundamental expression of what it means to be a Christian on mission in the world (1 Cor. 11:1). As Breen states, Jesus Christ is the “mimetic imperative of our life as missional disciples.” Commenting on mimesis, Vanhoozer says: “Disciples imitate their masters. Masters are role models because their actions provide a template that guides the actions of their followers. In Jesus’ case, he even gave his disciples the very words they were to say to God … (Matt. 6:9).” C. S. Lewis commented: “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men unto Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself are simply a waste of time.” Hirsch adds: “If the heart of discipleship is to become like Jesus, then… we see that Jesus’ strategy is to get a whole lot of little versions of him infiltrating every nook and cranny of society by reproducing himself in and through his people…”

Disciple-making in the Context of Mission

The Greek word leitourgia (λειτουργία), from which the word liturgy comes, is translated as ‘service’ (from the Latin servus, ‘slave’) or ‘ministry’ (from the Latin ministerium). The word liturgy was derived from a technical term in ancient Greek meaning the “work of the people” or “public service.” Early Christians adopted this word to describe their principal act of worship to God (Acts 13:2). Such worship, however, led the church to intentional mission and the sending of apostles such as Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:3).

The Greek word leitourgia also referred to service or ministry to humans as when giving relief to those in need. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the ministry (deaconia; διακονία) of this service (leitourgias; λειτουργίας) is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God,” (2 Cor. 9:12). In this sense, liturgy or service that meets human needs results in thanksgiving to God. Whereas leitourgia or divine service to God can lead to serving others, leitourgia or service to meet human needs can lead to the worship of God.

Thus, leitourgia may be directed toward God, as well as to humans. It is upward and outward. The early church father John Chrysostom spoke similarly of two altars: one within the sanctuary and one outside in the public square. Therefore, leitourgia of worship and mission becomes the organizing principle of disciple-making. Disciples gather for worship where they serve God (Matt. 28:17) and are sent out to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) with the presence of the risen Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:20).

In the Christian context, a disciple (μαθητής, mathétés) is someone who believes in and follows after Jesus Christ. “Disciples are “little Christs,” meaning that with intentionality and passing of time, they look more like Jesus Christ in devotion to God, character, and service to others. Everything—worship, spiritual life, home life, work, relationships and service—follows the teachings and practices of Jesus. A disciple has communion with God, community in Christ’s family, and a commission to the world. The missional disciple enters a daily relationship with the triune God (upward), nurtures relationships with other disciples (inward), and engages in a life of service and witness to non-believing others (outward).


1. A corollary statement of Breen is: “If you make disciples you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples.” Breen, Building a Discipling Culture, 11.

2. Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 95–96.

3. Beard, “Missional Discipleship,” in Missiology, 177.

4. Alan Kreider and Eleanor Kreider, Worship and Mission after Christendom (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), 161–162.

5. See: Nathan A. Finn and Keith S. Whitfield, eds., Spirituality for the Sent: Casting a New Vision for the Missional Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

6. Powers, Going Full Circle, 59.

7. Zscheile, Cultivating Sent Communities, 7.

8. Beard, “Missional Discipleship,” in Missiology, 191.

9. Breen, “Disciple-making in Community,” Lecture, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL, Nov. 9, 2016.

10. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 124, 189.

11. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 171, 190.

12. Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 113.

13. Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol. IV (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 215–217; Kreider and Kreider, Worship and Mission after Christendom, 27.

14. Acts 13:2 reads: “While they were worshiping the Lord”; λειτουργούντων δὲ αὐτῶν τῷ κυρίῳ. Moreover, the word leitourgia refers to the service or ministry of the priests relative to the prayers and sacrifices offered to God: Luke 1:23; Heb. 8:6; 9:21.

15. Cf. Phil. 2:30.

16. Powers says: “Paul the missionary was first and foremost a worshiper of God. His worship expressed his deep, transforming love for God. This all-encompassing love led him to yield to God as student and follower. Then, as a disciple, his life overflowed into missionary action. In turn, Paul’s discipleship and mission energized his worship.” Powers, Going Full Circle, 55.

17. Ion Bria, The Liturgy After the Liturgy: Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996).

18. Contra Hirsch. Hirsch asserts that “mission is the catalyzing principle of discipleship” and therefore, disciple-making “must be organized around mission.” Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 120.

19. Vanhoozer posits that to be a follower of Christ is to be a follower of Scripture, in all three senses of ‘follow’: 1) to understand the meaning of what Christ says in Scripture, 2) to respond to his instructions with obedience, and 3) to go after Christ or along ‘the way’ of Christ.” Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 1. Cf. Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship, 28–32.

20. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 139. Cf. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016), 180–198.

21. Halter and Smay suggest that a missional disciple-making process must contain three elements kept in balance: communion, inclusive community, and mission. Halter and Smay, AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, 96–97.

David M. Gustafson