Pastors, Programs, or People: Who Makes Disciples in Your Church?


Jesus commissioned the Church to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), and every church must answer the question, “How will we make disciples?”

A 2019 Lifeway Research survey of pastors revealed a positive outlook on disciple-making efforts in American churches. Around 2 in 3 pastors (65%) feel satisfied with the state of discipleship compared with 47% in 2011, which is likely more than increased optimism. More pastors evaluated their discipleship progress in 2019 than in 2011, indicating that the focus might be shifting from quantity to quality of disciples.

Yet I suspect that fewer churches try to answer, “Who will make disciples?” The 2019 Discipleship Pathway assessment found that while 78% of church members had meaningful relationships in their church, less than half indicated they intentionally dedicate time to help others grow in their faith.

Nearly 60 commands in the New Testament direct Christians to carry out Christlike actions to “one another.” These commands demonstrate the crucial role that believers play in the discipleship of other believers. So who makes disciples in your church, and how do they do it?  

The survey of pastors revealed various approaches to make disciples. On average, pastors indicated using six different approaches to make disciples, and the results highlight three dimensions of the answer to who makes disciples.

Pastors Make Disciples

Should pastors make disciples and feel responsible for the growth of their church? Yes, and Amen! The 2019 survey indicated that 83% of pastors have an intentional plan for discipleship in their church, with 78% recognizing room for improvement. As one aspect of their discipleship plan, 89% indicated weekly sermons during the worship service, and another 70% include an additional pastor-led teaching time on an alternate day or time.

Pastors alone, however, cannot bear the sole weight of this responsibility, and a congregation with a “feed me” attitude will prove disastrous to everyone involved. Thus, we include effective programs and groups of people. 

Programs Make Disciples

What role do programs play in discipleship, and how do pastors utilize them in their approach to spiritual growth? The survey indicated that:

  • 96% of pastors utilize ongoing adult Sunday School classes or small group Bible studies at church
  • 80% have women’s groups or classes
  • 79% use short-term adult Bible studies
  • 69% employ mentoring or one-on-one discipling relationships
  • 65% create men’s groups or classes
  • 53% deploy ongoing adult small-group Bible studies that meet in homes or outside the church building
  • 33% organize accountability groups.

These groups and programs provide environments for mutual participation in one another’s growth, but as relational investment goes up, use goes down. The Discipleship Pathway Assessment also found 38% of churchgoers do not attend a small group, 28% attend one to three times per month, and only 35% attend four or more times per month. 

While the pastor survey didn’t measure participation, the types of methods deployed match this trend. The programs which require the highest levels of vulnerability and participation in other’s growth appear the least utilized. A church member might stay an extra hour at church and hear a Bible lesson more easily than bear the sins of their souls to other Christians on Tuesday mornings. 

People Make Disciples

Pastors make disciples and set the tone of discipleship in their church. Their strategic selection of programs and groups that involve Christians in each other’s lives plays a crucial role. Various cultures and congregational needs will lead to diverse methods of how to make disciples.

Still, some might assume the responsibility to make disciples falls on the pastor, Bible study leader, or small group leader. People make disciples, and we must help our church members embrace their identity as disciple-makers regardless of what leadership role they possess.

The cultural value of independence and self-creation serves as a significant barrier for the American church. The Discipleship Pathway Assessment revealed another opportunity to learn from African American and Hispanic churches, which seem to value small groups and involvement in one another’s faith to a greater degree.

We think asking for help makes us appear weak, and that confessing sin is for the people who have real problems. We Google the questions we have about Scripture, theology, and life rather than ask trusted friends in our church. We like to offer help but remain reluctant to receive the offer ourselves. How is this overcome so that church members feel responsibility for the growth of other Christians in their church? 

  1. Cast vision for the church as a family

Who we are to one another informs what we do for one another. In 1 Thessalonians, while Paul primarily refers to the church as “brothers and sisters” (20 times in the book), he also describes that “we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). A few verses later he reminds, “how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

In Christ, we’re family. As great as a competent Bible teacher is, we need more spiritual fathers and mothers to raise up mature children in Christ.

2. Model reproducible mentoring and discipleship

Almost 7 in 10 pastors (69%) utilize one-on-one discipleship relationships in their approach to spiritual growth. This method can feel inefficient at first but can multiply with remarkable depth. At first, few may feel qualified to mentor others, but this can result from what they have seen or received themselves. High-skill mentoring limits reproducibility. High-life-accessibility mentoring can intimidate at first but will reproduce and transform. Paul the apostle employed this simple strategy: imitation.

  • “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)
  • “Join in imitating me.” (Philippians 3:17)
  • “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things.” (Philippians 4:9)

Inviting someone into your life to see how you follow Christ requires humility and transparency, but it bears abundant fruit. Spiritual reproduction begins again when a mentee invites someone else into their life.

Additionally, this approach leverages existing life rhythms as learning environments rather than requiring the addition of new appointments. Inviting a mentee to the family dinner table or allowing them to experience an unplanned interaction in a store illustrates the application and meaning of the Scriptures with incredible force.

A healthy church is made up of members who see each other as family and feel a sense of responsibility for others’ growth, as well as their own. Pastors cannot bear the sole responsibility, though they play a crucial role in determining the tone of discipleship in their church. They can paint a picture of the church as a family, demonstrate vulnerability and humility by inviting others into their lives and enjoin others to do the same.

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