In Dallas Willard’s book, the Great Omission, he makes the claim, and I agree, that making disciples has largely been omitted by most churches today. Willard observed that churches are more interested in making converts than making disciples, thus relegating disciple-making to the margins. Over the years, as I have thought about disciple-making, practiced it and as I have read numerous books on the subject and spoken with people from churches and parachurch organizations where disciple-making is a priority, let me offer a few thoughts.
First, there seems to be a “corrective” going on. Consistent with Willard’s statement about making disciples vis-a-vis making converts, it seems that there is a growing emphasis on recapturing learning how to make disciples. My observation is that while “getting people in” has been a large part of modern evangelicalism, many are now realizing that we have unwittingly contributed to the “thinness” of people’s faith by focusing primarily on “getting people saved.” I’m certainly not advocating that the gospel message of salvation ceases to be announced. But I have noticed that there are a growing number of thoughtful people who are equally concerned with providing a structure for people to actually grow in grace and faith (apart from the explicit or implicit message that it’s about obedience now that you’re “in”). More on this in a later week…
Second, it seems to me that disciple-making is less of a standalone subject. In previous days “discipleship” seemed subject matter that seemed to be focused on basic Christian skills: reading the Bible, fellowship, prayer and evangelism. Discple-making was connected to an underlying belief that once you learn how to do these basic things then you will become mature. But the consensus today is that discple-making is less like a “classroom feel” and much more open to the relational element of learning and growing together in all areas of life. Today disciple-making has become more wholistic focusing on mission, work, marriage, the kinds of apologetics that connect to real life, etc. All of this is an outworking that it’s best to think of the Christian life less in a compartmentalized way and more as the wholeness of person in all of life, connected to the heart.
It’s always struck me as a bit reductionistic to simply say that spiritual formation is the same thing as discipleship. It might be more accurate to say that spiritual formation lends itself to approaching disciple-making in a particular way. A good friend of mine in describing his book on Jonathan Edwards, told me that he wrote the book to get theologically minded people to think more about the heart and to get those who focus solely on the heart to think about good, robust theology. In that sense, making disciples is going to be this project of treating the whole person, focusing on truth and grace, while pointing them over and over to the Savior, who is the embodiment of truth and grace.