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Making Converts vs. Making Disciples

As this video vividly demonstrates, discipling one person a year is the same as converting 1000 people to Christ after 22 years, assuming that the person we disciple continues the process with others. And, after that watershed year, the difference rises exponentially—by 2043 every person on earth would be a follower of Jesus. Additionally, if 10,000 Christians began discipling in this manner today it would only take 10 years to reach the world with the gospel!

Of course, making disciples is much more than mathematics. Our research has revealed that making disciples is a process that involves a one-on-one relationship between two people. Making disciples is not an event or something that happens automatically through a prayer. When we are talking about radical life change through submission to Jesus, it generally takes people a year or more. This challenges us—as Jesus followers—to adopt a mentoring approach to making disciples. It means intentionally seeking others with whom we can establish authentic, loving relationships; teaching them how to follow Jesus, and equipping them to do the same thing all over again with someone else.

Are you doing these things? If not, what needs to change about your disciple-making strategy?

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dr. Tom Cocklereece #

    You have hit on the reason for the “Hole in the Great Commission Resurgence” which has a focus on evangelism (making converts) with little focus on discipleship. My process, Simple Discipleship, is a change of paradigms that encourages developing evangelists through discipleship rather than hoping new converts will do evangelism.

    December 2, 2010
  2. Good article! One Question, you said “When we are talking about radical life change through submission to Jesus, it generally takes people a year or more. ”

    Why a year os so? Just curious. And what benchmarks would you use?

    December 2, 2010
    • Hi,
      Thanks! I’m glad you asked that question. To clarify, it generally takes at least a year to conversion from the time spiritual dialogue is initiated. This is what was revealed in our nationwide research study. We asked the question, “How long was it from the time Jesus first came up in conversation with this person until you gave your life to him?” The initiation of spiritual dialogue and giving one’s life to Jesus were the benchmarks.

      What I am saying is that, the majority of the time, people are not willing to make a radical life change overnight. Our study revealed that the conversion of an unbeliever usually happens through the patient guidance of a Jesus follower.

      I hope that answers your questions. God bless you and your ministry!
      (See “Making Disciples is a Process” here.)

      December 2, 2010
  3. I think the whole post is based on faulty definitions. Someone who converts to Jesus Christ is a disciple of Christ. He began the work in them and He will carry it through to completion. No one has truly converted to Christ without repenting and submitting to Him.

    When Matthew 28:18-20 talks about making disciples, that means proclaiming the gospel. Disciple and convert are synonyms. What you call “making disciples” would be the “teaching” portion of the Great Commission.


    December 2, 2010
    • Hi Bill,
      Thanks for your post. I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that the words disciple and convert are synonymous. And yes, one cannot be a disciple without repenting and submitting his life to Jesus.

      Allow me to don my college professor hat to respond to your comment about making disciples being the teaching portion of the Great Commission. The Greek word translated as “make disciples” in the Great Commission is matheteusate, which means “to learn by practice; to acquire a custom or habit.”1 The Jews in Jesus’ day had a deep appreciation and understanding of matheteusate. In ancient Judaism, a rabbi developed a mentoring relationship with a young, male apprentice. The pupil watched and listened to the rabbi very closely, until he fully habituated the customs, values, and character traits of his master. The pupil was commonly referred to as a mathetes, or a “disciple.” Therefore, when Jesus said “make disciples” in the Great Commission, his followers made an immediate connection to his words. They knew that their task would involve much more than mere teaching. They were to make disciples (matheteusate) by establishing a mentoring relationship with someone (like the rabbi and his apprentice) who did not know Christ, and guide him/her to acquire the customs, habits, and very nature of Jesus, the ultimate master. If an unbeliever repents and submits his life to Jesus, he becomes a mathetes, or a disciple.

      It is interesting to point out that matheteusate (make disciples) is intentionally distinct from the others words used in the Great Commission. In the Greek phrase it is an imperative, or a command. In other words, Jesus assumes we are going, baptizing and teaching, but he is specifically commanding us to make disciples. This is the highlighted message. If teaching was the same thing as making disciples, the Great Commission would be redundant—we cannot make someone a disciple again if he has already made the decision to follow Jesus and become His disciple. And, after we lead people to become disciples we cannot neglect them; we need to finish our job by continuing to teach them.

      This is perhaps more than you asked for. No matter what words we use, the important thing to remember is that the Great Commission is a calling to transform the world through the power and love of Jesus!

      God bless your sincere heart and ministry!

      1Wigram, The Analytical Greek Lexicon, 257.
      A more thorough description of making disciples can be found in my book, Living Dangerously.

      December 3, 2010
  4. Shawn,

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.

    If you agree that disciple and convert are synonyms then I guess I don’t get the point of the post. Many people mistakenly say that a disciple is someone who is serious about their faith while a convert is just someone who made some profession of faith and goes on living like the devil. Clearly that’s not the way the Bible uses those terms and I’m glad we agree.

    I think you may have misunderstood what I meant. I’m sure it’s my fault. Making a disciple is not the same as teaching. Making a disciple would be accomplished by proclamation of the gospel (i.e. evangelism).

    Once someone is a disciple (or convert) they are then taught. You don’t teach an unbeliever, and you can’t take a Christian (someone who is already a disciple) and make them a disciple.

    I would say generally, making disciples (evangelism) takes place outside of church among the lost. Teaching takes place in church or among Christians.


    December 16, 2010
    • I agree with you, Bill. Thanks for continuing this dialogue. God bless!

      December 17, 2010
  5. Bill,
    Thank you for your commentary on my book. I also appreciate the valuable and insightful comments made on this post.

    I still think we fundamentally agree. If I understand correctly, we both believe there is no distinction between converts and disciples; we both agree that discipling involves a teaching process; and we both assert that it is the Gospel that changes lives—not people.

    My book reported what believers across the United States said influenced them to accept Jesus. The majority of them said that they were most influenced by a one-on-one relationship with another believer. These people also named specific characteristics of believers that had the biggest impact on their decision to accept Christ. However, in case I confused anyone (which can easily happen), I know that relationships are no substitute for the Gospel. The Gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

    Jesus called us to “Go and make disciples” because he wanted to use us as active participants and partners in the disciple-making process. This is a very serious responsibility. Making disciples and discipleship requires us to become like Jesus in every way. Jesus said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). Jesus taught his followers how to make disciples by modeling his life for them—and it worked.

    The apostle Paul said that when our lives are transformed into the image of Jesus we will reflect his glory to others (2 Cor. 3:17). There is no fluff or pretense in being transformed into the image of Christ. It is a life-long, dynamic process. It takes work. We become more like Christ as we develop an intimate relationship with him and intentionally work on growing spiritually.
    Jesus was dangerous because nothing got in the way of his mission—to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He brazenly loved the disenfranchised, claimed to be God, and broke sacred traditions. Jesus risked his life by sharing the Gospel to virtually everyone he met. When we are transformed into his image we naturally reflect his character through our words and deeds. We become “the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15).

    There is no magic formula in conversion. The bottom line is that we need to strive to be like Christ in every way. Like Jesus, we need to be dangerous in our efforts to share the Gospel with others. We cannot let apathy or selfishness get in the way of our mission; we must run through the yield signs that Satan places in our path.

    Thank you for continuing this dialogue. I certainly appreciate your sincere quest for truth. I know that I am still learning and growing. We will always be able to debate nuances in Scripture, but the “weightier matters” are that we are partners in the Gospel and we have a common desire to obey God, follow Jesus, spread the Gospel and make disciples.

    Blessings and Happy Thanksgiving.

    November 23, 2011

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