Why You Can’t Make Disciples

As pastors, we want to lead people into a transformed life of discipleship and mission. But often people aren’t quite as interested or excited about discipleship and mission as we hope they would be.

As I’ve pastored churches as well as coached and consulted with all kinds of churches, I’ve noticed there is something built in to almost every church I’ve ever encountered that sabotages their best disciple-making intentions.


Fly, my pretties!

I remember wondering about this when I first got into all this stuff. My theology was being profoundly reshaped along missional lines. I saw a vision for Christian discipleship that was bigger than just people being nice until heaven.

I was so excited about it that I figured all I needed to do was tell people about it and they’d be excited, too!

All I had to do was announce the possibility of being on mission with God, and people would shout for joy and wholeheartedly dive into it. I thought that all people really needed was permission to live missionally, and it would become an unstoppable hurricane of love.

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead I found I had unleashed a profoundly stoppable puff of wishful thinking.

I was so eager to see all this wonderful stuff happen that I spent some time trying to convince people that it was indeed a good idea. I argued and cajoled and sermonized and encouraged and urrrrrrrged and inspired. All for naught.

Formation required

Something was missing. I began realizing that missional people don’t fall from trees. They are not called forth ex nihilo. They must be formed into the image of Christ before they’d be able to live on mission.

But why hadn’t they been formed? These were people who attended church services regularly, led small groups, taught Sunday school… these people worked in the nursery, even! Why wasn’t all this activity and service resulting in spiritual formation in the likeness of Christ?

Enrolling in Jesus school

They hadn’t been formed because they had never fully intended to follow Jesus as his disciple, learning from him how to be like him. Faithful churchgoers can be some of the meanest people you’ll ever meet! Why?

Because events and practices (even good ones), in and of themselves, don’t magically make us like Jesus.

We must intend to become like Jesus, and engage in practices that form us in that direction in ways that form us in that direction.

So why don’t people want to become disciples of Jesus? Why don’t they intend to follow him in every area of their lives?

And here we are honing in on that one thing that seems to be built into most churches that sabotages our best intentions for discipleship and mission. This is the hidden reason many pastors can’t make disciples.

What’s in your good news?

That one stumped me for awhile, until I heard Dallas Willard ask this question:

“Does the gospel I preach naturally lead to people becoming disciples of Jesus?”

Putting it another way: Is becoming a disciple of Jesus the natural way to say ‘Yes’ to the gospel I preach?

The forgiveness gospel

Here’s a quick test: One popular version of the gospel states that your sins can be forgiven and you can go to heaven when you die.

How do we say Yes to this gospel? By signing the contract and believing the right things about Jesus. You certainly don’t need to become a disciple to say Yes to this gospel.

People who say Yes to this gospel hardly ever become disciples of Jesus because we can’t fathom why we would need Jesus for anything other than his blood. We are essentially “Vampire Christians” as Willard called them.

The do-good gospel

Let’s test another gospel: Another popular version of the good news goes like this: “We can do something about injustice.”

How do we say Yes to this gospel? We sign petitions and march in the demonstrations and volunteer at the food bank and advocate for the homeless.

Now, these are all great things to do. There’s nothing wrong with them (just like there’s nothing wrong with forgiveness). But we don’t need to become disciples of Jesus to do these things.

Again, discipleship feels like an “extra” thing. An add-on to the “main thing” for people who are into that kind of thing.

Under the logic of these kinds of gospels, why would anyone in their right mind become a disciple of Jesus? What use would it be? It certainly doesn’t help them say Yes to the good news they heard and believed.

Our only strategies are to “should” on people or just redefine discipleship to mean what people are already doing. Neither strategy helps us really understand why we can’t make disciples.

Recovering the gospel of the kingdom

So here it is. Here’s why we can’t make disciples. Here’s the factor built in to almost every church that sabotages discipleship before it even starts…

We aren’t preaching the gospel of the kingdom.

Instead we preach gospels that aren’t necessarily WRONG, but because they’re TRUNCATED they don’t naturally lead people to become disciples.

Here’s the truth to wrestle with: there is a DIRECT link between the gospel you preach and whether or not people become disciples of Jesus in your church.

What’s happening in so many of our churches is that because we preach a truncated gospel, we are inadvertently directing people AWAY from becoming disciples of Jesus.

So what kind of gospel results in discipleship? The gospel Jesus preached. The gospel the New Testament writers preached. The gospel the early church preached. The gospel of the kingdom of God.

Here’s how it sounds: “A new life in God’s kingdom is available to you right now. This very moment you can reach out and experience a with-God life, no matter your circumstances.”

This is the good news that INCLUDES forgiveness and justice, but so much more! It sounded audacious back then and it sounds audacious today.

Saying Yes by becoming a disciple

But if it’s true… if a new life in God’s kingdom is truly available, how do we say Yes to it?

This is more than signing a contract for afterlife insurance. This is an entirely new kind of life you need to learn how to live. It’s a life that will feel counterintuitive to everything you “know.”

To say Yes to that kind of gospel, you need to trust someone who knows how to live in God’s kingdom. In other words, you become a disciple of Jesus.

Living abundantly in God’s kingdom is what Jesus is “good at.” So listen to him, and trust him. Put his teaching into practice. As you do that, you’ll find that a new kind of life begins to work in you, and transformation begins…

Discipleship flows easily and naturally from the gospel of the kingdom, because the way we enter life in God’s kingdom now is by trusting Jesus.

Trusting him not just for forgiveness. Not just to let us into heaven when we die.

No, we trust him for everything: our daily needs, abiding joy and peace, and power to do the things he said were good and right and true and beautiful, to join with him in his activity in the world.

This leads to formation in character and competence in the likeness of Christ.

Which leads to everyday mission in the name of Christ.

Which leads to more disciples, because we participate in the mission of God by proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, which leads to… people becoming disciples!

What have you learned about the relationship between discipleship and the gospel of the kingdom? Leave a comment below and let us know!

P.S. There’s a LOT more to say about how this works itself out. The gospel of the kingdom must be preached not just in the pulpit but cultivated in the whole culture of the church. To learn more, check out the resources below or contact us to ask a question:

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Terry on June 17, 2019 at 8:26 am

    Formation is a messy process. We must trust Jesus and others to change.

  2. Grant Eckhart on June 17, 2019 at 1:06 pm

    “I unleashed an unstoppable puff of wishful thinking”


    Such a good line.And so true!

  3. Ben Sternke on June 17, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    Yes absolutely!

  4. Roy on June 18, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    Could it be, that pastors, leadership, possibly have lost sight of the “make disciples of all nations” thingy, and became enamored with the big crowd of pew sitters?

    If you are truly making disciples, many of those, will be called to go, and you will have to let them.

  5. George Ferreira on June 20, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    John 17:3 New International Version (NIV)

    3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

    Interesting – John says eternal life is KNOWING who God is and KNOWING Jesus Christ His son. To know someone is a personal relationship, to know about someone isnt personal at all. Eternal life starts when we believe in what Christ has done for us but continues as we develop a relationship with Him – I guess the question to the unbeliever is … Do you want God himself! Everlasting life is the indirect blessing of KNOWING Him.
    Great article Ben – true discipleship!

  6. Ben Sternke on June 20, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks George!

  7. Rebekah on July 7, 2019 at 8:08 pm

    I am so on board with what you have said abd would love some advice. In a practical sense, how do you communicate this idea of an unseen, coming kingdom in a consise way to the modern hearer who may not have a church background to know what in the world we are talking about?

  8. Ben Sternke on July 8, 2019 at 11:43 am

    That’s an important question, Rebekah! We talk a lot about this in Gravity Leadership Academy, because every circumstance demands discernment rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. In general I’d say we must start with listening to where people are actually experiencing pain or some kind of lack of kingdom shalom. From there we learn to proclaim good news contextually, speaking to the needs and concerns actually present in people’s lives, rather than trying to convince them they should be concerned about other things… This blog post has some good further tips, I think.

  9. Pamela on April 19, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    Not intending to state a challenging issue too simply, yet…
    Religion vs Relationship.

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