More than Catch-and-Release: A Vision for Making Disciples

Biblical discipleship requires both teaching doctrine and shaping Christlike character.

If you follow evangelical missiology, you may know there’s been a dustup recently over some popular missiological methodologies.

A caricature of the debate pits those who expect national believers to get a PhD before starting ministry against those who think the only prerequisite for church planting should be a pulse. As with most caricatures, one would be hard-pressed to find any actual manifestations of these straw men.

The current debate centers on the role and extent of teaching in missions. But as we discuss the place of teaching, we can’t forget that discipleship is more than teaching. To make disciples, the church must communicate content and form character.

Biblical Discipleship

The Great Commission left to the church consists of making disciples of all nations with special attention to the places that lack gospel access. If making disciples is our task, it’s worth considering the consistent pattern of disciple making found in Scripture.

We could begin with Jesus’s investment in the 12 disciples he called to follow him. They were there for his teaching, they watched his life, and they received both his correction and his affirmation throughout those three years as they walked beside him.

The New Testament also reveals a similar pattern of discipleship among the apostles. Acts begins with the members of the nascent church spending time in one another’s homes, working out the apostolic teaching in their lives together. Likewise, as the apostles go out, they’re keen to remain among the new believers, continuing to teach and investing in character formation (Acts 14:3, 28; 15:33, 41; 18:11, 18; 19:10, 22).

In Paul’s writings, we see implicit evidence of his process of making disciples through teaching and example. For instance, Paul challenges the believers in Corinth to follow him as he follows Christ (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1). In his letters to his disciples, Timothy and Titus, he regularly calls on them to guard their doctrine and character. Most pointedly, he admonishes Timothy, “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16, CSB).

Discipleship, then, involves both informing and forming, teaching and shaping. While teaching can be accomplished in a variety of ways, shaping requires intentional time and presence.

Catch-and-Release Methods

At the heart of the current methodological debate in missions is a disagreement over the extent and means of teaching in missions. Both the more robust instructional models and the streamlined ones practice a sort of catch-and-release pattern of disciple making and disciple deploying. An audience is gathered, information is disseminated, and the learners are dismissed in order to put the lesson into practice.

Both approaches tend to measure success based on curriculum completion or obedience to teach the lesson to others. As a result, both tend to be so consumed with honing their teaching and training sessions that they pay little attention to investing in the lives of those they teach.

Those who argue for more comprehensive teaching and theology tend to think in terms of classroom settings or traditional pulpit ministry as the natural environment for teaching. Those who think of multiplying ministers more quickly and organically propose home-based Bible studies. A pulpit, a lectern, and a living room can all provide different aspects of a healthy teaching ministry. But if all our attention is given to teaching methods and opportunities, our disciple-making task remains incomplete.

Focus on Formation

Along with our concern for teaching, we must include an intentional focus on character formation. This rarely comes from a classroom, but rather comes from observing character in action. It comes from walking long, dusty roads together in ministry. It comes as new disciples watch their mentors respond to rejection or persecution. It comes from sitting with mature believers as they grieve at the bedside of an aging sister. It comes from sharing meals with older couples as they reflect on marriage and raising kids through different stages of life.

Making disciples requires space and time for teachers to exemplify and observe Christlikeness at work in everyday interactions. Curating opportunities to assess a young believer’s character and formation allows for correction, rebuke, encouragement, or redirection that cannot be accomplished in a classroom or a Bible study.

If we’re called to make disciples among the nations, information transfer is necessary, but it doesn’t exhaust the missionary task. We must also engage in the purposeful—albeit difficult—task of developing Christlike character in those whom we disciple. This first means that missionaries should be of such demonstrated and observed character that they could invite others to follow them as they follow Christ. This also requires intentional and extended time with those they disciple outside the formal classroom—even beyond the living room—and within their daily practices of life.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition on May 17, 2022. Used with permission.