Forget all the discipleship books you’ve read. Forget all the conferences you’ve attended and blueprints you’ve adopted. None of them matter. Not really.
What matters is how Jesus made disciples. So how did he do it? What was his strategy?
At first glance, it might appear that Jesus didn’t have a strategy. His strategy “is so unassuming and silent that it is unnoticed by the hurried churchman,” writes Robert Coleman in his classic The Master Plan of Evangelism.
Yes, Jesus had a strategy for making disciples. And “when his plan is reflected on, the basic philosophy is so different from that of the modern church that its implications are nothing less than revolutionary,” says Coleman.
So what was Jesus’ plan for making disciples?
JESUS’ STRATEGY FOR MAKING DISCIPLES
“[Jesus’] concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow,” writes Coleman.
People were Jesus’ strategy. And they still are today.
Jesus discipled people in different audience sizes: the crowd (25-5,000 people), the group (the 12 disciples), the core (Peter, James, and John), and the one (one-on-one encounters; i.e. – the woman at the well).
Let’s look at what Jesus did in each of these settings:
The crowd: Jesus often taught crowds of people that included believers and unbelievers. Jesus did not repeatedly address one specific crowd but a variety of crowds in the towns he traveled through.
The small group: This is where Jesus spent the majority of his ministry. After spending all night in prayer, he chose twelve men to be with him, become like him, and then imitate what he did. These are the men he entrusted with the future of the church.
The core group: In the most intimate moments of Jesus’ ministry, such as the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-13; Mark 9:1-13), he pulled aside Peter, James, and John to get an even closer glimpse at the kind of disciples he was calling them to be. Jesus knew he was entrusting the church to his disciples, and that these men would become pillars of it.
The one: The Gospels record many encounters between Jesus and one man or one woman. These one-on-one encounters were infrequent and focused; we don’t see Jesus having a follow-up conversation with those he discipled this way, and their conversations were typically centered on a particular issue.
Of these four components, Jesus gave the majority of his life to the community (his twelve disciples) and the core group (Peter, James, and John).
Now let’s turn to the church as we know it today and see how each of these components is incorporated into its discipleship strategy. Of course—these are generalizations—but I think this captures the norm in many American churches:
The crowd (25-5,000 people): Churches understand the corporate gathering. We disciple our crowds in weekend services, mid-week services, and Bible studies. In many churches, the crowd setting is viewed as the primary avenue for discipling.
The small group (12 people): Churches get this too, for the most part. Some miss this. Discipling the group takes places through Sunday school classes, community groups, small groups, life groups, discipleship groups, and variant kinds of study/social gatherings. The emphasis changes from church to church, but almost every church puts at least some emphasis on getting its people into smaller, more manageable groups to practice centering our lives on the gospel together and loving one another.
The core group (3-5 people): Churches have a variety of ways a small, more intimate group gather, study, and fellowship together. Churches discipling groups of this size do so through things means like weekly meetings, discipleship/study groups, prayer groups, accountability groups, pastoral internships or residences. These typically reflect single-gendered groups of three-to-five that meet for a fixed time with the purpose of applying the gospel practically to life, typically with the goal of multiplying.
The one (1 person): Discipling the one takes place in environments like coffee shop conversations, pastoral meetings, or focused mentoring. Much of ministry to one takes place face-to-face. Some of this type of ministry happens digitally, through phone calls, emails, texts, Skype, etc. Interestingly, for many, this seems to be the area of discipleship they think they need to spiritually flourish.
MISSING THE CORE COMPONENT OF DISCIPLESHIP
Churches get Sunday services. Churches often get small groups. We even get personal, one-on-one mentoring and pastoral conversations. But for some reason, many churches don’t offer anything to serve the most intensive component of Jesus’ discipleship strategy. Monumental moments with the disciples in the gospels take place—not with the many—but with the few. The core group is the missing component in most discipleship strategies.
“Jesus, it must be remembered, restricted nine-tenths of his ministry to twelve Jews,” writes Eugene Peterson. Three of those twelve Jews were Peter, James, and John. These three men would have observed more than the others what Jesus said, did, and taught during the three years they followed him. While Jesus spent nine-tenths of his time with the twelve, he spent concentrated time with these three—his core group.
Peter, James, and John were present with Jesus during some of the most intense moments of his ministry and struggle, no doubt because Jesus was preparing them for their leadership roles in his soon-to-be church. Robby Gallaty notes there are at least five times where we see this in the Gospels:
At the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29).
At the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:37).
On the mount of transfiguration with Jesus (Mark 9:2).
At the Olivet Discourse, when Jesus explained the end-time events (Mark 13:3).
There can be no doubt that Jesus was intentional about his decision to include these same three men at each of these events. Nothing about Jesus’ discipleship strategy was left to chance, the church was his plan A—the only plan he made. He brought Peter, James, and John alongside him in these moments for a specific purpose, and that purpose served the future leadership of the church.
JESUS IS PAR FOR THE COURSE
So what does Jesus’ core group teach us? At the very least, we can say that Jesus discipleship methods are the example par excellence in content and context. In discipleship, Jesus’ way of walking closely with these three is par for the course of our lives. We should model his content and context; the content of Jesus’ discipleship is the Word of God, reflected in the Old and New Testaments which Jesus shows spoke of him (cf. Luke 24:44); the context of his discipleship methods were everyday relationships as he moved among the crowd, the twelve, the core group, and individuals.
We cannot overlook the content and the context of Jesus’ disciple-making strategy. These two elements work together to form men and women into followers. Therefore, we cannot embrace the content of Jesus’ teaching apart from the context of his teaching and expect the same results. We wouldn’t come to the table with just a recipe and expect to get a meal without bringing ingredients and doing some cooking.
Elton Trueblood noted the real problem facing the church back in the twentieth century:
Perhaps the single greatest weakness of the contemporary Christian church is that millions of supposed members are not really involved at all, and what is worse, do not think it strange that they are not. As soon as we recognize Christ’s intention to make his church a militant company, we understood at once that the conventional arrangement cannot suffice. There is no real chance of victory in a campaign if 90 percent of the soldiers are untrained and uninvolved, but that is exactly where we stand now.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what the American church into the twenty-first century has been witnessing: a sifting of men, women, and children loosely affiliated with Christianity as the cultural winds have shifted from a Judeo-Christian worldview to a secular, post-Christendom one. With so many untrained or uninvolved, how does the church march forward in the shifting culture?
IT’S TIME TO BUILD AN ARMY
Before ascending to his seat of power in heaven, Jesus said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt. 28:19). Let’s identify the missing components in our discipleship and start making Jesus’ last words our first work—in our lives, in our homes, and in our churches.
And let’s start with making disciples out of the disengaged and disenfranchised within our ranks. The best way to do this is to round them up into core groups (you can call them D-Groups, DNA Groups, or Fight Clubs) of three to five men or women and enter into an intentional time of accelerated spiritual growth, for the purpose of multiplying each of the members into disciple-makers in the same way.
God’s kingdom will advance with or without us. If we want to be a part of its advancement, we must train soldiers. But we must start now.
Eugene Peterson, Travelling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 182.
 Robby Gallaty, Rediscovering Discipleship: Making Jesus’ Final Words Our First Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 143.
 Elton Trueblood, The Best of Elton Trueblood: An Anthology (Kirkwood, MO: Impact Books, 1979), 34.
Grayson Pope (M.A., Christian Studies) is a husband and father of three, and the Managing Web Editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He serves as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship. For more of Grayson’s writing check out his website, or follow him on Twitter.