A few years back I was catching up with a friend who is on staff with a campus ministry. He loves the lost and has a real desire to see the world, and students in particular, come to faith and grow in maturity. As we discussed his plan to disciple his students, he mentioned there wasn’t a good church in reasonable driving distance of the campus. “Have you thought about starting a church?” I asked. “We considered it, but we realized we would have to take care of the elderly and those struggling in the faith. We abandoned the idea so we would just focus on disciple-making without all the mess,” he explained.
If we were honest, many of us would say we know we’re supposed to make disciples. And we know we are supposed to be members of a church, but we don’t understand the relationship between the two — should one even exist. To be fair, many of us have only experienced discipleship apart from the church and have been trained to think the church gets in the way of serious Great Commission work. At best, the church is a place you find someone to disciple but hardly fits into our discipleship scheme.
Paul says something remarkable in Ephesians 3:8-11.
 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,  and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things,  so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.  This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord,
God, who is not limited by time or space, and who has access to all knowledge and is infinitely creative, has chosen to display the riches of Christ and His manifold wisdom to every other so-called ruler through the church! Yet, we so often talk about the church as though it is counter to God’s discipleship plan. If we were honest, some of us would confess we think we have better ideas for how God could display the gospel and disciple His people.
I hope to help us think more biblically about the church, discipleship, and how the two relate. I’m going to suggest that the Church corporately disciples and equips its members for the task of disciple-making, and in so doing provides the context and model for one-to-one discipling.
WHY DOES THE CHURCH EXIST?
 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV)
A few things should be noted from the text.
- Jesus has uniquely gifted the church to train its members to do the work of disciple-making (v11-12).
- The church exists to build up the body until all of its members grow into maturity, which is the fullness of Christ (v13).
- The church is governed and held together by Christ (v15).
- Only when each member is working together does the body grow so as to build itself up in love (v16).
The church is unique among all institutions in that Jesus governs her, holds her together, has specifically gifted her to make disciple-makers, and exists to bring all of its members into maturity of Christ. This can only happen when all are working together toward that end.
WHAT IS DISCIPLESHIP?
A distinction should be made between discipleship and disciple-making; whereas the latter is a subset of the former. Discipleship is the process of following and becoming more like Jesus and is the point of the Christian walk. Disciple-making is something we do to help people as a part of their discipleship, where we ask them to follow us as we follow Jesus (1 Cor 11:1).
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CHURCH AND DISCIPLE-MAKING?
The church and the individual Christian share the same goal: maturing into the fullness of Christ. The church is not opposed to discipleship. It exists for discipleship; to disciple its members and to make disciple-makers of them. The church alone is structured and gifted to do this through the preaching of the word, corporate prayer, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church membership and discipline, and through the various gifts the Lord has given the body. No individual, friend group, or parachurch can say the same.
Think about it. What do you hope to do with those whom you disciple? Do you want to help them think on and experience the gospel? Do you want your relationship to be centered on the scriptures and right doctrine? Do you plan to rebuke them when they are in sin? There is only one environment where all of this happens: the church. It is the place where the gospel is proclaimed and participated in (the Lord’s supper), where the scriptures are exposited, where corporate prayer happens, where theology is taught, and where people of all walks of life, personalities, backgrounds, and gifts converge to teach and rely on one another.
Let me give a few examples:
- Through preaching of the gospel and the practice of church membership and discipline, Christians learn what the gospel is, what a Christian looks like, and how to rebuke their brothers and sisters when they are out of step with the confession they have made.
- Through the preaching of the word, members learn how to center their lives on the scriptures and how to teach one another from God’s word.
- Through corporate prayer, the individual members learn how to rely on God and meet the needs of one another, even when it is costly to them.
THE CHURCH, ONE BIG D-GROUP
We tend to speak about discipleship in strictly one-to-one or small group terms at the neglect of corporate discipleship. In reality, God’s design is for the church to be the main discipler. The church properly functioning is one big D-Group. Jesus has designed our growth to take place in his body (v15) where he has gifted members and leaders to serve her (v11) and where it is necessary for every member to come together for the growth of the whole body (v16). As the church corporately disciples its members and experiences its own discipleship, it gives the model and context for one-to-one disciple-making. The scattered church can only disciple as it is discipled when it is gathered.
Discipleship apart from the church will always fall short because the church alone is governed by Jesus, held together by him, and gifted by him to grow into his likeness. Paul is clear; every member must work together for the growth of the body. You cannot provide everything your disciple needs, only the church can. This frees you from thinking you need to be everything for those you disciple, which is exhausting. This also means you and those you disciple need the church.
Conversely, the local church you are a part of can only rightly disciple its members as you take responsibility to use your gifts for the building up of the body. If you think there’s something wrong with your church and you’re not making disciples there, you are a part of the problem. The body can only rightly grow, yourself included, as all of its members work together to disciple one another. The church is a family, which entails responsibility and precludes thinking of yourself exclusively. Your church needs you.
No doubt there would be “easier” avenues to try to make disciples. A place where people look and act like you. Where everyone is mature. Where people aren’t in need and don’t rub you the wrong way. But, it would be difficult to display the gospel in such a setting. What makes the gospel beautiful is that God has taken natural enemies, both of Himself and each other, and made them family. The church alone provides a group of people so different from one another that when they love each other, the world takes notice and knows they belong to Jesus. This is the place where when each member works together everyone is discipled into the fullness of Christ, the head of the church.