Growing True Disciples | Notes & Review

Posted on June 29, 2007


George Barna. Growing True Disciples: New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ. WaterBrook Press, 2001. (185 pages)

Do You Want To Make A Difference? – Chapter 1

“What would happen if we were to focus on the four out of every ten adults and one out of every three teenagers who have already asked Jesus Christ to be their Savior–and do everything we can to help them grow into inspired, unmistakable disciples of Jesus? … use their new commitments to Christ as a launching pad for a lifelong quest to become individuals who are completely sold out–emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually–to the Son of God?” (2) “Ignite people’s passion for God and get out of their way.” (3)

“Suppose we were to de-emphasize attendance statistics, square footage, and income figures in favor of a commitment to depth and authenticity in discipleship?” (4) “Let’s get hung up on our failure to produce indefatigable imitators of Christ.” (7) In his research, Barna states that “not one of the adults we interviewed said that their goal in life was to be a committed follower of Jesus Christ or to make disciples.” (8)

So, a paradigm shift is needed, and here are some strategies your church “may have to make in order to improve the quality of your disciple-making”:

  • shift from program-driven ministry to people-driven ministry
  • change from emphasis on building consensus to building character
  • de-emphasize recalling Bible stories; emphasize applying biblical principles [VIA: question]
  • move from concern about quantity (people, programs, square footage, dollars) to concern about quality (commitment, wisdom, relationships, values, lifestyle)
  • retool developmental ministry efforts from being unrelated and haphazard to being intentional and strategic
  • replace ministry designed to convey knowledge with efforts intended to facilitate holistic ministry
  • alter people’s focus from feel-good activities to absolute commitment to personal growth, ministry, and authenticity in their faith

(8-9) “I will argue that unless we embrace a comprehensive and far-reaching commitment to radical change in how we conduct our lives and our ministries, we are doomed to minimal results. If we hope to make a difference in the lives of individuals and in the nation’s culture, then we must improve our intentionality, our intensity, and our strategies.” (9) “It will take zealots for Christ–individuals who are intractably devoted to knowing, loving, and serving Him with all their heart, mind, strength, and soul–if we are to transform our world.” (11)

“Recognize that reaching the level of excellence called for within the church will demand three commitments of us. 1. We must rely upon God. 2. We must commit to personal growth. 3. We must recognize that the church is not a private, individual endeavor but a corporate venture. (13)

“You cannot intelligently change reality until you understand it.” (15)

Focus on the Fundamentals – Chapter 2

“In the original biblical texts, the term used for disciple refers to someone who is a learner or follower who serves as an apprentice under the tutelage of a master. … We might define discipleship as becoming a complete and competent follower of Jesus Christ.” (17) “He is seeking people who are absolutely serious about becoming new creations in Him–individuals who are fanatics, zealots, mesmerized, passionate about the cause, completely devoted to mimicking their model down to the last nuance. … Discipleship is not a program. It is not a ministry. It is a lifelong commitment to a lifestyle.” (19)

  1. Disciples Must Be Assured of Their Salvation by Grace Alone. Rejection of the cross is an insurmountable obstacle to being a committed follower of Jesus.
  2. Disciples Must Learn and Understand the Principles of the Christian Life. Total integration.
  3. Disciples Must Obey God’s Laws and Commands. Professing allegiance to a cause is one thing; proving your allegiances through actions that are consistent with the core beliefs and practices of the cause is something else.
  4. Disciples Must Represent God in the World. God’s ambassadors
  5. Disciples Must Serve Other People.
  6. Disciples Must Reproduce Themselves in Christ. The Great Commission is not primarily about evangelism, it is about discipleship. (20-23)


  • Disciples experience a changed future through their acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and of the Christian faith as their defining philosophy of life.
  • Disciples undergo a changed lifestyle that is manifested through Christ-oriented values, goals, perspectives, activities, and relationships.
  • Disciples mature into a changed worldview, attributable to a deeper comprehension of the true meaning and impact of Christianity. Truth becomes an entirely God-driven reality to a disciple. Pursing the truths of God becomes the disciple’s lifelong quest.

So, how are you doing as a disciple?

  1. Are you certain that your eternal salvation has been determined by your confession of sins and your acceptance of Christ’s gift of forgiveness?
  2. Do you consistently obey Jesus’ teachings?
  3. Do you always love other people in practical ways, especially fellow followers of Christ?
  4. Have you put the attractions and distractions of this world in their proper place and focused on knowing, loving, and serving God?
  5. Do you carry the burdens of following Jesus with joy?
  6. Do you live in such a way as to show others what the Christian life looks like?
  7. Do you relate to other Christians consistently, in a spiritual setting and for spiritual purposes?
  8. Are you sharing your faith in Christ with those who have not embraced Him as their Savior?
  9. Are you helping other believers to grow spiritually?
  10. Do you consistently seek guidance from God in all you do?


In BUILDING A DISCIPLING CHURCH, “it occurs when there is an intentional and strategic thrust to facilitate spiritual maturity.” (31)

The State of Discipleship – Chapter 3

“…most believers say their faith matters, but few are investing much energy in the pursuit of spiritual growth.” (34) “The result is talk without action, sentiment without substance.” (38) “Faith is a ‘bonus’ or an add-on dimension of their life rather than the priority around which everything in their life revolves.” (39)

“The dilemma is not that believers deny the importance of spiritual growth or have failed to consider the challenges it raises, but that they seem to have settled for a very limited understanding of the Christian faith and their potential in Christ.” (42)

What are the obstacles? “All of them underscore one problem: a lack of passion to be godly … If you want something to get done, ask the busiest person associated with your cause. They are busy because they have goals, they prioritize, and they are committed to accomplishing their goals” (43) “But what happens within the church? We’re all busy when Jesus comes along and asks us to get serious about spiritual growth. What’s our response? We may give intellectual assent to the idea, but when push comes to shove, our schedules are already bloated with other, more important tasks, opportunities, and responsibilities. We have passion, but it is not a passion for the matters of God.” (44)

“Clearly, the spiritual growth of millions of Christians is being hindered by the lack of detailed assistance and guidance from their churches. … if their church helped them to identify specific spiritual-growth goals to pursue, they would at least listen to the advice and follow parts, if not all of it.” (47)

One possible tactic is “coaching/mentoring,” (50)

“The chief barrier to effective discipleship is not that people do not have the ability to become spiritually mature, but they lack the passion, perspective, priorities, and perseverance to develop their spiritual lives.” (54) [VIA: which in my estimation makes the prospects of true discipleship even more gloomy. Using Heath language, moving rider (the heart/emotions) is hard work.

Living Differently – Chapter 4

This chapter is filled with statistics about what Christians believe (heaven, hell, Scripture, etc.), some stats on tithing, a few short paragraphs on service and evangelism, and then some opinion polls. I wrote at the end, “I have questions regarding the standards by which Barna evaluates a Christian and a disciple. There is no flexibility, especially in regards to views of Scripture and political perspectives.” (VIA) I will add that for much of the discussion on behavior, most of his evaluation was on beliefs/opinions, etc. There seems to be a major disconnect here.

How We got Here — and Where We Go From Here – Chapter 5

1. Few Churches or Christians Have a Clear, Measurable Definition of “Spiritual Success.” If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” (88) “If success is negotiable, why not include ‘comfortable and easily achievable growth’ among the factors that make us successful?” (89)

2. We Have Defined “Discipleship” as Head Knowledge Rather Than Complete Transformation. “Faith taht is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.” (90)

3. We Have Chosen to Teach People in Random Rather Than Systematic Ways. “Consequently, we rate sermons on the basis of their value to what we’re experiencing at the moment and assess the usefulness of books and lessons in terms of how entertaining or erudite they are. Ultimately, believers become well versed in knowing characters, stories, ideas, and verses from the Bible, but they remain clueless as to their importance.” (91)

4. There Is Virtually No Accountability for What We Say, Think, Do, or Believe.

5. When It Comes to Discipleship, We Promote Programs Rather Than People.

6. The Primary Method on Which Churches Rely for Spiritual Development–Small Groups–Typically Fails to Provide Comprehensive Spiritual Nurture.

7. Church Leaders Are Not Zealous About the Spiritual Development of People. “First, few congregants describe their pastor as a role model or as a zealot for Christ. … Second, surprisingly few pastors make discipleship a top priority within their ministry. … Third, when pastors describe ‘success’ for their church, attendance, revenue, programs, and square footage frequently constitute the practical dimensions of success.” (95)

8. We Invest Our Resources in Adults Rather Than in Children. “When we focus more energy on resuscitating adults rather than nurturing children, we have more ground to cover because we have to undo much more than we would in working with children.” (97)

9. We Divert Our Best Leaders to Ministries Other Than Discipleship.


1. Passion. “To what are you absolutely, fanatically devoted?” (98)

2. Maturity in the Fundamentals of Ministry.

3.  A Biblical Worldview. [VIA: As mentioned above, I have questions as to what this really means and what kinds of meaning Barna, and others, impose upon the word “biblical.”]

4. Standards and Accountability that Foster Spiritual Growth.

The Keys To Highly Effective Discipleship – Chapter 6

“We quickly learned that a church engaged in effective discipleship is a church that will grow steadily and solidly. Why? Because people love to be cared for, and a church that emphasizes genuine spiritual care and facilitates real spiritual growth will be a magnet.” (107)

Nine components, baseline definitions of discipleship:

  1. Passion. Without this, discipleship is merely organizational programming.
  2. Depth. “Owning” their Christian faith.
  3. Maturity. Reaching for his/her highest earthly potential in Christ.
  4. Practice. Not just knowing spiritual maturity but being spiritually mature.
  5. Process. Not a destination, but a journey.
  6. Interactive. Must be done in community.
  7. Multifaceted. Incorporating a variety of thrusts.
  8. Lifelong. Long term.
  9. Christlike. All other models are mere imitations.

“SUCCESSFUL DISCIPLESHIP” is measured by Galatians 5, and the fruits of the Spirit. (110)

MEASURING PROGRESS requires the right tools. “If all I have to rely on is my people’s say-so about their growth, I’m in trouble.” (111)

INCLUSIVENESS gets everyone involved. “Successful pastors care about the discipleship commitment of their people, the y monitor it closely, and they respond when the numbers suggest a waffling of dedication to spiritual advancement.” (115)

“Another key to disciple building is starting the process before a person reaches adulthood. Not one of the highly effective churches waits until a person is eighteen or twenty-one to begin an intensive, intentional discipling process. Each church has its own starting point and reasons for why they start at that age. One church begins kids in preschool with a regimen of principles (based on stories) and practices (group activities) that fits within a long-term plan for spiritual development. (115)

THE DRIVING FORCES is the senior pastor, the key catalyst behind the commitment. (116) Regarding small groups, “Unless there is ample training for facilitators, a tight accountability process, strong relational connections, and a purposeful selection of material to cover, the small groups will fail to produce disciples.” (122)

THE INDISPENSABLE RESOURCES are “high-quality, well-trained leaders.” Second, “vision and clarity of purpose…a churchwide commitment to Scripture, opportunities to build meaningful relationships that lead to accountability, and ample opportunities to use one’s gifts.” (126)


  • Recognize that disciple making is a process, not a program.
  • The process will not occur without leadership from the senior pastor.
  • The church’s ministry focus must be streamlined to prioritize and support discipleship.
  • The process is not likely to succeed unless there is a simple but intelligent plan for growth.
  • The process will not generate true disciples unless it has a designated supervisor to facilitate progress, foster creative problem solving and development, and strive for reasonable outcomes.
  • In creating a process that works, adapt lessons learned by other effective disciple-making churches to your own unique ministry context.
  • Be prepared for burnout and complacency to set in after two or three years of involvement in an intensive process.
  • Carefully balance the competing interests of flexibility and structure.


“This is a big deal” (130) “Do not minimize the significance of the conneciton between knowledge and practice.” (130)

Five Models of Effective Discipleship – Chapter 7

These models are all based on specific churches Barna studied.

1. The Competencies Model (Pantego Bible Church, Fort Worth, TX)

Based on the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, this model is broken into thirty specific competencies: ten core beliefs, ten core practices, and ten core virtues, (listed in order, belief first, practice second, virtue third:

the Trinity | worship | joy
salvation by grace | prayer | peace
authority of the Bible | single-mindedness | faithfulness
personal God | Bible study | self-control
identity in Christ | total commitment | humility
church | biblical community | love
humanity | give away your time | patience
compassion | give away your money | integrity
eternity | give away your faith | kindness
stewardship | give away your life | gentleness

PROS/CONS: There is then a Christian life profile which is used to evaluate. “This  model does not use events. This model also minimizes other church programs and specialized ministries in favor of accomplishing all ministry through these existing avenues. … The integration of content also provides a built-in incentive to track with the worship services: Missing a weekend makes it difficult to keep up with the process.” (138)

2. The Missional Model (Fellowship Bible Church, Little Rock, AR)

Based on the church’s mission, there are six core qualities or competencies:

  1. being passionately committed to Jesus Christ
  2. evaluating everything in their lives according to biblical standards
  3. being deeply committed to having a healthy family
  4. being morally pure
  5. being evangelistically bold
  6. being socially responsible and impactful

PROS/CONS: Simplicity and self-directed makes allows this model to permeate everything within the ministry. However, there is little weight on exposing everyone to core theological foundations. (143)

3. The Neighborhood Model (Perimeter Church, Johns Creek, GA)

Geographic units create discipling environments that are joined to a discipling team. They strive to mature in five specific areas:

  1. Bible knowledge
  2. practical ministry skills
  3. outreach
  4. prayer
  5. accountability

PROS/CONS: It’s “inreach” as well as “outreach” and has a standardized three-year curriculum. It takes a lot of time and commitment and assumes that anyone who has completed the three-year cycle is ready to disciple others.

4. The Worldview Model (Fellowship Bible Church North, Plano, TX)

A two-year process grounding groups of people in the foundational truths of Christianity. Open to anyone wanting to grow in their spiritual maturity. Their curriculum is called The Discovery Series, and encompasses four topical books requiring an average of sixty to ninety minutes per week in personal reading, study, and reflection. This model asks people to:

  • identify the issue at hand
  • study the Bible in relation to that issue
  • gather wisdom from other sources
  • make a personal response to the accumulated information
  • discuss that response with the other members of the group
  • develop personal strategies for living out the truth discovered

PROS/CONS: This approach is based on confronting learners with dissonance–asking them to wrestle with real-world problems and apply biblical principles to these problems. It ensures a clear process of spiritual truths and principles with ample instruction. It lacks effective assessment tools and measures.

5. The Lecture-Lab Model (North Coast Church, Vista, CA)

Focuses on content delivered through sermons, and using small groups as a means of exploring the content further to follow through on applicaitons.

PROS/CONS: This is the “loosest” or most casual of the five. It allows sermons to be more than a “warm-and-fuzzy-but-forgettable” message. The leader need not be a strong Bible teacher, and the emphasis is on relationships. There is no objective, broad-based evaluation system and does not have any introduction to basic knowledge about theology or doctrine.


“One of the practices I witness in every highly effective church I study is that they borrow great ideas from every place they find them. Highly effective churches have less of a sense of pride of ownership in their ideas and practices than a sense of pride in the quality of their ministry. They would rather borrow an idea from another ministry and adapt and refine it to their own unique circumstances than insist upon developing new ideas in isolation and ignorance.” (157)

“We must start with the realization that producing zealous and mature disciples of Jesus Christ requires a church culture in which the concept and practice of discipleship permeate everything we do.” (157)

Go, Make Discipleship – Chapter 8

This is an issue not with knowledge, but with character. (166)

— VIA —

So, the strength of Barna is his concision, methodology, and accessibility to the content. I believe that this book will have the potential to empassion church leaders towards thinking deeply of their ministries and challenge them in their processes, hopefully redeeming them further towards a Kingdom of God mindset when it comes to discipleship. There are nuggets in here that are echoed in other books, but definitely are worth repeating, and for many, 2 or 3 take-aways is really enough for the task at hand. I am also thankful for Barna’s clarion call to a “re-definition” of discipleship from the other more “dumbed-down” definitions inferred by its lackadaisical usage in contemporary ministry.

However, my main critique is the seemingly disharmonious logic of strong commitment to Jesus, life on life apprenticeship, with the practices and rubrics Barna uses to gauge this goal. Very little historical work is done to strive for a journey that seeks the “real Jesus of the Bible” rather than our “popularly understood conceptions of Jesus.” And many of the evaluative categories could be classified as “conservatively Christian.” Is it not possible that a disciple could have varying views on social ethics, “moral” behavior, theology, etc., and still be considered a true “disciple?” For example, one of the questions he asks is “You watched an R-rated move in the past week.” Dead Man Walking, Amistad, Schindler’s List, (and a hundred others) are rated “R,” but I know many “disciples” who believe those movies should be watched, and for the express purpose of the essence of discipleship. That’s perhaps the easiest example to point to, but it illustrates the dissonance I believe that is found throughout the book.

Regardless, I concur that discipleship matters, and if readers of this book would take the best of both of these worlds–the passionate and contemporary cultural sentiments of Barna, and the definitions and forms of discipleship from first-century Judaism and Jesus–then the Church and the world would be better for it.

Now, go. Make disciples…