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What are the disciple-making options for churches, schools, and others committed to facilitating the spiritual growth process? Part 1 of this series offered five methods from throughout church history. Here in Part 2, I share four more historical methods, followed by a suggestion for integrating these time-honored approaches into a comprehensive discipleship model that is versatile enough to apply across contexts.

Discipleship through Relationships and Small Groups

The first church may provide the consummate model:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47

In this passage, entitled “The Fellowship of the Believers” in the NIV, discipleship happens in community, even to the point of communal living and ownership. Though the scriptures do not insist this approach is normative for all believers of all times, there is a clear cause-and-effect linkage to disciple-making in the story: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Community, fellowship, co-laboring. The implication is that discipleship happens not in isolation, but in relationship. Fast-forwarding to the post-Reformation era, Philipp Jakob Spener, known today as “the father of pietism,” picked up this mantle, seeking to move beyond Reformation “truths” as the driver of the Christian life in favor of a more heart-felt, relational faith. Doctrine, he saw, could become “dead orthodoxy,” when what was needed was to “awaken a fervent love among Christians” and to “put this love into practice.”1 As such, his best-known work, Pia Desideria (“Pious Desires,” 1675), invited believers to connect with God by connecting with others through small group study, devotional meditations, and selfless service.

The approach was later incorporated by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (Spener’s pietist godson) into the highly-communal and visceral Moravian tradition, and later still by John Wesley and the “Holy Club” that he and his brother piloted at Oxford as a model for the Methodists—and indeed for all subsequent churches organized around small groups.2

The philosophy also goes beyond relationship to accountability, allowing iron to sharpen iron as the community of believers (small group and otherwise) co-labors toward sanctification. From the first church’s questioning of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), to the Holy Club’s rigorous 22 question self-examination, to confession of sin within a mentorship arrangement today, relationship and accountability have gone hand-in-hand.

Discipleship through Revivals

Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards. The names are synonymous with “revival.” During this First Great Awakening, though (approximately 1720-1770), itinerant ministers such as these were targeting not just the unconverted, but followers of Jesus as well. Their aim in the latter regard was to inspire believers “to a more earnest and committed spiritual life.”3 In other words, revival events, large and small during this era, may have been as much about discipleship as they were about evangelism. The same was true of later revivalists like Finney, Moody, Sunday, and Graham, though arguably with an elevated focus on non-believers.

But however formidable the evidence that revivals deepened the faith of the faithful, it is also true that “revivalism is notoriously fleeting, a surge of heightened excitement invariably followed by a decline and lull.”4 That is why, for example, Dwight Moody (1837-1899) built institutions to complement his speaking ministry: churches, schools for girls, schools for boys, and a coeducational school that became the Moody Bible Institute.5 It is why Billy Graham collaborated with so many local churches for his city crusades. Mass events, no matter how excellent or emotional, may be insufficient catalysts for Christian growth. When combined with local partnerships, though, they may be a force for disciple-making.

Discipleship through Hearing God Directly

In scripture it happened as a theophany to people like Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Saul of Tarsus. God appeared to a person and after that, everything was different. One might call this discipleship through hearing God directly, and throughout history people have claimed to experience it. Without addressing the merits or delving into great detail, traditions from Christian mysticism to the Quakers’ “inner light” revelations to the Azusa Street revival that accelerated modern Pentecostalism have insisted that the affective experience of God’s Holy Spirit allows one to know God’s will and grow toward godliness.

Discipleship through Customization: Conclusions from Empirical Research

The database currently includes information from more than 2,500 churches. It began with just one: Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.

With the help of analytics professionals whose clients included Gatorade, The Weather Channel, and Nike, among many others, Willow Creek surveyed their congregation of 15,000, attempting to discern (1) whether the church was really helping people to grow spiritually—to become “fully devoted followers of Christ”6 —and to learn (2) the primary catalysts for growth. What they found there, now replicated across thousands of churches, is the largest-of-its-kind empirical investigation of church effectiveness.

At the risk of over-simplification, what this line of research added to the historic conversation is an emphasis on customization, concluding that catalysts of growth vary based on the spiritual maturity of the individual. Although some activities, like service to others and “Bible engagement,”7 powerfully increase faithfulness across-the-board, the implication is that disciple-making should entail personal growth plans, rather than adopting one-size-fits-all methods.

Integrating the Ideas into a Disciple-Making Model

Table 1 summarizes the discipleship models presented in this review. Although not an exhaustive list, the intention has been to expound on the major theories proposed to date, to inform Christian leaders of the many options available for becoming more effective disciple-makers.

Table 1

Models for Disciple-Making
Discipleship through Mentorship
Discipleship through Joining in Christ’s Suffering
Discipleship through Imitating the Asceticism of Jesus
Discipleship through Spiritual Practices
Discipleship through Growth of Knowledge
Discipleship through Relationships and Small Groups
Discipleship through Revivals
Discipleship through Hearing God Directly
Discipleship through Customized Approaches

Each method seems to contain important truths, and thereby remains useful in the modern day. Having said that, a laundry list of options, even profound, time-honored options, may be more paralyzing than mobilizing. But herein lies the practical value of contemporary philosopher Dallas Willard, perhaps the most cited Christian scholar of the twenty-first century. Willard’s life work is a clarion call to being and making disciples, and having studied deeply the ancient and modern methods, he offers in his magnum opus an integration of several ideas from Table 1.

To summarize his proposal, Willard recommends discipling based on what he calls “The Golden Triangle of Spiritual Growth.”8 As shown in Figure 1, Willard postulates three related pathways to growth: the action of the Holy Spirit (whose primacy is highlighted by putting this at the top of the triangle), the habitual practice of spiritual disciplines, and perseverance through temptations and trials in ordinary life, all culminating in one becoming more “centered in the mind of Christ.”

Figure 1

Hence, in the Willard model one finds many methods that have been advanced throughout history: the intervention of God, the practice of spiritual disciplines, the embracing of suffering / temptations as sanctifying events, and knowledge toward a renewed mind. The Triangle is, in essence, “a curriculum for Christlikeness,” a term Willard humbly offers to those hungry for a more systematic approach to disciple-making.9 Willard’s elements also accommodate more recent methodologies like growth through groups (e.g., using small groups to facilitate spiritual disciplines) and growth through customization (e.g., selecting those spiritual disciplines that yield the best results, given one’s spiritual maturity).

Regardless of whether a church or school uses this exact model, Willard’s integrative approach sagely suggests a path forward. It may be prudent for any disciple-making organization to emulate his multiple-methods approach, creating its own curriculum for Christlikeness from the philosophies advanced the past two millennia.


  1. Christopher Gehrz. “Philipp Jakob Spener: Protestant pastor who founded pietism,” Christianity Today (undated),
  2. Along these same lines, consider the longstanding Quaker practice of employing a “clearness committee”—the gathering a group of spiritually-mature people to assist a church member to gain discernment about a dilemma or calling. See, e.g., “Clearness Committees – What They Are and What They Do,” Friends General Conference, accessed September 12, 2022,
  3. Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt. The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today, rev. ed., (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 61.
  4. Ibid., 224.
  5. Ibid., 222-224.
  6. Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson. Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 15.
  7. This is defined as “not just Bible knowledge (or) Bible reading, (but) reflecting on it, letting the words of it influence your life and more and more areas of your life.” According to the Willow Creek research, it is consistently the number one driver of spiritual growth in their studies, leading to the conclusion that “there may be nothing more important we can do with our time and effort than encouraging and equipping our people in this practice.” Davina Drabkin and Bill Meehan. “Willow Creek Community Church: What Really Makes a Difference?” Case SM-198 (Stanford, CA: Stanford Graduate School of Business, January 2012), 15.
  8. Dallas Willard. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), 347.
  9. Ibid., pp. 311-374 where Willard expounds in great detail. See in particular pp. 371-372 for poignant, practical recommendations for implementing a discipleship program in a local church.

Michael Zigarelli

Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D., is Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah University and the author of several books, including Influencing Like Jesus (LifeWay), Cultivating Christian Character (ACSI), and Management by Proverbs (Moody). You can reach him at [email protected]