Are you looking for a book with a biblical but also tried-and-proven plan for making disciples of Jesus Christ in the context of the local church? Real-Life Discipleship: Building Churches that Make Disciples just may be that book. It’s based on the actual experience of Jim Putman, the pastor of Real Life Ministries, which began in 1998 as a small group in Post Falls, Idaho. The church has grown to a membership of more than eight thousand, about half new converts, 90 percent of whom are active in small groups. In addition, the church has planted six churches in their greater area.
In the ten years prior to the writing of the book, the staff at Real Life grew to more than ninety people, only five of whom had worked on a church staff before. The church recruits primarily from within their congregation, rather than outside, which means that they know who they’re getting. They’ve seen them in action. It also means those who join the staff understand and fit their church’s culture. Putman asks, “So why don’t most American churches tap into the hidden talent buried on their benches? I believe it’s because they do not focus on making and training disciples. They spend so much time putting on a show that they do not have time to know or invest in their people”
It’s clearly evident that the author’s passion is discipleship through small groups. Putman brings to the pastorate a background in coaching, which comes through loud and clear in the way he has trained and organized leaders to disciple others.
At Real Life Ministries they work at having a unified goal. Everyone is taught what the Bible says about discipleship. They talk about it in a simple way: “head, heart, and hands.” A disciple is one who is following Christ (head), being changed by Christ (heart), and committed to Jesus’ mission to save people from their sins (hands).
Jesus was very intentional in forming His disciples, so Real Life believes: (1) success requires intentionality; (2) intentional leaders know the game; and (3) intentional leaders evaluate the players.
They seek to evaluate the disciple’s growth through five stages: (1) initially the person is spiritually dead; (2) after conversion he’s a spiritual infant; (3) he then moves to the stage of spiritual child; (4) he matures into a spiritual young adult; (5) in the final stage, he becomes a spiritual parent, spiritually mature enough to reproduce disciples. Characteristics of each of these stages are clearly described in Real-Life Discipleship.
Knowing these stages is important. Putman writes, “I’ve found that many Christians have an inaccurate assessment of their own level of spiritual maturity as well as the level of those around them.” Not having this leads to problems. Some think they are spiritually mature because they have been in the church for years or because they went to Bible college or seminary. When this is the case, their attempts at leadership often fail. Their spiritual immaturity causes them problems in the heat of the battle as they minister with others.
Putman believes that the three keys to discipleship are an intentional leader, a relational environment, and a reproducing process. If these are in place there can be an infinite number of disciples. He then describes in some detail how the discipleship process works at Real Life Ministries: (1) share = moving the spiritually dead toward life; (2) share = nurturing spiritual infants; (3) connect = guiding spiritual children; (4) minister = training young adults; (5) disciple = releasing spiritual parents. (I should add that Putman makes it exceedingly clear that it is ultimately the Holy Spirit that causes all of this to happen.)
The book contains lots of wonderful details about what happens at each stage, and it happens largely in the context of small groups. Hence the training, assessment, and coaching of small group leaders are of paramount importance. The same can, of course, be said for the pastoral team who works with these leaders and helps them to multiply.
I especially like the chapter entitled “A Few Warnings”: (1) don’t compare based on levels of maturity; (2) don’t have premature expectations; (3) don’t put a spiritually immature person into a position of leadership; (4) don’t forget we can all have a bad day; and (5) don’t forget that we all have a weak area.
I also resonated with one of Putman’s final points: “Everyone is a disciple; everyone should grow to become a spiritual parent who can disciple others, but not everyone is a gifted organizational leader. I believe if the church did its job correctly, leaders of every type would emerge.” Personally I loved Putman’s true story of a 70-year-old man who was a fantastic discipler and small group leader, but when put into a leadership role, he bombed! Leadership was not his gifting, even though he was a very mature and effective spiritual parent.
I would never want to put any particular Christian leader or any single congregation up as the model leader or the perfect church. However, I think there is much we can learn from Jim Putman and Real Life Ministries. Buy this book, read it, reflect on it, and share it with your ministry leaders. It just may prove revolutionary in the way you do ministry in your church.
The book concludes with an appendix that lists several pages of helpful resources for disciple-makers.
By the way, there is a companion training manual to this book which “takes you and your small group leaders through discipleship training so that you’ll learn how to identify, recruit, and create gifted leaders from within your church fellowship who go out and make disciples, who then out and make disciples, who make disciples … .”