3 Discipleship Models to Drive Your Ministry Forward

 In Articles, Church, Discipleship, Ministry

In Matthew 28, Jesus exhorted us to “make disciples of all nations” and to teach those disciples “to observe all that [he] commanded.” Making disciples is our aim! But how do we do that? That’s a good question!

The Scriptures do indeed give us wisdom as to how we ought to make disciples. However, over my years in ministry, I’ve learned that the application of Biblical wisdom can vary from context to context, and across eras. In other words, Christians in China may apply Biblical wisdom differently than how American Christians do it and Christians in previous generations may have done it differently than how we ought to do it today. And that’s (mostly) okay.

For this reason, it’s good for us to consider how we might apply Biblical wisdom to our discipleship efforts. I’ve often advocated that we ought to have a clear discipleship model in our local churches. We ought to prayerfully, objectively, and strategically consider how Biblical wisdom applies to our context and come up with a tangible plan. This will help us make disciples in our context, in our generation. If there’s no organized model (or plan) in a local church to accomplish discipleship, it (most often) ends up not happening at all.

What is a discipleship model? A discipleship model is a philosophy of how you help people grow in their faith. There are three major disciple models most churches use to help her their congregation grow in spiritual maturity: 1) Life-on-life discipleship model. 2) The family discipleship model. 3) The classroom discipleship model.

Here are the three major discipleship models you can use to drive your ministry forward.


1. Life-on-life Discipleship Model

The goal of the life-on-life discipleship model is to build trusted friendships with other Christians. Trusted friendship is where discipleship begins through challenging one another, teaching one another, and edifying one another. The term “life-on-life” is originally coined by leaders who were a part of Young Life, a popular parachurch student ministry, whose goal was to get their youth leaders to have friendship with teenagers. Other people may call this a “small group” or “life group” model.

Small Groups

A small group is a group of people who get together with the purpose of doing a study to learn together and build relationships with one another. This could be a Bible study, sermon study, book study, or any other type of spiritual study. Typically meeting in homes, the idea is to get people together who may not already be in friendship with one another to intentionally come around learning together and building relationships.

Ministry Teams

A ministry team is the idea of getting people in a congregation together to be a part of serving in some capacity together. Some ministry teams churches may have include: prayer ministry, worship ministry, or children’s ministry. Rather than the traditional Bible study or an in-home community group, people in ministry teams are out doing some type of ministry together.

Interest Groups

Interest groups are for people who are already interested in a particular topic or hobby and getting them connected to others who share the same interest. These are hobbies that people are already doing even if they’re not part of church and finding other Christians who are already doing that same hobby and doing it together. From that builds friendships through sharing a similar passion.

Missional Community Groups

Pioneered by Austin Stone Community Church, missional community groups is the conjoinment of the small group model, the ministry team model, and the interest group model. Missional community groups are intended for meeting regularly for Bible studies or monastic studies, going out and doing social things together, or getting people together to do all of the above. The idea is intentionally getting groups of people in a rhythm to do all of the above, which is another life-on-life model.


  • Intentional community
  • Progress is being made
  • Relationships built
  • Feel known
  • Less likely to leave the church


  • Interpersonal connection can seem overly manufactured
  • It potentially feels like just “another thing to do”
  • Lack of quality control can sometimes be a problem


2. The Family Discipleship Model

The family discipleship model is when a local church is focused on teaching and equipping a family to be the center for discipleship. This is where the parents are the primary spiritual mentors to their kids, a husband and wife are discipling one another, or a father is spiritually pastoring his home. Everything that the church is structured around is equipping people within a family to disciple one another as a family unit.


  • Family discipleship is most effective
  • Best reflection of the relationship between Christ and the Chruch
  • Fathers discipling children is long-lasting


  • If the parents are not saved, this will not be possible
  • Potential for marital conflicts
  • Immature/passive parents will not disciple correctly


3. The Classroom Discipleship Model

The classroom discipleship model is your traditional Sunday school model; a formal classroom setting with a teacher teaching about a certain topic as a curriculum.

There are three types of classroom models churches frequently use:

  • Bible Focused Class: The teacher goes through a book or portion of the Bible is a verbal commentary, verse by verse. A Bible-focused class is essentially exegetical preaching.
  • Topically Focused Class: The class picks topics relevant to people. This may include parenting, finances, end times prophecy, or other practical things that may apply. It includes topics popular in Christianity.
  • Classes by Age Groups: If they are under 18, they will be broken up by age input in groups accordingly. The leader will typically teach the Bible in a way that’s tailored to that age group.


  • Good teaching to get to a lot of people in a short period of time
  • There is confidence that the disciple will have correct theology
  • Strong way to catechize congregants
  • Quality control on what is being taught to congregants
  • Opportunity to combat cultural tides in robust fashion
  • Opportunity for potential teachers to practice giftings


  • It can feel overly academic if not done properly


Layering Discipleship Models

Layering discipleship models is when the church may pick all three models and implement them all, or go all-in on a couple of them. The most effective churches are taking portions of all of these or going all-in on two of them rather than just focusing on one of them.

For example, Capitol Hill Baptist Church has both life groups and equipping classes where the congregation can pick one or the other. The life groups are life-on-life, in-home, small groups that meet in evenings throughout the week. Equipping classes are hour-long classes every Sunday morning before their service, which is more of a traditional Sunday school class.


Having No Discipleship Model (e.g. “Organic” Model)

There are churches that have an organic approach to discipleship. This will feel the most authentic, however, the discipleship will be completely informal. The idea would be that all people will organically love Jesus and do life together. The church leaders will not create structure around this discipleship.

What this can create in a church can cause people to feel like the church members genuinely care about them because it is authentic. This shows that the discipleship within the church is truly caring. Yet, this inclusion can also cause others to feel excluded, or maybe left behind. Also, this is very important, if the church is not being intentional with discipleship (because there is no structure) then discipleship can end up not happening at all. This is major problem because discipleship is crucial to the church.

An organic model typically will not work in a segmented society. What do we mean by a segmented society? Well in the Western world (specifically North America), the lives of the society are very segmented, meaning that there is little to no overlap in everyday life. In this type of society there is structure and schedules built around life. Therefore, in our society, we should structure our discipleship as well.


  • Does not feel forced
  • Feels authentic
  • Works in a society where there is a natural overlap of people’s lives


  • Often times people “fall through the cracks”
  • Most churches with no plan often don’t disciple effectively
  • Rarely works in a segmented society
  • No way to ensure congregants are getting everything they need


Related Questions

What is the discipleship model of Saddleback Church? Saddleback church utilizes a life-on-life model of discipleship and they specifically focus on having a ministry in the local church and a mission in the world done with other Christians to emphasis relationships.

What biblical discipleship? Biblical discipleship is the process of helping someone become a follower of Jesus.

Is there a lack of discipleship in the church today? Yes. Most people put on the label “Christian,” attend church and make very little effort to disciple anyone else get disciple themselves.