A pastor’s heart for small-group discipleship


By Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis with Ray Ortlund, 2000
Mark Ellis with Ray Ortlund, 2000

If you read some of the prayers requests that come into our church, you would know that many deal with loneliness, marriage challenges, financial heartaches, psychological problems, addictions, phobias and weaknesses – every problem common to humanity we see on those prayer cards.

Pastor and author John Piper goes so far as to suggest that the epidemic of emotional and psychological woes we face as believers is a symptom of an “organic flaw” in the way most Christians experience church.

He says you can’t read the New Testament and come away thinking that Sunday morning is the sum total of what church life is supposed to be.

One of the greatest gifts I received as a young pastor came to me in 1998.  I received a phone call from an old friend who invited me to have lunch with a pastor named Ray Ortlund.  The purpose of the lunch was to see if I would want to spend a year in a small group being discipled or mentored by Ray.

The word disciple means ‘learner’ or ‘student,’ and it occurs 269 times in the New Testament. By contrast, the word ‘Christian’ occurs only three times.

Dallas Willard says the New Testament is really a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus Christ. Pastor John MacArthur defines a disciple as a ‘learning believer’ or a ‘believing learner.’ Being a disciple of Jesus means we are being transformed into his image. It’s a life-long process.

The funny thing was, I’d been a Christian at that point for 14 years, an elder in the church for a few years, and I had just stepped into a role as assistant pastor, and I’d never been “discipled” by anybody.

My learning and growing was haphazard. I picked up things here and there as I read the Bible, attended church, and attended Bible studies. But no one had shown any personal interest in guiding my growth.

But here was a mature pastor, who led two significant churches, a man full of wisdom and experience, who was offering to take me under wing and invest in my spiritual growth.  It wouldn’t cost a thing—it was a free gift to me.

But why did it have to take 14 years as a Christian for me to discover this?  As a young Christian, I’m sure I thought of myself as a “disciple” of Jesus, in a generic sense.  But I hadn’t discovered that the word ‘disciple’ is not just a noun, it should also be an active verb—‘to disciple.’

The great omission from The Great Commission

Jesus uses this active sense in the Great Commission in Matthew 28. These were some of Jesus’ last words, some of His most significant words. In Matthew 28 we see where Jesus has been moving his whole life. Some call it the climax of the gospel of Matthew. Let’s read Jesus’ words:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Notice it doesn’t say to go and evangelize all nations, although we could say that’s part of it.  It says to go and MAKE DISCIPLES!  This is a command of Jesus, to go and make disciples.

So if the modern church has dropped the ball anywhere, I believe this is the place.  Dallas Willard calls it “the great omission from the Great Commission.” We don’t just get somebody to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and move on, God wants us to invest in their growth.

In Francis Chan’s new book, “Multiply,” he asks why there’s so little disciple-making going on in the church today. He surmises that one of the reasons is we’ve created a church culture where the paid ministers do the “ministry,” and the rest of us just show up, get fed, and leave.

Is this just for pastors?

So who is Jesus giving this command to? Is it given just to the pastors and other church leaders?

One of my biggest surprises is that most biblical scholars believe this command was not just given to the 11 remaining apostles. Most scholars believe this command was given on the mountain in Galilee to the 500 people referenced in 1 Corinthians 15, according to Pastor John MacArthur.

Why is that significant? Because this command is not just for the apostles. It’s not just for pastors, elders, or other church leaders. It’s not just for super-sanctified saints, whoever they may be.

Jesus gave this command to 500 men and women who were for the most part, very average people. They were not the greatest, the most capable or the most brilliant of their day.  They were farmers and fishermen, moms, housewives, traders and sellers in the marketplaces that dotted the towns along the shores of Galilee.

Don’t you see? Jesus is calling you and me – men and women — to be part of this! This is what He did when He was on the earth. He made disciples. After Jesus left and sent us the Holy Spirit, that became the work of the early church. There is no other command from Jesus after this one.

As Francis Chan points out, God’s design from the very beginning was for every disciple to make disciples, who make disciples, until the Gospel reaches the whole world.

My wife Sally and I have heard people make excuses about why they don’t want to be in a disciple-making group or become a disciple-maker. Some will say, “it’s not my gift” or  “it’s not my calling” or “teaching is not my gift…”

But if you’re walking with Jesus, you have access to the mind of Christ, you have the Holy Spirit to guide you in this, you have spiritual gifts, and you are a new creation in Christ. You can become a disciple-maker even if you don’t think you have what it takes.

In fact, your admission of your own weakness and inability if the very best place for God to begin to work through you in powerful ways. He promises that his strength will be perfected in your weakness.

Our church has a wonderful heart for the world. I want our church to be involved in making disciples in the nations of the world. But what about right here in our own backyard? Do you think Jesus wants us to travel thousands of miles to make a disciple if we haven’t done it right here?

My personal dream is for every church to catch the vision and to become a disciple-making church. So where do you begin?

Patterns for discipleship

Jesus showed us a pattern for discipleship. He preached to the masses, thousands of people at a time, yet he poured Himself into a small group. In his small group he had an even smaller group – Peter, James, and John. He poured into them and by the power of the Spirit they changed the world.

Paul laid out his pattern for discipleship in 2 Timothy 2:2. Writing to Timothy, he said, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

So we see the pattern in the New Testament:  first, Jesus poured into his disciples, then they turned around and found others they could disciple, and they poured into their lives.  Then those people found others to disciple, and the pattern continued.

Each one of you should have someone like a Paul and a Timothy in your life.  There should be someone in your life more mature in the faith discipling or mentoring you, nurturing your spiritual growth.  At the same time, you should be mentoring someone younger in the faith, nurturing their growth.

While my mentor was 75-years-old when I met him, this doesn’t mean your mentor needs to be an older person or completely mature in the faith. Disciples don’t need to be brand new in the faith. We’re all at different stages in our growth.

Mentoring or discipleship can happen one-on-one or in small groups. Most people say that if you get more than eight people in a group, you lose something in terms of deeper sharing and intimacy.

For the most part men disciple other men and women disciple other women, but there have been notable exceptions. Henrietta Mears, the director of Christian Education at Hollywood Presbyterian Church for many years, discipled Richard Halverson, who became chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Bill Bright, who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, and Billy Graham, among many others.

Think of it, you could mentor one of the next great Christian leaders!

The Ortlund model for small group discipleship

The Ray and Anne Ortlund say there should be five ingredients in every discipleship group: worship, Bible study, sharing, prayer, and accountability. This is the model my wife and I have followed, but there are many models out there.

We like to begin our small groups with material that covers the assurance of salvation (how to be certain you’re a Christian), the attributes of God, how to know the Bible, how to pray, the Spirit-filled life, fellowship, how to witness, how to overcome temptation, and the blessings of obedience.

After those foundations are covered, we begin to talk about the importance of a quiet time or personal devotions, teaching about worship, Bible structure, teaching on marriage, the power of encouragement, living life with purpose, the Second Coming, and many other topics.

But if you just focus on the teaching material, you’re missing it. It’s more than just a class or another Bible study you attend. It’s more than just a program. It’s about life rubbing against life – it’s about sharing lives rather than just information.

The hope is that you begin to minister to each other by the power of the Spirit –that’s what brings a richness into these small gatherings.

Notice that one of the ingredients of the Ortlund’s model for a disciple- making group is accountability.

The problem is that if you try to bear your sins and burdens alone, over time, when those sins and burdens build up in your life, it can make you spiritually and even physically sick. If you try to keep things hidden away in the darkness, it can hinder your prayers, and the flow of love and good works.

In the Psalms, David said that when he kept silent, he felt like his bones were wasting away within him and he groaned all day long.

Therefore Jesus commands us, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) Where can we do that? I’ve been searching for a confessional booth at our church and I haven’t found it yet.

May I suggest, one answer is to share these burdens with another trusted person, or a small group of trusted people, who know you and love you and have committed themselves to care for you.

The manner in which we make disciples is all-important. When the Apostle Paul ministered to the Thessalonians, he laid down all the perks that went with his personal power and prestige. He said this,

“I could have made demands on you as an apostle. But I was gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So being affectionately desirous of you, I was ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also my own self, because you had become very dear to me.”

This is the model, sharing ourselves, sharing our lives with each other.

In the Old Testament, we see that Moses discipled or mentored Joshua, he prepared Joshua to enter the promised land. Where would we be if Moses had not taken Joshua under wing and trained him?

In the New Testament, nobody wanted to get near a new convert named Saul because he had been persecuting the church. No one wanted to take a risk on Saul, no one could see he had the makings of a great leader…except for one man – Barnabas.

Barnabas became his mentor and advocate. Barnabas didn’t write any books of the Bible. But two men he nurtured – Paul and John Mark, wrote a third of the New Testament.

Barnabas was willing to decrease, in order to let others increase. He faded into Paul’s shadow, like an Indy car mechanic working in the pit, willing to let his team and his driver have all the glory.

Many years ago, in one of Ray Ortlund’s first disciple-making groups, he had a young man who was attending Fuller Seminary at the time. This young man confessed to the other men in the group that he was considering dropping out of seminary.

His wife was working at the church as a secretary, they had two small children, and they weren’t making it financially. Life’s circumstances and financial pressures had overwhelmed him and he wanted to call it quits. But here’s the value of small group discipleship.

The men in that group upholded him in prayer, encouraged him, told him it would be a mistake to drop out. Among themselves, they even made commitment to cover any shortfall in his finances, even though they didn’t have much more money than he did.

That young man was John Piper, who became one of the great Christian leaders and thinkers of the last 30 years.

I’ll always treasure the years I had with Ray Ortlund. He was everything I could ever have wanted in a mentor;  He became a spiritual dad in the faith.

A holy kiss

Five years ago Ray passed away from pulmonary fibrosis – a horrible disease where one slowly suffocates to death.  Toward the end, he would have episodes in the middle of the night when he sat at the edge of his bed and struggled to get air, like a fish out of water.

I went to see him at his house a few weeks before he went to be with the Lord. He had lost a lot of weight, so his clothes formed like sacks around his once solid frame.

He was attached to oxygen, too weak to get up from the couch when I came in the room.  But as soon as he saw me he threw his arms out wide, and I bent over to give him a hug, and he pulled me in and kissed me on the cheek with affection.

I thought to myself, I don’t remember ever being kissed by a man on the cheek.  That kiss was an evidence of the Father’s love, expressed through Ray.

I think the Apostle John also caught this love when he was discipled or mentored by Jesus, as John refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved.  Like a holy kiss from above, the essence of discipleship is often more caught than taught.

Making disciples who become more like Jesus is not about following a program or formula, it’s not about how much we know. It’s about showing others how to love God and enjoy Him forever.

So I’m giving you just a small picture of what discipleship meant to me—it was all about a very special friendship, a very special relationship.  Ray modeled Jesus in such an attractive way that I wanted to be more like Jesus.

Ray inspired me to start my own small groups of men and continue his example.  And my wife Sally was discipled by Anne, and she caught the vision to disciple or mentor small groups of women.

Now Sally and I share this vision as a married couple, and it gives our lives greater purpose together and it’s a real joy for us to do this.

My prayer is that you will answer this call – this command of Jesus – to go and make disciples.


Anne Ortlund’s book, “Love me with a stubborn love” contains the model for Ray and Anne’s approach to small group discipleship. This post was adapted from a sermon delivered January 27, 2013 at Church by the Sea in Laguna Beach, California. Other sources that contributed to this piece include Francis Chan’s book “Multiply,” and teachings by Dallas Willard, John Piper and John MacArthur. 


  1. Ray Ortland was a special servant leader in ministry. I heard him speak at NRB several times. Wish I could have been in one of his discipleship groups.

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