Navigating the River of Disciple Making

I will never forget the time I went canoeing with a group of youth down a local river. When we arrived at the entry point, assignments were made to be in each canoe. I was assigned a canoe with a young man who had suffered a previous accident leaving him paralyzed on one side of his body. Needless to say, my anxiety level began to rise, not only because of my lack of experience in a canoe but also by the responsibility of seeing this young man safely to the exit point on the river.

Everything was going fine until we hit our first set of rapids. As we began to work our way through the rough water, my canoeing partner started to panic. He threw his paddle into the river and held on for dear life. This, of course, left me to navigate. The next thing I knew, we were upside down, being pushed down the river at high speed. I grabbed his life jacket and held his head above water. Once through the rapids, and realizing that we had both survived, he looked at me with disdain and declared what a horrible leader I was and that he would get in another canoe. Unable to argue with his logic, I turned the canoe back over and preceded to row the rest of the way down the river with the tip sticking up to heaven in defiance of my efforts.

Sound familiar?

Many of us have been on this journey. It may or may not have been on a literal river, but if you have been engaged in disciple-making, you have had this experience. All of us know of Jesus’ command “to go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). Still, few have been in churches that navigated the river of disciple making well. As such, we feel a little like I did on that river: cold, frustrated, incapable, and defeated. If so, what is the way forward?

Disciple making is both a partnership and a process.

It is a partnership in that the individual believer, and the corporate body of believers, engage the work of spiritual formation concerning the indwelling Holy Spirit and with others in the Body of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 1:28-29). It is a process in that it is the ongoing transformation of the mind, will, practices, habits, and character of believers throughout a lifetime (Colossians 1:9-10; Philippians 1:6; 2 Peter 3:18). As such, we must learn to navigate this partnership and process well.

In The Bonhoeffer Project, we help cohorts of pastors and ministry leaders navigate the river of disciple-making. The Bonhoeffer Project is a leadership development ministry that helps turn leaders into disciple-makers. Co-founded by Bill Hull and Brandon Cook, The Bonhoeffer Project uses the analogy of a river to talk about the process leaders must go through to create disciple-making cultures in their specific ministry context.

We begin at the “headwaters” of Scripture, understanding that all effective disciple-making begins by being rooted in scripture. Secondly, we move “upstream” to the gospel. If we are not clear on what the gospel is and what Jesus calls us to, then we will never succeed in effectively making disciples. As Bill Hull says, “The gospel you believe in determines the disciples you make.” Once we understand the biblical gospel, we can move “midstream” to develop a disciple-making strategy that fits a specific ministry context.

Finally, we end where most pastors and leaders begin, “downstream.” This is where we deal with personnel, schedules, and curriculum that help drive disciple making forward toward multiplication.

The Bonhoeffer Project is a holistic journey into the heart and process of disciple-making. It is not a “quick fix” or “silver bullet” for disciple-making in the local church, but a process of discovery and re-discovery of Jesus’ Great Commission. For more information, go to

Written by Dr. Jim Thomas. For more information, please contact the Discipleship team of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and schedule a consultation. You can also join the conversation on Facebook!

Published November 3, 2020