Discipleship in the Church: Watching God Transform Lives

By Anne B. Doll

Each week, Rev. Greg Doll disciples 50 to 60 Presbyterian men before they go to work on Wall Street, to law offices or to other corporate posts.The Gordon-Conwell alumnus (M.Div. ‘99) currently serves as Associate Pastor for Adult Spiritual Formation and Outreach at Noroton Presbyterian Church (NPC) in Darien, CT—the same church where Rev. Samuel A. Schreiner III (M.Div. ‘83) is Pastor and Team Leader.

It was after a year in his first parish in North Carolina that Pastor Greg made a dramatic u-turn in his ministry and headed down the path of discipleship.

“I was on vacation, and during my morning devotions, I was meditating on the Great Commission,” he explains. “I got stuck on the line ‘therefore go and make disciples of all nations... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:18-20). I could not quite move past the latter section of the passage.

“It dawned on me that at least part of what it means to make disciples is to systematically pass on all that Jesus taught his own disciples. That seemed to be the way it worked. He taught them, and they in turn taught others. Now, our responsibility is to continue passing along Jesus’ instruction. I remember thinking, ‘If that’s what it means to make disciples, then I have never done it. Here I am in an ordained status and I have never made a disciple.’”

Returning to his church, he surveyed his members, asking if they had been discipled, and was stunned to learn that not one had ever had that experience. “So,” he recalls, “we scrapped everything we were doing and started over. We said, ‘If we’re not making disciples, if we’re not doing what our primary mission is as a church, then what are we doing?’”

But how was he to pass along all that Jesus taught his disciples? Did the Great Commission mean he should teach every scripture that Jesus taught? This led to a ministry-changing discovery: a general consensus in the scholarly community that the Sermon on the Mount represents the distillation of all Jesus’ teaching—the heart of his message.

With that, Pastor Greg started teaching through the Sermon on the Mount, verse by verse, from the pulpit and in a Wednesday night Bible study. He quickly learned that by teaching Matthew 5-7, he could cover much theological territory and segue easily into other important topics like worship, prayer and meditation—all the while emphasizing that once members had been discipled and understood Jesus’ teaching, they were to go and do the same. As members embraced discipleship, he watched their faith grow and deepen. He says the concept was “so simple. Regular encounters with God’s Word and Spirit are where growth occurs.”

He introduced the same emphasis in his second parish in Ohio. “It was a joy,” he says, “to see people who took their calling to discipleship so seriously...taking copious notes and preparing their own notebooks so that they eventually could do the same.”

In 2005, he was called by NPC to focus on adult teaching. There, he discovered a vibrant women’s ministry that had been meeting for more than 10 years. Two groups of women led by Associate Pastor, Connie Jordan-Haas, gathered weekly for discipleship. “It was quite evident that these faithful women had become spiritual leaders in the church,” he says. “They sat on the Session and Board of Deacons and were in the forefront of every ministry of the church. So I proposed that we develop a similar ministry for the men.”

This was no little challenge in Darien, CT, where many men board 5:30 a.m. trains for work in New York’s Financial District, and return late at night—at best. At worst, they fly out to Hong Kong or London on Monday and return Friday night. “We realized that they could never get to our ministry offerings during the week to help them grow in their faith,” Pastor Greg explains.

So three years ago, he began boarding the 6:22 a.m. train every Tuesday morning to take discipleship to them. Meeting just steps from Grand Central Station, they spend an hour together in prayer, Bible study and small groups. A second discipleship group meets at the church on Friday mornings.

In each group, it took a year to work through the Sermon on the Mount. “It was an incredible blessing to watch God transform the men (and me!),” he says. “It has been one of the greatest thrills in ministry to listen to their questions changing, to hear them pray, to learn from their insights and to witness their sincere efforts to learn how to ‘live this out in the hurly-burly of daily existence...how to increasingly integrate our faith into our professional life.’

“Some of their responses have been very poignant and powerful, because we had been meeting just prior to and in the very heart of the recession. Amid the titanic stresses and pressures for guys living in towns hardest hit by the financial crisis, they were asking things like: ‘How can we reach out to our colleagues and demonstrate the love and grace of God for them in the midst of this storm? What’s the most powerful way we can witness to our faith? How can we express care and concern? Do acts of kindness? Extend grace and forgiveness?’”

At the end of the second year, after working through Philippians, he posed a challenge to each group: “Now that you’ve been taught, and seen a regular model of exegetical work and exposition, would you consider becoming disciplers yourself?” They responded enthusiastically, so he offered a two-part class entitled “A Short Course in Biblical Hermeneutics.” Thirty men showed up.

Out of that has come a growing rotation of teachers. “When they sign up to teach, we work together for several months on the passage,” he notes. “They bring in their drafts, we pray and wrestle with the text together, and I point them to additional resources. This process has been a wonderful gift for me and, I trust, for them. It’s another place where the Holy Spirit joins us and bonds us in that experience with his Word.

“And then after writing, re-writing and reflecting, they get up and teach. It’s amazing to observe the growth in someone who previously could never have imagined leading others in prayer, worship and study or having his heart so captured by the Lord and the gospel. My ultimate goal is to replace myself in large measure by establishing a regular rotation of guys who feel called to teach, so that next year I only lead the studies twice a month.”

The group is presently working through Jesus’ parables. During this third year, Pastor Greg says something unexpected happened. “A number of men approached me about going even deeper in their discipleship. The joy of it was that it came totally unsolicited. It just seemed to happen organically. The excitement for me was realizing that perhaps we were beginning to fall into Biblical patterns. We know that large crowds followed Jesus, we know about the 72, but we also know that he invested himself in the 12. It’s almost as if the 12 are beginning to surface naturally.”

Now, weekly, he has six individual, one-hour discipleship meetings in his study. Each person is working through a book chosen to address an aspect of spiritual development. He views this personalized, albeit time-consuming, discipleship as a way for the church to continue growing organically in width and depth. “By the end of 2011, my goal is to have 12 meetings each week,” he says. “I don’t know if 12 is a magic number, but it worked for Jesus. The ultimate goal is to eventually establish these men in some form of ministry in the church.

“I am a strong, strong believer that small groups are incredibly conducive to spiritual growth,” he says. “But I have never witnessed the kind of growth I am seeing in these weekly meetings because the spiritual formation experience can be so tailored. It allows the guys to do a very difficult thing for men: to be open, share weaknesses, struggles, challenges and pain. It becomes a place where the Holy Spirit fills the space of those broken places.

“I am witnessing a miracle: guys being renewed, reformed, re-made from their fallen, broken images into the image of Christ...so that they can then go out into their homes and workplaces increasingly and more faithfully reflecting that glorious image. And this beautiful image invariably attracts others, even on Wall Street.

“I’m sure there are many ways to do discipleship. This is just my own interpretation of the thrust of the Great Commission. What I can say is: It’s a great joy to watch God work and see the change happen. It reminds me of what a gift and privilege it is to be in ministry.”

© Copyright 2009 Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. All rights reserved.