Jim Putman: ‘What Is a Real Disciple?’

Disciple-making leader Jim Putman shares five shifts churches must make to multiply catalytic leaders and churches


Interview by Lindy Lowry

Below, Real Life Ministries Founding Pastor Jim Putman shares about the 24-year-old Real Life’s success metrics and the shifts they made to be a discipleship-driven church and plant autonomous churches with that DNA. About 90 percent of the church’s attendees participate in a small group, and each church began with a leader who came from within the church’s small groups. In his book, DiscipleShift, Putman points to five shifts the church needs to undergo to begin to make biblical disciples who disciple others and reproduce leaders. 

Jim, you say that how we’re currently doing church isn’t making disciples. I doubt many would argue with you. Why isn’t that happening?

Because it’s not Jesus’ methodology. We’ve been handed a box historically, and we’re just trying to live within that box, rather than ask if it was the right box to begin with. But the box doesn’t make disciples. So we have to look for what’s different about the way we’re doing things and how Christ did things. A lot of these young guys planting churches know the old model doesn’t work but they think, If I were in charge, then it would. And they’re taking these new big words and then the new fads, and it sounds good.

At the beginning, it’s kind of like Vegas. As you drive in, you see all the great-looking buildings and flashy lights. It’s so inviting. But when you really go down that road, so to speak, you find only glitz, and you’re left with empty pockets. It starts out well but doesn’t end well. And it’s because these planters think their solution is to look at people’s perceived needs rather than at the needs God says people have. He is the great designer of people and of the church—God knows that His church done His way will produce what people really need. When people are truly given new life, the world notices the difference and wants what we have.

So for me, it’s about looking at the biblical design and model of the church we see in Acts. Live out that model, and you will see it actually works for all people in all cultures for all time.

What about the way we’re doing things isn’t the way Jesus intended the church to be?

When Jesus told His disciples, “Go and make disciples,” He didn’t mean for them to do it any way they wanted. He had just made disciples, and He said, “What I’ve done with you, now you go do the same.” And they did that! And it worked! Because Jesus’ ways met the needs of real people.

In Acts 2, you see that the people lived in relationship, and in that relationship, they’re devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to breaking bread and fellowship, to caring for the hurting, even being willing to sell what they have and give it away. Jesus taught them to do all of these things.

We should be attractional—attracting the world—but that by itself leads to a group of people who were converted into infants but cannot change the world. We leave them with no real relationships that guide and protect them and inaccurate copies of Jesus. So the world doesn’t like the Jesus we have shown them and rightly so. That Jesus isn’t very attractive.

The missional guys are asking, “What are we missing?” They say we’re missing turning people into ministers who care for the hurting, and that is true. We are missing that, but it’s because our people were not shown what it looks like to love like Jesus loved. They were attracted and were handed a Bible, and told to come back next week. That doesn’t work—Jesus didn’t do it that way.

Many leaders want to rally their people to a great cause, but they often don’t teach their people to do this in real relationship. So they burn out quickly. My point is that we focus on one aspect of the design for the church and then the pendulum swings all the way over, and now we’re missing something else! God’s church is organic, attractional and missional, and organized. All of this is tied together in relationship because love is to be what we are known for. It’s not only one of those things; it’s all of them.

What questions are you asking? What shifts do we need to be making as we think about being churches that make disciples like Jesus did?

First, we’re asking the question, “What is a real disciple?” And we’re making a distinction between a convert and a disciple. Many of our churches are about getting people to pray the prayer, then baptizing them. When Jesus says, “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teach them to obey all that I have commanded you,” what does that mean for the way we disciple people?

When we’re born in the physical world, we need physical parents. Parents don’t sit their newborns on a couch and say, “Feed yourself.” It’s the same with spiritual rebirth. We need spiritual parents to teach us like Jesus taught the 12.

What does a mature disciple look like then? So often we don’t define it for our people, so each person has his or her own definition. This is a real problem if we‘re going to be a team that works together to complete the mission of Christ. Jesus said a house divided against itself cannot stand, and the Bible tells us that the tower of Babel failed when the people’s language was confused. We need to ask the question and define it together as a body. If that definition does not end up looking like one who is following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and committed to the mission of Jesus, then our definition has holes in it.

The bottom line is that a mature disciple of Jesus is defined by relationship. We are known for our love for God and one another. Paul said you can know all things and do all things, but if you don’t have love, you are nothing.

The second question is, “How are we going to get people to this definition of what it means to be a biblical disciple? What methodology did Jesus use?” So the second shift is about the methodology we’re using to do that. Jesus discipled people in relationship, not in preaching to thousands of people. Only 20 percent of people have an auditory learning style. I used to be a teacher and coach. Teachers know that the larger the classroom, the more you’re forced to lecture and the less learning. Why is it that every good teacher would hate what every pastor thinks they want? We want the results of Jesus without using the methods of Jesus. That doesn’t work. We cannot divorce Jesus’ teachings from His methods and get His results.

What specific changes do church leaders need to make to develop disciples who lead others?

That’s the third shift we talk about—the shift of the pastor. What is the pastor’s role? In our current church model, it would appear the pastor’s role is to gather a crowd, be a paid performer. But Jesus’ life and leadership didn’t reflect that. He coached and equipped people to release an army on a community. He didn’t focus on gathering a crowd out of the community alone, but rather on releasing a crowd of disciples who can make disciples. Think about it. Jesus essentially said to the disciples, “You don’t need me to physically be here, walking with you. I’ve equipped you with what you need to be a disciple and make disciples in your homes and neighborhoods.”

Also, we have to look at this idea of, “What is success?” What are we as leaders celebrating? What do people in our churches aspire to? If we’re honest, we know we’re celebrating many of the wrong things. Or we’re celebrating just some of the right things so our people are aspiring to, especially our young leaders, a church with thousands of people. I’m all for numbers of converts, but those aren’t the right numbers alone. We should be counting and asking the question, “How many disciples have I made who can make disciples without me?”

That sounds like a strong dashboard. How do you start to measure those areas?

For me, I see a process in the New Testament: Jesus shared who He was with people. Those that accepted the message, He connected with. In that connection, He trained them for ministry, and finally He released them to make disciples.

Look at the early church. They shared who Jesus was, and 3,000 were baptized in one day. They connected in the temple courts and from house to house. Needs started to rise up, so they set aside the seven who took care of the needs of others. They trained those who had accepted Jesus for ministry, and finally they released them to go out and make disciples on their own. So for me, it’s not just about how many people are coming, but how many of our people are helping others to know Jesus Christ. And it’s not whether or not we had 10 people praying a prayer; it’s whether we had 10 people pray the prayer with someone and baptize them. Not that I baptized them, but did they baptize them? So yes, I measure decisions to follow Christ because that tells you how many of your people are sharing their faith.

The second measurement is, how many people got connected into relationship with a more mature believer? How many people are in relationship with each other, disciples making disciple makers? Third, how many people are moving out of that connection group into ministry and service? How many have grown in relationship to the point that they now understand their gifting by God to do the good works He planned for us to do?

Fourth, we measure the number of small groups we’re starting. Our number of small groups measures the amount of leaders who are going out to make the disciples. The more disciple makers we are training and releasing, the deeper everything else goes.

When Real Life plants churches, do you immediately start talking about these kinds of metrics with their leaders?

We don’t start churches with worship services; we start with small groups. We want people to say, “This is my church and, oh yeah, we have a worship service,” not “This is my worship service, and I might go to a small group.” We do it the same way every time we plant. We have a small group leader that has an apprentice. And then you elevate that apprentice into leadership, and now you’ve got two groups, and its reproduction.

When you get to a certain point, maybe you’ve got five groups of six people each, and you start thinking, “Maybe we should start a service.” We don’t want to start building a crowd until we have alignment with leaders who understand what is going to be the DNA of this church. We don’t want to gather crowds that cannot be discipled because we don’t have any leaders ready to help them. This has worked well because in the last eight years, we have started seven other churches with more than 4,000 people in them as well. Each church started with a leader who came from within the system of small groups who went out to start another church.

What changes did your church make to get to that place?

It took us about two years to get to 850. Then we went to 1,600 and then to 2,300 in about three more months after we got our first building. Our organizational structure couldn’t support our values. The values were good, but we weren’t living them out. So I said to our staff, “We have to change our values or start living out what we say. Which one do you want to do?” And they said, “We’ve got to live it out!” I said, “The way we’re doing it doesn’t work. We’ve got to throw it all out and re-create the system.” We started on a much larger scale because the way you do it before 800 isn’t going to work for 1,600 or 2,300. You have to change your leadership style. You don’t change your vision because it’s not yours to change (what matters is Jesus’ vision for the church); you change how you’re structured so that you can support His vision.

Most churches are so busy just feeding the machine every week for another service. It’s where 90 percent of their energy goes. They don’t ever get a chance to step back and ask, “What exactly are we producing, what are our measurements, and how are we doing?”

What did re-creating the system look like for Real Life?

We restructured the whole church. We had one community pastor over all of our small groups and then all of these different pastors over sections like men’s, women’s, etc., which wasn’t working. So I said to them, “From now on, all your jobs are changing. You are all community pastors.” Then we went to our people and said, “We’ve got to have small group leaders.” I had everybody who had been a Christian for more than five years stand up, and I said, “You all are small group leaders now.” And so we started training them to actually do it.

Before, we had one pastor who went to the hospital. He’d be there all day long every day taking care of needs and not raising up people who could take care of people. We had to restructure so that we were developing leaders who could make disciples and pastoring rather than just taking care of the immediate needs of everybody else.

We want people to say, “It’s my mission to make disciples,” rather than, “Our church’s mission is … .“ This idea of ‘This is who I am, it’s what I believe in.” And that happens through relationship. You can’t give someone else what you haven’t owned.

A version of this article originally appeared in Outreach magazine.