Engstrom Christmas Card 2014


This past few years, I have had the joy of participating the Doctor of Educational Ministry program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  I participated in a cohort of five executive pastors under the supervision of my friend Dan Dumas, and the product of that time was a thesis entitled “Missional Community as a Model for Integrated Discipleship in an American Context”.

If you read this blog frequently, you’ll recognize much of the material that I’ve written her provided the foundations for the thesis, but I expanded the ideas and provided the academic background that drove much of my thinking and practice.

As you continue to lead and experiment with making disciples, I pray this work would serve you well!  Click below to download it:

Engstrom DEdMin Thesis – Missional Communities

This post was originally published at the SEND Network website here.


Building a Disciple-Making Culture

Many people much smarter than me have wrestled with the question “what is culture?”  At the heart of it though, culture is composed of beliefs, values and practices shared by a group of people.  Building a disciple-making culture in the local church is driven by foundational beliefs, shared values and common practices.


When it comes to core beliefs in a disciple-making culture, the fundamental belief that drives movements is the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  While there are many orthodox truths that all churches must believe, the foundation of the church is Christ’s person and work, and a disciple-making culture is built on the foundation that Christ’s death and resurrection prove his Lordship over all creation.

If Christ is Lord, then Christ is worthy of worship and obedience!  A culture of disciple-making makes this explicit and fundamental by every means possible.


Beliefs express themselves in values in a culture.  Values are manifestations of beliefs amongst a particular group of people.  When it comes to a disciple-making culture, one of the key values is the priesthood of all believers – the idea that everyone has a part to play in making disciples.

A disciple-making culture won’t be widespread until leaders in the church believe that everyone has a role to play in ministry and mission.  The greatest barrier to disciple-making movements in America is that we cater to consumers in our churches rather than expecting everyday people to get off the bench and play in the game.  Disciple-making isn’t for experts, it is for everyone who believes Christ is Lord!


In addition to shared beliefs and values, a disciple-making culture is committed to simple, reproducible and transferrable practices.  A football team can believe they need to score touchdowns and value winning, but without a clear game plan and playbook, chances are good they won’t win a game!  One of the challenges in establishing a disciple-making culture is providing a simple, understandable way to live out the vision.

Leaders often make discipleship so complicated that it requires a Ph.D. to understand, but it’s pretty straightforward.  Living under the Lordship of Christ means committing to reading His word, repenting of sin and believing the gospel, demonstrating the kingdom and sharing the gospel with others.  At the Austin Stone, we embed discipleship in a very simple, reproducible, transferrable tool we call a Life Transformation Group.

These groups are meant to reinforce the basic disciplines of healthy disciples, do it in a reproducible way, and make them easy to multiply with other people.


Finally, it’s important to remember that strong cultures are created over time.  Being committed to the basics for a long period of time can seem tedious, especially for leaders in our day, but creating culture happens by doing simple things repeatedly over time.

The following article was originally posted on the SEND Network site here.


I am ecstatic that much of the conversation in church planting and church leadership has been moving towards the topic of discipleship.

Books are being written, conferences are being themed and leaders are calling the church to consider the core mission of the church—making disciples of Jesus.

The church is certainly talking about disciple making, but at the core, what is it?


When it comes to the essentials of disciple-making, the most crucial passage we must consider in all of Scripture is the Great Commission.  In the Gospel of Matthew, it is recounted like this:

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “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 behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18–20 (ESV)

While the basic content of discipleship is simple, the missing ingredient in most churches is not one of content, but one of obedience in action. As a pastor committed to the local church and making disciples of Jesus, I must consistently remember both the simplicity and the urgency of Jesus’ commission to his first disciples, and recognize that disciple making has not changed in 2000 years.

The Great Commission is commanded on the authority of the risen Christ, who reigns as Lord now and forever. We are also reminded in verse 20 that the Great Commission is pursued with the presence of Jesus, who will be with us in the task of bringing glory to God.

But what is the essential content of disciple making?


The first essential component of making disciples is “go.”  Discipleship at its very core requires obedience to follow Jesus and make him famous in the nations. By God’s design, the gospel will be proclaimed by His people among those who do not yet know Him, and we as God’s people must go to the nations.

While some people are called of God to move overseas to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, every believer in Christ is called to participate in making disciples of the nations.

For some of us, engaging in discipling the nations means intentionally crossing the street to have a conversation.  It means doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality, and showing others how all of life is submitted to the reign and rule of Christ—even buying groceries, coaching soccer or enjoying hard work to the glory of God.


In addition to going, disciples of Jesus are commanded to baptized.  Baptism is primarily about identifying with Jesus and his lordship.  Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality that we no longer live for ourselves, but for the sake of God and his glory.

Baptism is a clear reminder of our new identity in Christ, and a reminder to those who have participated in this ordinance that we have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection.  The church of God must tell the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and if people respond in repentance and faith, we must baptize them!

Teach to Obey

After baptism, we must be committed to the final command and teach people to obey. Disciple-making involves both teaching content and obedience.  At the very core of discipleship are the commands of Jesus.

If you were to ask the people you are leading “what are the basic commands of Jesus?” what would they say? In my experience, many people in our churches and ministries are woefully lacking when it comes to knowing the basics of the teachings of Jesus like repent and believe the gospel, love God and your neighbor, give generously, serve the poor, make disciples and many others.

While the basic content of discipleship is simple, the missing ingredient in most churches is not one of content, but one of obedience in action. Part of being an effective disciple maker is to expect people to actually obey the commandments that Jesus gave us. Quite simply, if you are teaching great content but not holding people accountable to obeying the commands of God, you are not making disciples of Jesus!


While this post may seem rudimentary to many, the simplest and most foundational truths are often the ones that become assumed.  The moment you assume something, you lose sight of its importance and begin searching for other things to fill its place.  Discipleship at its essence is incredibly simple—Go, Baptize, Teach to Obey.  We complicate discipleship when we make it about anything more than those simple things.

Recently I was asked by a reader on this blog and partner in our church:

Is the bar so high in missional community that no one can reach it? Or, only a few groups can reach it?

In the end, don’t you essentially have a small group ministry with different terminology? In healthy churches, aren’t  they both after the same goal – disciples? By setting a high bar, haven’t you just made it VERY difficult for an immature believer to be a part of the community?

This question is an excellent one, and I wanted to share my response and see what you as readers think.  I’d love to foster this dialogue more!


With respect to the questions you bring up, I’d want to back up one step and give some clarity to two philosophical ideas that have shaped our model:

  • Scripture sets the bar for a disciple, community and church – when we think through anything in the church, we want the foundation and the aspiration to be those of Scripture.  While our culture may present some very challenging starting points for pursuing what the Scriptures call us to, we don’t want to lessen the weight of what the Scriptures call us to.
  • The disciple, community and church are not yet fully sanctified – we also recognize that no one is fully conformed to the image of Christ, and therefore must meet people where they are and encourage one another in the Scriptures by the Spirit to become more like Christ in our individual, communal and corporate life together.  Sanctification will take the rest of our lives here on this earth, and we will never be fully conformed to the image of Christ, but that can’t be an excuse to simply persist in disobedience.

The definition I use for discipleship keeps these two ideas in tension – “meeting people where they are, and taking them where Jesus wants them to go”.  The question I wrestle with every day is how can I simultaneously hold to that tension in grace and truth in my own life, in the life of my missional community, and in the life of our church?  That’s a difficult task!

I’ve landed at this point on holding our theology tightly, our philosophy firmly but open for discussion, and our practices loosely and willing to change.  Your statement “In healthy churches, aren’t they both after the same goal – disciples?” is absolutely true, and we must hold that firmly.  The practices we cultivate should be biblically informed, but these strategies and practices like small groups versus missional communities all have pros and cons.

That being said, every church has some choices to make when it comes to leading people and doing ministry.  To respond to why we keep the bar high at The Stone at the risk of alienating some people, I’d say I have three primary reasons:

  • Theologically, the community must play a role in our evangelism – When we consider Scripture, it is clear that Christian community is not simply to be about meeting one another’s needs, but is to be about declaring and demonstrating the good news of the gospel (John 17:21-24, 1 Peter 2:9-10, etc.).  Whether you call that a missional community or a small group, we must call people to what the Scripture does.
  • Philosophically, we must reinforce contribution rather than consumption – I think we need to challenge consumerism with our structures and forms, not just in word.  Part of the reason why I don’t want to rely too heavily on things like curriculum, and also challenge communities to even greater commitment to one another and frequency of gathering is to challenge the idea that the Christian life and Christian community are to primarily meet needs of believers.  We always must challenge with grace and love in light of where people are in the faith, but at the same time we can’t be satisfied to simply leave people in a consumer posture.
  • Practically, if we’re going to reach every pocket of people in Austin, we need missional communities – Our goal is a church is to make disciples of all people, not just those who would attend on a Sunday.  Therefore, we need to equip and mobilize the people in our church to engage the people whom God has placed them amongst with a community who can help.  Our church has a passion to see more people come to know Jesus, and many of those people would never attend a Sunday service.  However, many would participate meaningfully in communal life, and therefore we want to call people to that!

Last, to respond to effectiveness, you’re fair in pointing out that the model doesn’t seem to be producing significant fruit thus far.  I would add two caveats to that particular observation, however.  As we’ve walked with many people through the idea of missional community, it usually takes about 2 years to get to the “Team of Missionaries” idea.  I am actually quite encouraged at the traction we have gained in people understanding their missionary identity and seeking to live it out!

Second, from an effectiveness standpoint, I want to assess a model over the course of a decade, rather than over the course of months.  For some longer term data on how things have worked at The Stone, you can see the post here.  This last Fall changed our statistics because we rebooted so many communities (that was very intentional by the way!), but we have a long term track record of effectiveness in helping communities take steps over time towards more faithful witness in their networks of people and neighborhoods.  Additionally, we are very patient with the process of transition, and try to walk with people through it as we coach, teach and train.  For the basic process of group transition over time, you can read this series of posts.

To be honest, I think the jury is still out on the MC model we teach and train towards, but I have high hopes that the vision God has placed in us is richly theological, well thought through philosophically, and practically applicable for a broad group of people at The Austin Stone.  While I am a huge fan of small groups and am grateful to God for them, I still think as they are popularly conceived and practiced, they fall short of the task of biblical discipleship.

What do you think?