Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden

Greg Ogden is a well-known pastor, ministry leader, seminary professor, author, and seminar leader. In my Doctor of Ministry program, we read one of Greg Ogden’s books, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God. [1] Unfinished Business focuses on lay empowerment. It was very well received by the group. Over the years, Unfinished Business made it into a few sermons, became foundational for our small group and spiritual gifts ministries, and was often reflected upon. In my experience, the longer I was in ministry, the more life was dominated by the duties of ministry and the less time I spent empowering individual laypersons.

Despite our failures, Kathy and I were always in one or more small discipleship groups during our years leading congregations. Eventually, I wrote a year-long study for our church members known as “Salt & Light.” More recently, I published Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking to hopefully convey what we learned over the years to a new generation. [2]

As part of revising Crisis of Discipleship, I recently read Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time. [3]  In this book, Ogden champions a relational way of making disciples that emphasizes “Triads,” groups of three or four individuals, one of whom is a mentor, who embark upon a journey of discipleship together. Because discipleship is an inherently relational process, Ogden believes that fundamental transformation best occurs in small, transformational mentoring relationships. In developing his thesis, the examples of Jesus and Paul loom large in Ogden’s mind. I very much enjoyed this section of the book.

Part One: The Problem

Why Be Concerned?

Why should we pay attention to Ogden’s ideas? The answer is simple: All the evidence supports the conclusion that American churches are doing a poor job of discipleship. As Chuck Colson reportedly said, “American discipleship is 3000 miles wide and an inch deep.” Colson voiced this view at a time when the evangelical movement had succeeded in drawing a new generation into its churches. Today, we are experiencing the limitations of focusing on church growth, programs that attract people, and entertainment-centered worship. Nearly all Christian groups, including those with the name “Evangelical,” are stable or shrinking.

In Transforming Discipleship, Ogden sets out several indicators that American congregations are failing at discipleship:

  1. American Churches are not creating proactive disciples who independently reach out to others.
  2. American Christians are not taught and do not display a “Way of Life” different from the way of life secular people enjoy.
  3. American Christians too easily divide their personal and business lives from their faith, resulting in cultural conformity.
  4. American Christians often reflect the values of a materialistic American culture instead of the importance of Christ.
  5. American Christianity is excessively individualistic as opposed to communal. [4]

It is hard to argue with any of these conclusions.

American evangelicalism, the branch of Christianity most enthusiastic about the Great Commission, often reduces the Great Commission to “salvation” by “accepting Christ.” This divorces evangelism from the Biblical call to “make disciples who obey.” This diminished view of salvation and discipleship is without support in Scripture but has become a common form in many churches. Worse, in many congregations, “joining the church” has become the goal of evangelism, with discipleship relegated to voluntary participation in Sunday School.

American church leadership cannot escape responsibility for the situation. Church leaders like myself, who concentrate on worship, preaching, and maintaining the institutional structure, have not placed disciple-making at the center of their vocation. As Ogden puts it, “In spite of Jesus’ strategy of calling people from crowds and focusing on a few, we continue to rely upon preaching and programs as a means to make disciples.” [5] Many church leaders, and thus many congregations, either have no clear idea of how to create vibrant self-actuating disciples or deliberately rely on preaching and programming because this is within their area of comfort. “We rely upon programs because we do not want to make the personal investment that discipleship requires. [6]

Pushing the Great Commission to the Margins

Pastors have become so invested in preparation for worship and being a part of the busyness of the programs and activities of the church that they have forgotten their primary calling to make disciples. Underlying all these factors is one fundamental fact: The American church, indeed the churches of Western Culture generally, have failed to make disciple-making central to the mission and ministry of the local congregation and modeled by its leaders. Yet where the church operates as intended, there is proactive disciple-making, a distinct difference in the values of Christians and the surrounding society, a unity of church and secular life among believers, a rejection of a materialistic lifestyle, and a life-transforming community. These churches are spiritually healthy, whatever their size.

The Problem with Programs.

For most of my pastoral career, I led larger program-centered congregations. Most such congregations were impacted directly or indirectly by the “Seven Day a Week” model that placed programming at the center of their essentially institutional vision. [7] The problem program-based discipleship are several:

  1. Programs tend to focus on conveying information or knowledge. As a result, they rarely result in deeper personal relationships with God, other Christians, or a suffering world.
  2. Programs focus on a leader preparing to convey the information or knowledge to the participants.
  3. Programs focus on structure, regimentation, and standardized results.
  4. Programs typically require little accountability from participants who “attend.” [8]

For all these reasons, programs are unlikely to produce transformed disciples who can share their faith with others and disciple them effectively. I began my ministry in a small congregation, where my motto was “People before Programs.” Unfortunately, the pressure of leading larger congregations made me forget the truth in that epigram. In recent years, I have come to believe that our excessive focus on church growth, size, and programming was mistaken.

Part Two: The Solution

Jesus and Paul: Our Prime Examples.

Not surprisingly, Ogden’s solution to the problem is to direct the church’s and its leaders’ attention back to the example of Jesus. Although Jesus ministered to “crowds,” he invested most of his time and energy into a core group of disciples with whom he shared his life and communicated the life of God. He called the disciples in pairs and one at a time to follow him in the life of discipleship. As time passed, three of the twelve (Peter, James, and John) received special attention and encouragement to grow in their discipleship. Luke indicates that Jesus chose the disciples due to a season of prayer. If today’s leaders are to follow Jesus, they must pray for a small group of candidates and invest time in them just as Jesus did.

From the beginning, Jesus was preparing his chosen few for the work of the Great Commission. He invested time in teaching and modeling the life of faith for the Twelve. He sent them out two by two to practice what they had internalized (Mark 3:14-15). He coached the twelve and supported them in their growth. He refused to do everything and therefore delegated increasing responsibility to them, knowing that the cross lay ahead.

Like Jesus, Paul invested tremendous energy in the few. Silus, Luke, Timothy, Titus, and others mentioned in the New Testament traveled with Paul, shared his life, and received intimate mentorship and teaching in a transparent and supportive relationship. As a result, they were empowered to continue accomplishing the Great Commission. These leaders were formed in the context of a personal relationship.

Part Three: Multiplying Discipleship

Ogden is not satisfied with merely reciting the Biblical grounds for a change in how pastors, church leaders, and local congregations create more mature believers. He has specific suggestions as to how this can be accomplished. These suggestions do not take the form of a particular program. To develop the method, one begins with the goal: mature disciples. In Ogden’s view, Mature disciples are formed over time through accountable relationships intended to bring believers to a more profound and life-transforming relationship with Christ.[9]

To accomplish this goal, Ogden suggests a particular strategy to assist leaders:

  1. Life-transforming discipleship is not accomplished by programs but by life investment.
  2. Investment in disciples means having close personal relationships with believers growing in their faith.
  3. Life investment and deep relationships take time and develop slowly.
  4. Small groups, what Ogden calls “Triads,” are the most effective means to accomplish the goal of disciple-making. [10]

Conditions for a Discipling Relationship

Naturally, not every relationship can become a disciple-making relationship. There are conditions for an effective disciple-making relationship.

  1. Trust. The disciple must trust that the leader is capable of helping develop a deeper relationship with Christ, and the disciple-maker must believe that the disciple has the character, energy, and drive to grow in Christ. Personal accountability, transparency, confession, and active direction must exist for such a relationship to exist. [11]
  2. God’s Word. At the center of any disciple-making relationship is the Word of God. [12] As Paul said to Timothy:

You know who your teachers were, and you remember you have known the Holy Scriptures since childhood. These Scriptures can give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. God inspires all Scripture and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed. (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

  1. Mutual Accountability. There can be no real growth where there is no accountability. In a discipling relationship, this accountability is mutual. The mentor and the mentee must be accountable to one another for the connection. [13]


Transforming Discipleship is a fine book, well-written and easy to follow. Ogden sets out a strategy and the details of a particular methodology that is important and much needed. In particular, his focus on intimate relationships of trust and accountability is important. There is much more to the book and the strategy Odgen suggests than I can relate here. I would recommend Transforming Discipleship to any pastor or church leader considering adopting a new and better plan for making and growing disciples in our culture.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Greg Ogden, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990, 2003).

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking (College Station, TX: VirtualBookworm, 2022). This book is currently under revision, and I recommend waiting to purchase it until a new, updated, and expanded version is available.

[3] Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). In this review, I will not precisely follow Ogden’s outline.

[4] Id, at 40-46. In creating this list, I have slightly rephrased the argument contained in the book.

[5] Id, at 67.

[6] Id.

[7] This phrase is from the important book authored by church consultant Lyle Schaller, The Seven Day a Week Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992). For many pastors in my generation this book and others by Schaller were instrumental in forming our vision of how to grow a vital church.

[8] Transforming Discipleship, 42-45.

[9] Id, at 129. I have rephrased Ogden’s exact definition.

[10] While I believe that Ogden’s idea of  discipleship in “Triads” is Biblical and important, my own view is that the number is not as important as that the number of disciples mentored by an individual be small enough that the disciple-maker can invest personally and deeply in each person.

[11] Id, at 134-162.

[12] Id, 162-168.

[13] Id, 168-174.