It’s All About People (with Phil Whittall)

Watch the Video

Listen to the Audio

Read the Notes

Church Plants Need to Make Disciples

  • Discipleship is a very obvious thing – but it can often be missed by church planters.
  • We can instead be focussed on gathering a crowd, stewarding momentum, starting new initiatives, finding venues, etc.

“If you go for the church, you may or may not get disciples. If you go for disciples, you will always get the church.” (Mike Breen)

  • A focus on discipleship pushes back against a consumer approach to church where you just turn up for a couple of hours each week.
  • Jesus challenged people to count the cost, and he commissioned them to go into all the world.
  • In recent years, there has been a renewed focus on discipleship in many parts of the church.
  • After leaving his first church plant, Phil Whittall felt personally challenged about how many disciples he had actually made.
  • The plural of disciple is church. The church is the collective name given to a group of disciples of Jesus.
  • Jesus didn’t die for a charity or an organisation – he died for people.
  • Often, we tend to focus on other things. But those things are just a scaffolding around the real building. Don’t neglect working on the house itself.
  • The primary purpose of church planters and leaders is to equip God’s people for works of service and to reach people.
  • A lot of new churches realise that the church is not the building. We need to also realise that the church is not the meeting.

“If believers in our church are committed to growing in faith in Christ, submitting their lives to his lordship and living by faith, then kingdom growth will happen, they will step into the places God is leading them, and the job of leadership is to step in behind the work of the people, behind the things they are doing, providing them with the support, the equipping, the back-up and the coaching they may need.” (Phil Whittall)

What Do You Mean by ‘Disciple’?

  • If you can’t give a clear answer to this question, then you will always struggle to help people to become disciples.
  • Church plants often develop vision statements early on, but we also need to develop discipleship statements.

“A disciple is someone who increasingly submits all of life to the lordship of Christ.” (Jeff Vanderstelt)

  • How we follow Christ has big implications for every area of life – work, family, the way we use money, etc.
  • God has always wanted to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. He also wants to fill our lives with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.
  • Discipleship isn’t primarily about learning and education but about faith and obedience.
  • The question isn’t just whether you could explain what a disciple is, but could a member of your team, and would they say the same thing that you do?

Discipleship Needs to Be Prioritised

  • It was the command of Jesus.
  • Discipleship doesn’t just happen on its own. It needs a lot of intentional effort.
  • When discipleship becomes the focus, it begins to shape everything else – how and where we meet, how we organise ourselves, how we communicate about ourselves.
  • In a church plant, many people come with their own ideas of how things should be done. Asking how it helps us in making disciples can be a good way to decide which things to do.

Two Ways of Making Disciples

  • There are formal and informal ways of making disciples.
  • Formal disciple making involves the things that could be taught in a course or sermon series.
  • It covers questions of what a disciple needs to know, what they need to believe (including questions of self-identity), and what they need to do (what practices, rhythms and behaviours belong to a disciple of Jesus?)
  • Informal disciple making is much more important in a church plant.
  • It needs to become part of the culture of the church. Once the culture is set, it is difficult to change, especially if you get some momentum (whereas the formal side of it is a block of teaching content that you are able to play on repeat whenever you need to).
  • Phil Whittall uses the same phrase that Newfrontiers uses to define the discipleship culture of Grace Church – ‘a family together on mission’.
  • This involves all of the ‘one another’s of the New Testament.
  • Try to let the culture infuse everything that you are doing.
  • It is important to be focussed on both aspects – being a family and being on mission.
  • Don’t assume the people coming in from other churches have got this culture already (even the basics that you take for granted).

Five Practices That Phil Whittall Wants In All His Groups

  • Fellowship together.
  • Eat together (and break bread).
  • Pray and worship together.
  • Study the Bible together.
  • Share God’s love with those around.

Disciples Making Disciples

  • We need to make sure that our concept of discipleship involves disciple-making.
  • Some people want to just study the Bible and think that evangelism should wait until they know more, but from day one being a disciple involves making disciples. This must be part of our definition of discipleship.

“We are looking for multiplication and reproducing disciples from one generation to the next, so that the whole earth can be filled with the glory of God.” (Phil Whittall)


  1. How would you define a disciple, and when does discipleship start?
  • A disciple is someone who increasingly submits all of their life to the lordship of Christ.
  • You can see this starting before someone is converted. When a person is converted, the call is then to carry on following.
  • When looking for people to go on a discipling journey with, Phil Whittall wants people who will show up, belong, serve, give and be outward looking.
  1. How would you deal with someone in your church plant who is a Christian, but not a disciple?
  • When somebody is resisting, we can’t make them follow.
  • We need to always be asking what God is saying to us (you can’t remain stationary as a disciple). Is somebody is always resisting what God is saying to them, this raises the question of whether they have submitted to Christ.
  • Keep sharing the gospel with them as you would with anybody else.
  • In a church planting context, spend most of your energy investing in those people who are up for it.
  • For some people, a church plant setting can be too intense, or they think that just showing up is enough.
  • Pray with them, share your heart with them, try to stoke them up, put little challenges before them. You are looking for the one thing that will draw them out.
  1. How do we work out what is helpful in formal discipleship and what verges on legalism?
  • When something turns into a list of ‘must dos’ or ‘should dos’ then it becomes a heavy thing.
  • The gospel should fuel our discipleship.
  • Don’t start with what we do. Start with who God is, then what God has done, then who we are, and finally what we should do.
  • We do things because of who we are in Christ. The moment we make our discipleship into a program that is detached from this, it becomes a heavy weight on people – and this is the antithesis of the gospel.
  1. Did the people who moved to Stockholm with you come with different expectations to you?
  • There was an initial group of seven people who moved – Phil Whittall and his family, plus one other couple.
  • The ‘scatter to gather’ model that Phil uses is very different to what the other couple expected.
  • This wasn’t a model that they went there with – it was something that God spoke to them about after they got there.
  • In the end, they parted ways with the other couple.
  • Phil Whittall has learned to rest in the truth that Jesus will build his church, and he is just trying to remain obedient to what he believes Jesus is saying to him.
  • As Phil started to gather a group in Stockholm, people were seeing the same thing and buying in to that way of doing it.
  1. What emphasis do you place on one-to-one discipleship as opposed to trios, small groups, large groups, etc.?
  • In Shrewsbury, Phil had thought that one-to-one was the way to do it.
  • Now he tries to avoid that.
  • Discipleship is trying to help people to conform to the image of Christ. None of us can do this on our own.
  • It is better to learn together as a group.
  • Sometimes Phil will meet people one on one for pastoral work.
  • One-to-one discipleship is too dependent on one person. It will be too heavily shaped by the ups and downs and the style of the discipler. This won’t suit everybody.
  • It builds accountability into the group when it is shared with everybody.
  1. How would you explain the importance of discipleship to a non-Christian?
  • Jesus is the Lord of all. If I am following him, it means submitting my whole life to him. This is good because he wants to bless us and transform us into something beautiful.
  • Believing gets you somewhere. Following gets you all the way to where God wants to get you to.