So You Think You Want To Make Disciples?
Discipleship. I'm not going to be weird and say that Jesus was talking about discipleship in Matthew 21. But I am going to say that the second son's attitude parallels our culture's attitude toward discipleship. It's not a blatantly disobedient attitude. It's a "Yeah, discipleship is great! I'll definitely get around to that, Jesus! I have lots of stuff I need to do first. And if I can't get to it today, I'll definitely do it tomorrow. Like I said, lots of stuff. But seriously, I can't wait. Sounds like a great time. I'm so excited to do that when I have the time."
No one in the Church is going to say discipleship is unimportant. It was Jesus' Grand Finale Command. But if you look at the state of the American Church, you don't see much discipleship. And I say that, not because I have a perfect concept of how to make disciples, but because I don't see many disciples. I see a lot of church members. But I see very few that have been taught to obey everything commanded by Jesus. Honestly, I see very few that have been taught anything. (Yes, I'm ragging on the effectiveness of sermons as a tool for teaching a comprehensive view of the Bible.)
Luckily, I come from a Church context where discipleship is Priority #1. Is my way of "making a disciple" the only way to obey Jesus' command? No way, Hose A. But it is helpful and a step in the right direction. And if you do not come from a context where discipleship is priority #1, I think you're really going to like this article. In fact, you're going to like it so much that you're going to start making disciples.
Let me begin with a few principles about making disciples. And if you want to get more practical, I've got you covered.
Principle #1: It's Not All On You
You should breathe a sigh of relief at this verse. The (difficult) task of discipleship is not a solo endeavor. You don't do it alone. We need everyone to get involved to equip the saints for the work of ministry. All hands on deck. Discipleship is a team sport.
So however you, your friends, and your church pursue this incredible task of discipleship, remember that you need each other. Don't isolate yourself from the Church for the sake of making disciples. That seems like a weird point to make, but the topic of discipleship is polarizing enough that it happens often.
Principle #2: But Yeah, It Kind Of Is
I don't mean to contradict my first point or put words into Jesus' mouth, but there are not a lot of people waking up in the morning with a desire to make disciples. The laborers are few. Nothing has changed since Jesus said that. The majority of our brothers and sisters in Christ will go their entire life without making a disciple. They will do a lot of great things. They will help the poor. They will use music to lead others into an atmosphere of worship. They will love their spouses. They will raise godly kids. But they will never make a disciple.
And I don't blame them.
It is incredibly easy to go the rest of our lives and never make a disciple. No one's going to call us out! If I cheat on my taxes, wife, or fantasy football team, a dozen of my brothers-in-Christ will be there in an instant to keep me from wandering from the truth (James 5). But if I stop making disciples? Yeah, no one's going to say anything. I'm busy. They're busy. You're busy. Mostly busy with church stuff.
Yes, discipleship is a team sport, but odds are good that you're the only one on the field. That's not how it's supposed to be, but it's the truth.
And the only way to fix it is to make disciples.
Principle #3: Most People Learn Well In A 1-on-1 Context
So how does one "make a disciple?"
That's a loaded question. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But rather than tell you all of the reasons there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer, I'm just going to outline a model that is very helpful and very useful for the majority of people. If you see flaws, fix them. But don't use the flaws of a model to disobey Jesus' commandment to make disciples.
Here are four important components.
Component 1: Someone Who Respects You
Want to make a disciple? Find someone who respects you and start hanging out with him or her in a 1-on-1 context. You don't have to be older, but it helps. You don't need to be in a position of authority. They don't need to be in high school. If this person has some degree of respect for you, your character, your knowledge of the Bible, or your Instagram account, they might be a worthy candidate for discipleship.
If you can't think of anyone who respects you or your love for God's Word, then maybe now is the time for you to be discipled. Discipleship is a two-way street. Ask someone you respect if they could teach you how to read and obey the Bible. There aren't a lot of people that will turn you down. Well, unless they suck at reading the Bible.
Component 2: 1-on-1 Context
Small group Bible studies can be a great thing. And if you're lucky, you have a caring, well-studied leader who is helping you and your group grow in understanding and obeying God's Word. But that's probably not happening. And it's not (necessarily) your leader's fault, it's just that the small group context can't give tailored attention to every member every week. Without a lot of 1-on-1 intentionality, a study leader can't encourage AND challenge everyone at an appropriate level. And he definitely can't teach at a pace that is conducive to learning for everyone.
Small group Bible studies can be incredibly valuable. But the disadvantages of a small group Bible study are the advantages of 1-on-1 discipleship. In a 1-on-1 context, a disciple can be taught at her pace. She can be challenged weekly. She can share actual prayer requests. She can ask any and every question on her mind. She can be taught the time-consuming aspects of good Bible hermeneutics. She can learn what she wants to learn. She can be known well enough to be taught what she needs to be taught.
The 1-on-1 context isn't the only way to help someone become a disciple of Christ, but it's probably the most effective tool we have. For its potential to impact others, it should be given much more focus.
Component 3: Meet Regularly and Have A Goal
It is great to meet with older mentors and ask them pointed questions. I love getting lunch with my head pastor every few months. I love it when the older guys at church pull me aside for good conversation or invite me into their home for a meal. And I will never turn down the opportunity to drink a beer with the older guys in my Bible study.
But none of these are regular occurrences. I can't count on seeing any of these men on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Yes, they are an integral part to my maturity. They, as the Church, are equipping me for the work of ministry in small ways. I can ask them the big questions. I can observe them as they raise their kids and love their wives. And I can usually get a free meal out of them.
But the 1-on-1 discipleship for which I advocate is regular and systematic. It's great to ask your pastor hard questions when they arise. It's great to have "deep" conversations with younger believers. It's another thing to have a 2-month plan for systematically covering the Gospel of John. It's another thing to challenge a guy to memorize a new Bible verse every week for a year. It's another thing to have six Bible verses written on a note card to share when he talks about the shame of his broken sexual history. It's another thing to provide feedback on his personal Bible study observations. It's another thing to spend six weeks talking about how to respond to common objections to the Christian faith (apologetics).
The benefits of regular, goal-oriented, 1-on-1 discipleship are vast. And you can't get them from irregular coffees with your pastor.
Component 4: Seminary Not Required
How am I qualified to disciple someone if I'm not already memorizing verses, studying apologetics, or sharing the Gospel with my co-workers?
Great question. You're not. Because that's not what qualifies you.
You are qualified to make disciples because God qualifies you (2 Corinthians 3). And the thing with discipleship is that the mentor usually learns more than the mentee. So if you feel like you don't know enough to teach someone how to be a disciple of Christ, the dumbest thing you can do is wait. And the second dumbest thing you can do is go to seminary because you feel inadequate. Instead, pursue discipleship. (You get to go to seminary after you've discipled someone whose made a disciple.)
Principle #4: Biblical Literacy And Obedience Is Priority #1
This is one of the things I have gotten wrong more often than not. Because discipleship is such an intimate experience, it is really easy to become great friends with someone you disciple. And that's not a bad thing. But it's a bad thing when the friendship gets in the way of pursuing obedience and Biblical understanding.
As someone who has discipled a handful of guys, I know that something is wrong when I stop preparing for my 1-on-1's. It's not a bad thing to enjoy one another's company, but it's a bad thing when the friendship crowds-out time in the Word. It's not a bad thing to feel comfortable around one another, but it's a bad thing when you feel like neither of you needs to come prepared. Or when you stop challenging one another to pursue obedience. Or when you think you've "learned enough."
Yes, it's totally fine to take a week off and play basketball. Yes, you should talk about urgent matters when they arise. Yes, you should let them share every single detail of their first date or summer mission trip. And it's OK if a few 1-on-1's look like a therapy session.
But if any of those things become the main thing, discipleship begins to feel really disorienting. Which is why it is so important to keep the #1 Priority the #1 Priority. Remind one another often why you're meeting. Expect to stretch your understanding of God's Word every week. Expect this understanding to lead both of you into obedience. By keeping Biblical literacy and obedience at the heart of discipleship, only good things can happen. #prosperitygospel
Principle #5: Some Ponzi Schemes Keep You Out Of Jail
Discipleship is a Ponzi Scheme. And it's awesome. Let me explain...
"What you have heard from me..."
Be like Paul. Spend enough time with Timothy that both of you know how to teach others how understand the Bible. If you met weekly (with a good discipleship plan) you could probably accomplish this in two years.
"...entrust to faithful men..."
After one or two years training Timothy to be a disciple, help Timothy make a disciple. As Timothy disciples a "faithful man," you find another faithful man and help him grow in Biblical literacy and obedience.
"...who will be able to teach others also."
OK, so you taught Timothy. And then Timothy taught a "faithful man." And now this faithful man is going to go out and teach another faithful man how to understand the Bible and obey it. And that faithful man is going to teach another one the same thing. All the while, you're doing the same thing.
The beauty of this model is that anyone can do it. You may not have time to pastor a church, lead a Bible study, or become an overseas missionary, but you have time to help one person. You may not know a lot of people or be a super-extrovert, but you know at least one person who could use some help. And by the time you help this first person start making disciples, you will have met another person who could use some help. You might have even witnessed a friend become a Christian because of your obedience to Christ.
If you are the busiest person in the world and your "only" contribution to the Kingdom is discipling 10 people, what is your impact? On the surface, it seems like you are responsible for teaching 10 people how to understand and obey the Bible. But actually, 1,024 people are disciples of Christ because of your investment. (Every 1-3 years, the number of people in the "Ponzi Scheme" doubles.) And that legacy will carry on for a long time if this vision for discipleship is unbroken.
If using the phrase "Ponzi Scheme" didn't scare you away, I hope that this vision for discipleship excites you. It excites me. It's the reason I'm a Christian. And if it's the only thing I do with the rest of my life, I win.
So if you want to give this discipleship thing a try, my next article should be helpful. It's a basic discipleship plan for the first year or two of meeting together. But you also don't have to wait until then to, you know, make disciples. Just freaking do it.
Oh, and if you still have questions, my email is matt [at] getyour20sright.com. I love talking discipleship.