Reimagining Disciple Making

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The Greatest Follower

Jesus was a follower. That may sound like borderline blasphemy to some. It may be hard for you to think of Jesus as a follower. Especially in a culture such as ours, which looks down on the idea of being a follower, it’s difficult for us to think of Jesus as one. The truth is that not only was he a follower but he was the greatest follower in all of history.

When we think of great leaders, our minds drift to the great innovators—groundbreaking inventors and paradigm-shifting philosophers throughout the ages—Socrates, Plato, Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford, and so on. More recently, we look to technology icons such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Shockingly, Jesus identified himself not as a leader but as a follower. In fact, he said he had no original ideas:

I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. . . .

. . . For I have not spoken on my own authority, but 
the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me. (John 5:30; 12:49-50)

Jesus followed the Father. He walked in the steps and direction the Lord told him to go. He judged according to the will of God. He spoke the words the Father told him to speak, and his authority came from following God. But Jesus did have a “strategic” plan. We see it in Mark 3:14: “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him” (emphasis added).

Jesus’ idea of making disciples was to invite a group of people to join him in life. He didn’t invite them to a Bible study, a small-group meeting, or even to a men’s accountability group—all of which can contribute to disciple making. But those activities will never get the job of disciple making done without the vital component of a more seasoned, mature disciple. Such a person is needed to invite others to come along with him or 
her so they can experience the way a disciple actually lives his or her life. There is no substitute for this. To develop disciples nothing can replace the effectiveness of coming alongside and being with the more experienced follower of Jesus. And this can only take place among a small number of people.

Eating together, playing together, praying together—this 
is what it means to “be with” someone. The leadership-centric culture in most churches has people at the top of the ladder who cannot point to a group of people they have invited to “be with” them in life for the purpose of discipleship.

The distance between upper-echelon church leaders and others betrays the reality that there is no authentic discipling relationship in play. Nannerl Keohane, former president of Duke University, writes,

When we speak of “relationships,” we usually have in mind close, affectionate, enduring affiliations with a parent, lover, husband, sibling, colleague, or friend. The distinctive connection between leaders and followers is not well captured by this term. In large organizations leaders have many followers; followers have only one leader (or a small number of leaders). The followers may feel that they “know” the leader through observing her in action, shaking her hand at a large gathering, receiving a certificate of commendation, or reading about the leader’s family. On this basis, if they generally approve the leader’s actions and sense any kind of personal warmth on the leader’s part, they are indeed likely to feel that they do indeed have a direct, personal connection with the leader. But no leader can have a direct, personal connection with large numbers of followers; this is possible only for those with whom [she] works most immediately. Occasional personal encounters with other followers can be meaningful to the leader, but they are rarely as important as they are for the follower. These “relationships” cannot, by their very nature, be symmetrical. So the connection between the leader and her followers must be more abstract, detached, and impersonal than the term “relationship” can usefully be expected to describe.1

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  • Erich Schindler

    Nov 15, 2013 - Reply

    Loved your article. I myself am a recovering from a long period of ‘outsourcing’ my discipleship responsibilities to pastors and teachers (the professionals) in classroom settings. Recently began intentionally meeting with a small group of men for ongoing discipleship, using Neil Cole’s Life Transformation Groups model. Excited to lead disciples who themselves naturally reproduce!

  • Elizabeth Perry

    Nov 15, 2013 - Reply

    Erich, thanks for your feedback! I love that term “outsourcing.” Certainly we need to bring discipleship back in-house. Sounds like you are doing just that. Blessings to you!

  • David Kueker

    Jun 22, 2014 - Reply

    Very good points. The only thing that I would wish to add is that the end result of “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” is not a good disciple but a disciple maker.

    As with parenting: the relationship that leads to involvement in the church is typically with a lay person rather than the pastor and the job of Matthew 2820 is the duty of the person in Matthew 28:19. One follows the other.

    They are not specialists. The challenge of the traditional way of thinking is that there is someone in the church other than the one who brought me that should mentor me and who can do a better job of it. As with parenting, you make them, you raise them. Disciple making is not something we send people to a building to get from professionals.

    In addition, good parents can send their children to school taught by professionals. Disciple making is not home schooling, but a relationship that watches over in love encourages growth. There is still too much of an emphasis on ideas that people need to learn and study … this is where discipleship went astray in the first century. Or so it seems to me.

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