“ We have now sunk to the depth that the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men”
I am the master of the obvious, so I will say it again twenty years later. Jesus hasn’t changed his mind and neither have I, He commanded us to make disciples and he remains our best model.
Why is our discipleship in house and non-reproductive? This is the question that troubles me most twenty years after the first publication of Jesus Christ Disciple Maker. In 1984 the year that Orwell said Big Brother would take over our lives my first offering on the primary work of the church was unleashed on the reading public. Since then nearly 100,000 people have read it and it is gratifying that it still is in print and changing lives. I say primary work because I have not mellowed in my assertion that making disciples is the primary and exclusive work of the church. The fact that the church is weaker and shrinking is the evidence that we still haven’t got it. Short cuts and the quick fix still skim off our best energy and most of church’s renewal dollar.
We have our islands of strength, there is much good to celebrate, and I have benefited from it. Still however, we are languishing in our penetration of culture, and even our better churches are not doing very well in discipleship. “ A little more than 60% of born again adults have set no goals for their spiritual development, failed to develop standards against which to measure their growth, or failed to establish procedures for being held accountable for themselves.” 1 Vision, intentionality, a plan , and a relationship for accountability, all missing-these are the very heart of discipleship. I think the problem at its root is that we have accepted a non-discipleship Christianity that leads to plenty of motion, activity, and conferences , but without lasting transformation. By transformation I mean consistent long range change into the likeness of Jesus. That we are positioned to break the back of strongholds and habits that retard out growth. In the last twenty years I have written nine other books, pastored two churches and created an international training network. I can confidently report to you that there is a desperate search among church leaders for something more meaningful. We have found that church growth does not satisfy the soul, neither do accolades about sermons or completed projects. There is a movement in our land that is driven by hunger for intimacy with God. There is a growing consensus that the Great Commission has as much to do with depth as strategy.
I have pondered, prayed and talked with many leaders about how to improve the situation. There is a variety of opinion, some insist that all is lost without revival, the church should just pray. I don’t think that just should ever appear if front of the word pray. I also believe that to only pray is as much a sin as to only work without prayer. There is the pray and wait crowd, then the plan and go gang, the balance is pray-plan-and then go. Others proclaim that we should leave behind the dead hand of the past and start new churches. Let the bad churches go the way of the dodo, it is predicted that 50,000 will close before the end of the decade, Bravo! Dot the landscape with thousands of new churches that live out the values of the Kingdom. Yet within a decade they will calcify without the primary commitment to personal transformation. There are thousands of organizations and church consultants who are giving themselves to renewing the 350,000 churches in America. There is wide agreement that something needs to be done. I have made a career out of being the master of the obvious, let me say it one more time. To follow Jesus is to be a disciple maker. Doing what Jesus did is the answer to our questions and the solution to our problems. The percentage of evangelicals to population has declined from 17% to 12% since 1994. It used to be said that 80% and more of local churches were in decline, that hasn’t changed. The reason is that we have insisted on going too fast and being too programmed. Our need for success is so strong that we have taken a series of short cuts that have given us short term numerical growth instead of maturity and addition instead of multiplication. So we surge ahead then fall back, like shoveling sand against the tide. Is there any encouraging news? Ah yes there is, it is the same news that appeared under this title in 1984, that following and listening to Jesus is the essential element in ministry.
There are three levels of doing what Jesus did, I list them below not in order of importance, but for my own purpose in this discussion. The first is doing what Jesus did in His ministry of power. In the upper room Jesus promised his followers that they would match and even exceed his works.2 The second is doing what He did in the practice of personal transformation, His practice in prayer, silence and solitude, fasting, frugality, chastity, service and stewardship. The third area is how he worked with those who followed Him. Twenty years ago I introduced four phases that Jesus led his followers through; Come and See, Come and Follow Me, Come be with Me and Remain in Me. These leadership lessons from Jesus are about the technique and time needed to train others. They provide us with a segmented and sequential process. It is segmented in that each phase has its own characteristics, it is sequential in that a person can graduate through the phases from a new believer to a reproducing leader. Ignoring Jesus at any of the four levels is disastrous, but to miss the lessons of training explains why we are not making the kinds of gains on the Great Commission that are required. It still takes 100 church attendees, a pastor and 100,000.00 a year to win a convert. Among evangelicals it is a bit better, 1.7, this is an ugly fact that should grieve us all.3 Anyone else would be out of business. We only stay in business because of Jesus’ commitment to sustain the church. By reviewing the principles of this book you will know how to treat the people you work with at every level of maturity. Earlier I made the assertion that in the last twenty years that evangelical discipleship has been too fast and too programmed. That has led to a discipleship that is “in house” and “ non-reproductive” and that is why we are losing ground on the Great Commission domestically. The church around the world is flourishing, but in the United States, we still hold Rubik’s Cube in our hands trying to find the formula. I suggest we return to the original setting for the answer.
What did Peter, James, John and Phillip hear when Jesus said “Make Disciples?” I bet it wasn’t go through a sixteen week fill in the blanks bible study. To understand what first century discipleship was like we must return there long enough to restore the context. John the Baptist had disciples and so did the Pharisees. It was common for young men to be cause oriented and follow those who inspired them. Every Jewish boy by age thirteen had studied and memorized much of the Penetuch and the prophets. If he were among the best and the brightest he would be accepted into a Rabbinical School. There he would come under the authority of his teacher. If you were not at the top of your class you would return to the professions of Shepherd, Fisherman, Carpenter, and Farmer. Jesus wasn’t a product of the system and he chose his followers from outside of the system.
The disciple chose to submit to his teacher
The disciple would memorize his teacher’s words
The disciple would learn his teacher’s way of ministry
The disciple would imitate his teacher’s life
The disciple would be expected to find his own disciples
The Rabbinical tradition was very strict, students had very little freedom and when they graduated they would go on to a career as a teacher. Many started their own academies or band of followers. They were bound to their teacher’s interpretation of scripture for life and were expected to multiply the traditions. Jesus’ disciples knew he was different by being around him and what he taught. On one occasion he actually taught them why and how they were to be a different breed of disciple.
Jesus used the Pharisees as an example of how not to disciple others. He explained why their training was abusive, selfish, and hypocritical. They represented the traditional way to influence others, but Jesus offered an alternative. Then he built the bridge for us,4
“ But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth father, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called teacher, for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” 5
They were brothers, they were to serve others not lord it over each other. They only had one teacher and that was the Christ. They were not to open the School of John, or Peter, or James, it was to make more followers of Jesus. Jesus taught the power of humility in spirit and submission in community. This is the way to get transformational traction, to practice a faith that transforms. The five characteristics of a first century disciple modified by Jesus is the secret to personal transformation that will lead to church transformation that will result in cultural transformation.
This is what rescues discipleship from a process without results. I have said it so many times, you can’t make disciples without accountability and you can’t have accountability without structure. The instruction is “ teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” 6 One of George Barna’s findings is that the majority of people in small groups are satisfied with the process without regard for progress. 7 When I say that our discipleship is too fast and too programmed I am speaking of the lack of personal submission in groups, in triplets and couplets. Without humility there is no submission, without submission I shut out others from speaking into my life. So people can go through programs and bible studies, but remain arms length from accountability for personal transformation. Many a person, many a pastor have sailed through the best training money can buy but remain untouched in the inner person. Or at least untouched in the deep strong holds that we keep secret. I have stepped into a community where I can share anything and everything. I know that I am loved, accepted, and all will be kept confidential. Within that small circle I can walk completely in the light, and that is the safest place anyone can be. There is no balderdash, just open and honest talk. The Quakers call it a clearness committee, people that can help us find clarity in God’s leading. It is only when I talk about my obedience barriers, the sins that keep defeating me, that I remove the barriers to transformation.
We are good at this. There is marvelous bible teaching available to anyone who has an interest. The average American home contains four bibles, the average Evangelical home has more along with Christian Radio and Television, videos and related curriculum. Our knowledge is growing and it is meaning less. The studies on Christian’s conduct shows a lack of distinction from the general population.8I think we can trace this back to our deficient understanding of what a teacher does and what a student learns.
From the beginning spiritual teachers are taught to ask the wrong question. “ How do you like my teaching?” With this criteria, and a fragile ego Christian teachers and speakers enter into the religious world. The listener hangs on every word the teacher says and the teacher hang on every word of praise the listener gives. Success for the listener is to be stimulated or experience the pleasure of being moved emotionally. Success for the teacher is to be showered with praise that feeds the need for affirmation. This is a good thing gone sour. Anyone connected to reality would rather hear a stimulating and moving message than something else. It is a wonderful thing for a blessed listener to affirm a hard working teacher. But this all misses the point of what it means to learn the words of Jesus. The right question teacher and student alike should be asking is , “ Am I learning? “ And learning means application, learning is transformation, learning is creating a new attitude and behavior in the inner person. Jesus defined learning this way,
“ My teaching is not my own, it comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” 9
Learning Jesus’ words is to live them. Take for example how Jesus defined faith. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow after me.” 10
Faith is defined by action, it is reflected in behavior. Faith is action sustained by belief. Remove the veil of our theological systems and let Jesus teach us. We have made the test for salvation a doctrinal one, merely intellectual assent to a set of teachings. Jesus rocks our world with these penetrating words. Yes I believe that salvation is by faith and is a act of the Grace of God. The evidence that this has taken place however, is behavioral not simply knowledge. Jesus gave speeches but then he explains their meaning later to his followers. He helped them live it and created experiences for them to be tested. Again may I emphasis that that learning the power and truth of Jesus’ teaching is what Jesus Christ Disciple Maker is about.
Earlier I mentioned the three dimensions of doing what Jesus did. The works of power, the training techniques, and the habits of his life. Discipleship in the twenty first century is based on the same principles. Civilization has made progress in communications and science but the moral base from which each person operates is the same as was found east of Eden in Adam and Eve. Jesus lived his life before his followers and they caught it, Jesus was contagious. People of my theological ilk, moderate evangelical, have done a good job of understanding his training techniques. There is a segment, let’s call them Charismatic who have captured the power dimension. Then many main line churches including Catholics have been pioneers in His habits or the spiritual disciplines. There is a movement afoot that is very exciting which gives me much hope. Some call it spiritual formation, others a new Methodism or order, I would call it full orbed discipleship. It is a movement to combine all three dimensions of His life, the techniques, the power, and the character of our lord. This I believe is a tour de force that should worry the devil. Men and women around the globe are starting to follow him for the first time. The disease of western Christianity is the pathological need to lead and control our environment. But more and more people are starting to follow Jesus and his methods. Personally I have forsaken being in charge of my own life,this is my greatest form of self-denial. I now am committed to following Jesus. Asking him to create ministry in front of me so I can enter in. Learning his ways as a follower is a new but rewarding way to live. It is a special kind of life that must be chosen and it is filled with frustration because I keep taking it all back.
The disciples desired to live the life that Jesus displayed for them. We have already mentioned how they were drawn to his life of prayer and power. They were not as attracted to his suffering, his long periods of solitude and to the confrontations with powerful members of the establishment. There is a mysterious process that goes on in us called spiritual formation. It is derived from Paul’s statement, “ I will labor among you until Christ is formed in you” 11Christ’s character otherwise known as the fruit of the Spirit, is gradually developed in us over time. We intentionally engage in the same disciplines that Christ practiced while on earth. These fifteen to twenty habits serve to transform our inner person. It is possible for us to take on Jesus’ thoughts, mental images and feelings. We will always have the flesh to contend with, but God can change our desires and his life can crowd out the darker impulses.
Think of it this way, on Superbowl Sunday I told the congregation that one hour before the game the players would come on the field to warm up ,to do drills and calisthenics. But millions of viewers were not tuning in to watch push up, leg lifts, and jumping jacks. People do have an interest in what great athletes do to prepare, but they want to see the game. The spiritual disciplines are to transformation what calisthenics are to sport. The purpose of football is not calisthenics, but special exercises do prepare the players to perform. This is called the law of indirect preparedness and it is not optional if we plan to grow into the likeness of Christ. Players prepare themselves so they can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done in the way it needs to be done. It is the fourth quarter, the game is tied and the players are dragging. Certain players rise to the top and make the great plays because they have the skill, stamina, and mental discipline to execute the play better than the opponent. They were able to do what needed to be done when it needed to be done in the way it needed to be done. We now have so many who can’t do what needs to be done, [serve in the great commission work force] when it needs to be done [ now] in the way it needs to be done. [with passion touching people where they live] We have found too many ways to be Christian without being Christ like. This must begin with church leaders who are willing to risk and go deeper instead of trying a new program. Remember, we are too fast and too programmed.
Prayer is not the purpose of the Christian life, neither are any of the vital disciplines that Jesus modeled for us. The disciplines however set into motion a mysterious transformation as we deepen our intimacy with God. Transformation then is set into motion by a heart desire to follow Jesus and in humility submit myself to the practice of the disciplines in community. We allow others to help us keep our commitments to God. A disciple will join a new order of life, a life of discipline and accountability in order to be transformed into the image of Christ.
There is a new way of saying this that I have found very helpful. That we should train to be godly, instead of trying to be godly. The gospel is opposed to earning favor with God through performance, but exhorts us to. make every effort in serving Christ. 12 Training in the disciplines will transform us over time. Think of it as a long term conditioning program, be patient and persevering and the results will be remarkable.
The reason contemporary discipleship is not reproducing is that we have lost this fifth principle. I started this chapter asking the question, “ why is our discipleship “in house” and “non-reproductive?” The answer is because we have not taught or expected people we train to reproduce. We have lopped off both ends of the process to insure it doesn’t work. We have removed the humility, submission and accountability of principle #1 and the outreach and reproduction of principle #5. Without principle #1 we can’t get transformational traction, absent principle #5, we will just train each other to train each other, to train each other, inbreeding is never good. What I don’t mean is that we should never train a believer, it is a basic tenet of discipleship to train others who are faithful and that does begin “in house.” 13 There are many examples of this to be found in churches. The problem is that after we have trained the willing we run out of people to train. This is because the numbers are not increasing. One of the potent truths of Evangelism Explosion was that if you didn’t have good contacts, eventually there would be a ceiling to your outreach. You would end up with forty trainers , no trainees and no one to visit. That generally would mean the end of the program. This took place because the focus was to visit the people who visit the church. This can work if you have a very dynamic leader or a great marketing plan. Most churches have neither I firmly believe that God’s plan for the church must be within reach of every church regardless of how modest the skills of its leaders.
This is why we should care if discipleship works. Because it is the formula to reach the world. There are other philosophies and approaches that bring in large groups of visitors to attractive events. This isn’t all bad but in the end the people don’t stick because the members were not connected to them relationally. Many churches are very good at this but they don’t have a commitment to train their people to train others. Spiritual addition is better than no addition at all, but it is quite inferior to Christ’s plan to reproduce through training others to obey everything he taught.
Consider this, making disciples begins with evangelism. That is why Jesus said “Baptize them.” What if after the core people were trained that the second generation were unbelievers. Instead of meeting with a believer, choose an unbeliever in your personal network. Start with building a relationship on a common interest, then ask them if they have any spiritual beliefs. Do this with a few people in your life until you find one that is willing to get together regularly to talk about spiritual life. God will honor you efforts, take them from belonging to you and your community to believing in Christ and joining his community. This is radical for many, but it exactly what we should do and it will work. It will take time and perseverance, but it will unlock the door to reproduction and multiplication. The fact that you are now stumped about how this could work and you don’t know of any models makes the point.
Twenty years is a long time and one sees programs , superstars and formulas come and go. Pastors are an addictive lot, we find numerical success irresistible. You may have heard the bromide, “nothing fails like success.” That is the story of the church since 1984. What is needed is a plan to help everyone break out of the heavy insulation that surrounds religious culture. Then to establish contact with those who are in need. Jesus said it is the sick that need a physician, not the well. If we intend to reach the those around us we must follow his example. He trained leaders to train leaders. He also trained them on the job, he showed them what to do and then let them do it. How about moving our base of operation from the church campus and establish outposts where we live work and play. Then we could invite those around us to “Come and See” then to “Come follow Me” then put a special emphasis on leaders by inviting them to “Come and Be with Me.” There will come a time when you would send them out to establish their own outpost, that would be “Remain in Me.”
So there you have it, spiritual awakening will happen when we walk backward into the future and restore disciple making to its first century character. And to move our base of operation outside the church walls and follow Jesus’ example presented in this book. Many years ago I read a book titled, “When all else fails, read the directions.” That time has come.
1 George Barna , Growing True Disciples , 2001 Waterbrook Press pages 34-56, quote from page 36.
3 A study done by Bob Gilliam with the Church Development Survey in 500 churches in 40 denominations over a ten year period.
7 Barna, George, Growing True Disciples, Waterbrook Press, page 54,55
8 Barna,George Church Report 2002 , Issachar Resources General tenor of report demonstrates a disappointing trend of the church blending into contemporary culture in the form of accommodation. This is particularly dangerous in the theological realm. Long-term theological capitulation can bring down the entire basis for morality. There is a positive blend as believers learn to live a among others as “insiders” or those who know how to relate and penetrate.
13 2Timothy 2:2