The Discipleship Triangle

I am currently taking two different courses on disciple-making. One is what is called a Master Course (Practical Tools for Making Disciples Like Jesus) and an online course (The Disciplemaking Blueprint). 

In a previous blogpost, I spoke about how I have come to the conclusion that a great danger exists because congregations are not making disciples who make disciples. In other words, full disciples are not being made because a full disciple is one who makes other disciples. 

And maybe that’s the reality because this is a cyclical problem, meaning that current disciples were not truly taught and shown how to make disciples who make disciples.

Anyway, one of the presenters in the Master Course presented what I have called the “Discipleship Triangle.” There are three aspects, all necessary, to making a disciple who makes disciples. 

The first one is information. This is where information is shared with the disciple from the disciple-maker. In today’s common reality, this would typically be done in a group setting such as a Sunday school class or a small group. And while that is good, I still consider it a “shotgun” approach. It is not done in a personal, one-on-one setting. It is at this point that many congregations stop being intentional in the disciple-making process, possibly thinking that they have succeeded in making a disciple. 

What is better is for that information to be shared in that one-on-one setting. This is where specific and personal and intimate questions can be asked, questions that a person may not be comfortable asking in a group setting.

But conveying information does not make a disciple, at least not in the way Jesus did, and the apostles, such as Paul with Timothy. 

And this is where the second point of the triangle comes into reality – imitation. In order for a disciple to imitate what a disciple does, s/he must observe and experience what his/her discipler in different situations. S/he must experience how that discipler applies that information to real life situations, shaping how s/he acts and responds to situations of life. And in order for that to be observed and experienced, that disciple must be with the discipler. The disciple needs to be at the shoulder of his/her discipler, learning by watching. And, then, that disciple imitates what has been observed and experienced. To the Corinthian believers, Paul wrote, “I exhort you, therefore, become imitators of me. Because of this, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach everywhere in every congregation.” Timothy was the living example of Paul to the Corinthian believers in his absence. He could do that because he imitated what he has seen and experienced from being with Paul. Jesus did a similar thing with the Twelve.

The difficulty with this second point of the triangle is that it involves intentionally inviting someone new into your life, thereby taking time and being messy. But this is absolutely essential. If this is not done, this real-life observing and experiencing, then truly making disciples, especially disciples who make disciples, becomes very difficult. One of the best ways of learning is watching someone do it and then imitate what we have seen while that person watches. This is what Jesus did. But if the goal is to make disciples who make disciples, then we had best be demonstrating how we go about inviting someone into a relationship with Jesus first and then a discipling relationship with us second, all in the view of a current disciple. That way s/he can see how it’s done.

But how many are actually calling other people to enter into a life-altering relationship with Jesus? Based upon my experience, it’s not a very high number and that is a big problem.

Finally, after imitating the discipler, the disciple now begins to innovate on the process learned, observed, and experienced, shaping it to match who s/he is as a person. It still retains the foundation of the original discipler, but now moves beyond that. Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who believes in me will do the works which I do and will do greater than these…” (John 14:12) That’s innovation.

And then that disciple becomes the disciple-maker because s/he saw it in action as part of what it means to be a disciple.

That’s the Discipleship Triangle and all three are necessary to the mission of congregations to make disciples who make disciples.

The question that now needs to be considered is this – “How do I go about jumpstarting this process?”

What is commonly thought to be the mission of a congregation falls short in a very important way

The most important question a congregation must ask is, “What is our mission?” In other words, for what purpose do we exist?

Answering that question gives direction for everything else done by that congregation – its focus and its direction.

So what is the mission of a congregation? Some would point to Matthew 28:19-20 where Jesus, after having told his followers that all authority in heaven and upon the earth had been given to him, says, “Therefore, go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all which I have commanded to you.”

And their answer to the question? “To make disciples who keep all which Jesus commanded.”

But that answer is not fully correct. It’s actually shortsighted. And, it forgets very one important aspect as to what it means to be a disciple who keeps ALL which Jesus commanded.

What is the full, not shortsighted, answer? “To make disciples who make disciples.”

If new disciples are not shown, trained and do not experience new disciples being made by watching older disciples do it, then those disciples have not truly been shown what it means to be a disciple because they, most likely, will not make new disciples as Jesus commanded. And if older disciples are not actively and intentionally making new disciples, then those older disciples do not truly know what it means to fully be a disciple of Jesus, which is to make new disciples who then make new disciples.

When Jesus told these followers to teach new disciples to keep ALL which He had commanded to them, that also meant the last command – this one we know as the Great Commission.

And, honestly, this characteristic of what it means to fully be a disciple of Jesus, meaning making other disciples, is one that is often either lost or disregarded by many congregations and current disciples of Jesus.

And this characteristic must be recaptured; it must become the most important thing to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus or everything else becomes pointless.

Whatever terminology you want to use, what the mission of a congregation, and thereby all followers of Jesus, boils down to is not only living like Jesus wants you to live, but showing that to others as they learn from you and calling others into a relationship with you to learn what that means. That means inviting people into your life who may not necessarily be a believer so s/he can witness how you live a life of faith and draw him/her into faith. And then teaching him/her to emulate, imitate, how you live a life of faith and how you draw others into belief in Jesus.

That means inviting people into your life who may not necessarily be a believer so s/he can witness how you live a life of faith and draw him/her into faith. And then teaching him/her to emulate, imitate, how you live a life of faith and how you draw others into belief in Jesus.

The leadership of a congregation, both formal and informal, must be demonstrating what it truly means and looks like to make disciples who make disciples. The leadership must call people into disciple-making relationships in which they teach and show through real life how to make new disciple-makers.

Anything less falls short.

We must recapture this crucial piece of the mission – making disciple-makers.

And it is the small picture which must be the focus. That means each disciple is encouraged and challenged to have two people, one for each shoulder, who are invited into that disciple’s life to see how a life of faith is done and how that disciple calls to others to come into a believing relationship with Jesus. Then, as those disciples at the shoulders learn and become ready to branch out on their own, meaning they will invite two people to stand at their shoulders to learn from them, that disciple will not only imitate what they learned, but also innovate upon it.

Then, that original disciple-maker will find people to replace those who branched off on their own. It’s not that s/he will cut off that original disciple from contact, but the level of contact will diminish, say, going from weekly to monthly and then to quarterly, and so on.

This is the pattern Jesus established and this is the pattern that apostles such as Peter and Paul followed.

It must once again be our pattern.

Our mission isn’t to make disciples; our mission is to make disciples who make disciples.

Anything less is to fall short in following Jesus.

And many followers have ground to make up.

Use it or lose it

Did you realize that the title of this post is inherent in what is known as the Great Commission?

Jesus told his followers, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to keep everything I have commanded you.”

The teaching that Jesus wanted them to do was not comprised of sitting in a class or group setting, sharing with the “newbies” what Jesus had commanded to be done. The teaching was meant to be done through life lived in view of those “newbies.” It was meant to be done with someone at our shoulder seeing those commands of Jesus put into practice in real life situations. It meant that those new disciples would see the commands in action, to learn from those actions, so much so that they would then be able to replicate and go deeper in them on their own and then have someone at their shoulder learning from them.

And when that person has left the shoulder of the original disciple-maker and has become a disciple-maker on his/her own, that original disciple-maker seeks out someone to take the empty place at his/her shoulder.

Part of that disciple-making process is allowing a person who is already at your shoulder see how you reach out to draw someone else to your other shoulder, inviting that new person into discipleship. That is one of the commands that Jesus said was to be fleshed out and taught in and through real life. And it is in that way that a disciple, while at the shoulder of the one teaching and demonstrating, learns that to truly be a disciple of Jesus, one must also be a disciple-maker. A true disciple of Jesus is a disciple who makes more disciples. If someone who says s/he is a disciple, but is not actually involved in real-life disciple-making, I would assert that that person needs to seriously consider what it means to truly be a disciple of Christ.

This is where the disconnect is happening in congregations not experiencing true growth, which I define as creating new disciples, not disciples transferring from another congregation. Congregations only truly grow when disciples are making disciples who then make disciples.

The problem is that it is the rare case in non-growing congregations that current disciples have invited one or two or three others to be at their shoulder to watch, to learn, and then to participate in what it means to be a follower of Jesus, obedient to all commands, including that of making new disciples. In these congregations, the common thread missing is people pouring, in a discipling relationship, into the lives of others in real life and then having those people pour into the lives of others.

And this is in real life. I’m not talking about what is often categorized as “discipleship” – sitting in a class and just soaking in information and going no further. That is not discipleship. True disciple-making occurs out in the real world, in the down and dirty situation of real life.

I would strongly suggest that, if a follower, a disciple, of Jesus has been so for 3 or more years (I use this number because that was how long Jesus was physically with, training, His disciples) and is not actively involved in making disciples, there is a problem. I don’t know what the problem may be. It could be with how that person was discipled or it could be with the person him/herself. But there is a problem.

Look, being a disciple of Jesus cannot, MUST NOT, be defined as just believing in Jesus, being involved in a congregation and its programs of teaching in a classroom, a small group, or doing good in a community and trying to live how Jesus commanded. It MUST include the active making of other disciples who then make other disciples. It MUST include inviting others into one’s life, one’s world, to be at one’s shoulder, watching how it is put into practice in real life and how one works to draw others into the kingdom of God and then into a discipling relationship.

Anything less is a watered-down version of what Jesus commanded. And that is not good.

Invest in obedience, not potential

I am currently taking two separate courses on disciplemaking. One is categorized as a “Master” class titled, “Practical Tools for Disciplemaking” and the other is an online training program titled, “The Disciplemaking Blueprint.” Both of these are through the Verge Network.

One of the presenters in the training program made a statement that I found quite intriguing and worth much more consideration. After he talked about how we often go about doing things in a way different than how God did and does, he made this statement: “Jesus invested in obedience, not potential.”

Potential is quite a buzz word these days. Whether in sports or business or something else, it is common to hear, “S/he has potential.” And it is that possible potential that is the reason why someone chooses to invest in a person – to hopefully see that potential potentially become reality.

But is that how Jesus did it? Did Jesus invest himself in a person on the basis of that person’s potential?

I believe a look at the gospel narrative would show that Jesus didn’t invest in a person on the basis of potential, but on the presence of obedience. Obedience to His call was the factor that caused Him to invest Himself in a person.

Think about how He called people. He said that if a person wasn’t ready to die because of following Jesus, that person was not able to be His disciple. Jesus required a total surrender to Him in real life. He required so much more than just a willingness to give up this desire or that desire in life. He required giving up the right to actually living – breathing. He required people to be ready to physically die each and every day because of and for Him.

Here is the biggest difference between obedience and potential: obedience is reality; potential is always “out there,” never to be realized until it transforms into obedience. And once that reality existed, that was when Jesus truly invested in people.

Think about it. In whom did Jesus truly invest Himself? Those who actually responded to His call to actually follow Him.

The gospel narrative does not show Jesus investing in people with potential, chasing after them, hoping that the investment would transform that potential into actual obedience. No, He did not invest in a person until that person made a decision of obedience to His call of “Follow Me.”

What is the result when potential is the deciding factor for investing? Those who would be disciple-makers get tired due to chasing after that potential when the person has no desire whatsoever to respond with obedience. But with potential being the buzz word of the day, that is exactly what happens and is expected. And, frankly, the only result is the disciple-maker getting tired and results very, very minimal.

But when obedience is the deciding factor for investing, everything is changed, because reality, not possibility, is the focal point. It isn’t that a person who has demonstrated obedience won’t disappoint, but at least that person has demonstrated obedience. And even though there will be disappointments, the fruit from investing in obedience will be much, much greater than that resulting from investing in potential. 

And no chasing is necessary.