The foundation of being a disciple of Jesus

If you are a follower of Jesus, how often do you ask yourself the following two questions: “What is God saying to me?” and “What am I going to do about it?”
Here’s the reason why these two questions are crucial in learning to be a disciple: being a disciple means becoming a life-long learner. The key to this learning is hearing the voice of God and then responding to it.
So, how often are you asking these two questions?
When one is a student, it means that there is someone or something else that is the teacher. And the expectation is that the teacher will teach through some form of communication. If there is no communication, then there is no learning happening and the person or source is not a teacher. And you are not a student either. And that means your status as a disciple must be examined because, by definition, a disciple is a student, and a life-long one at that.
If you see yourself as a disciple, then you will be looking for and expecting your teacher to teach by communicating with you. And God is the ultimate and complete and perfect Teacher. That means He is always communicating with His disciples. Therefore, we need to be looking, expecting, and listening, because God will communicate.
When one is a student, it also means that there must be interaction with what has been communicated. If it is only information taken in and nothing more, then no true learning has occurred or real learnings are put into practice and impact how we live and how we do things and gets to the point of shaping who we are.
Here’s what I fear – how many followers of Jesus are asking these two questions and responding accordingly on a regular and consistent basis?
These two questions form the foundation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And if that foundation has not been firmly established, then it is quite difficult, if not impossible, and hazardous to build upon that foundation.
Anyone who desires to grow in being a disciple of Jesus must first have this foundation solidified.

If you’re typical, and most of us are, you have had people at some different points in your life that have had an impact on you and how you live and how you do things.

Personally, I have had 3 such individuals to whom I can point. I’m sure you can point to at least one, probably more, as well.

These people can from various walks of life and intersect our lives due to a variety of reasons.

But one thing is true of all these people. In some way, they invited us into their lives so that we could watch and then imitate and then build upon what we have experienced from them. 

This is the essence of what is called discipleship.

Now, let me ask this question: how many of us have intentionally invited someone into our lives so that s/he could watch and experience how we live so that s/he would imitate us?

In my experience, this number is by far less than those of us who have been invited by someone into his or her life.

And therein lies the problem. 

And even those who do intentionally invite someone into his or her life, how often does she or he demonstrate to that invited person how she or he goes about making another disciple.

And this making of another disciple is important for that current disciple to witness and experience happening because we cannot be what we cannot see. If a disciple doesn’t see his or her discipler making another disciple, then it is the norm that that current disciple will not make disciples, because it has not been experienced.

And that is where change must occur. Not only must we once again intentionally invite others to be our disicple, but we must begin to do something that we may not have experienced from the one who discipled us – making another disicple in view of a current disicple.

I say that based on what I have witnessed in almost 25 years of being a pastor: I have seen very few people actually intentionally  drawing another into a relationship with God through Christ and then discipling that person by inviting him or her to experience life together. 

And, so, when I do not see disciples who make disicples, I naturally question what people have experienced because we naturally imitate and innovate upon what we have personally seen and experienced.

But the cycle can be changed and must be changed in order for the tide of stagnation and decline to be halted and reversed.

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.

But is it there?

In an article he wrote, Bill Wilson, the president of the Center for Healthy Churches wrote about how they go about helping and consulting with churches. “First, tell us the reason or the long-term goal you envision, and then we can help you evaluate methods, candidates, processes, metrics, and all the various routes you can take to arrive at your destination.”

He then goes on to comment about what is his and his organization’s typical experience with churches. “Sadly, most are unable to offer a clear purpose that is shared and embraced with passion by a sizable number of people. Many of us are playing out scripts that other people wrote for us. We have lost the personal connection with the core reasons or purposes for our church’s existence. While many of us can recite the two Great Commandments and the Great Commission, we have wandered far from those purposes and gotten lost in the weeds of methods and routines. Thus, pushing people to purpose is a necessary and invaluable process.”

Over the past weeks, the conversations I have been having with the Spirit have often centered around one particular theme: kingdom-building. These conversations have been both at the personal level, meaning, what I am currently doing to build the kingdom, and at the corporate level, meaning, what initiatives is the congregation I lead doing as a whole to build the kingdom.

And, invariably, the Spirit reminds me of a sermon He had me preach a few months ago titled, “What’s a Successful Fishing Trip?” The purpose of fishing is to catch fish! What a shock. And, if no fish are caught, then it was not a successful trip. What’s the ultimate mission of individual followers and congregations of Jesus? To build the kingdom of God. And how does a person or a congregation determine if the kingdom is being built? Check the fish. If no fish, then something different must be done.

It’s great if people can recite the two Great Commandments and the Great Commission, but, in the scheme of the kingdom, that is worth absolutely bupkis. Nada. Zilch. Zero.

What is quite valuable, though, is when people, individually and collectively, are actively engaged in THE purpose of followers and congregations of Jesus – birthing and growing disciples.

It has often been said that many congregations in this country are in decline, but the stark reality is that, if this is the case, one needs to look no further than those who make up the congregation. Congregations who have many members who not only know the purpose of a congregation and agree with it and believe in it but are also actively engaged in it are not in decline; they are growing. These are congregations which are growing people in it who are sharing about Jesus with those around them. They are actively seeking connections with people so as to be able to share the awesome love of God and the reality of hope for this life and beyond  that we have in and through Jesus. These people are actively seeking to draw people into a life-altering encounter with the living God. These are people who are committed to the God-given purpose of followers and congregations of Jesus.

Imagine if each person in a congregation was able to annually draw just one other person into a life-altering relationship and brought him/her into the congregation for growth in discipleship. I realize accomplishing that goal means making many connections with people, but just think about it. That would mean that a congregation would almost double in size every year. I say almost because inevitably a number of people leave for some reason. 

So, let’s say there is 50% annual growth because everyone of the congregation is wholly committed and actively engaged in the mission of birthing new disciples.

So, a congregation starts 2017 with 50 people in it. 

At the end of 2017, it would be at 75.

At the end of 2018, it would be at 112.

At the end of 2019, it would be at 168 and possibly looking at planting a new congregation.

And this is not transfer growth. This is true kingdom growth. Of those 168, 118 are new followers of Jesus. That means 70% of the congregation came into a life-altering relationship with Jesus through someone in that congregation. That’s a great number!

That’s the possibility. At when that is happening, ain’t no one talking about decline.

But it requires absolute commitment to the mission.

But is it there?