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Disciple Making is for People Not Processes

Discipleship – it’s a big word in Christian circles. In fact, we toss it about pretty recklessly nowadays. The first time I heard about discipleship was in college and it was a nebulous term at best. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” in Matthew 28:19 But how do we do that? It’s been up to the Church for the last two thousand years to figure that out – with varying degrees of success.

Imagine you were one of the first disciples in the first century. There’s no manual for discipleship, Jesus didn’t leave a checklist or guide like, “How to Make a Disciple in Ten Easy Steps”. The only thing you’ve got is the Old Testament, eleven guys who spent three years with Jesus and an event called Pentecost that unleashed something the world had never seen. Where’s the blueprint? Where’s the manual? How do you know if you’ve accomplished the commission Jesus set out in Matthew 28?

The Model is a Person

Paul of Tarsus is arguably the greatest evangelist in history and a prolific writer whose letters to the churches of the first century comprise two-thirds of the New Testament. Much of the foundation of our faith, theological understanding and discipleship tools come from Paul’s writings. So, it makes sense to take a look at how he discipled people new to the Christian faith, right? He sums it up in a single sentence from 1 Corinthians 11:1, “You are to imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Um, what? Where’s the checklist? Where’s the guide? Where are the do’s and don’ts? Paul certainly did outline do’s and don’ts in response to specific events or issues, but when it comes to how to actually make a disciple, Paul simply says, “Watch me and do what I do.” This is an almost outlandish statement that I think few church leaders would be willing to make today. But, it wasn’t a boast of how great a Christian Paul was or how tight he was with the resurrected Jesus – it was a statement that conveyed an understanding of the most fundamental aspect of making a disciple: relationship.

Paul was in relationship with most of the people to whom he wrote (the Romans being a notable exception). His letters were addressed to churches he helped establish addressing issues with and communicating theology to people he knew personally. He did not hold big tent meetings, leading dozens to Jesus and then hand them a discipleship guide book. Instead, he entered into relationship with them – messy, frustrating, joyous relationship. In that, he follows the discipleship method Jesus himself used: gather people around you and be an example to them. It’s not as clean as a checklist, but it creates disciples who then have the confidence to go out and make disciples, themselves declaring, “Watch me and do what I do.”

If that seems intimidating, it’s understandable. Most of us in the western Church have been taught that we need to make disciples by bringing them to church, or taking them through some kind of program or study to impart spiritual information. Our disciple-making “muscles” have atrophied because of this model. The responsibility for making a disciple now belongs to a program or process or local church leadership. As a result, new believers are often left in the hands a system (often a self-guided one) rather than a relationship. One of the reasons YouTube is so huge is because most people learn better by watching someone do something.

Not a Method

But we, in the western Church, entrust our sacred charge of making disciples to an impersonal program, process, system or guide that way we can go and live our lives how we want to, abdicating responsibility in making disciples and absolving ourselves of any kind of real accountability in living a life that people could imitate. Then, when our new converts to the Christian faith fall on their faces, it’s either their fault for not being devoted enough or the process’ fault for being inadequate – nowhere in there is there any kind of personal responsibility on us for helping someone grow in their faith. This is a far cry from Paul, who said, “Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?” He took the discipleship process very personally because he was their model.

This moment in history has the potential to see the greatest harvest of souls the world has ever seen. But if we are to truly fulfill the Great Commission, we must bring these souls into relationship with mature believers and not just hand them a “How to Make a Disciple in Ten Easy Steps” guide book or simply take them to church and hand them off to programs and processes. We, as a Church, need to seize this opportunity to completely reform our model of discipleship – move from a program/process model to a relationship model. It’s what Jesus used to turn eleven average men into fiery world-changers. It’s what Paul used to establish the first communities of faith on multiple continents. It’s what we need to use if we want to finish the Great Commission. But are we willing to sacrifice one of the biggest “sacred cows” in our western Church? Can we let go of hiding behind processes and methods and embrace the truly transformational model of messy, dynamic, raw, powerful relationship? The world is depending on us to do just that. The lost souls of this world are longing for connection to the God who made them and loves them above all else. Will we, as believers, step out from behind the processes and embrace the mess of a fallen world to bring the Kingdom into the hearts of men? That’s what Jesus did – seems only right to follow His example, doesn’t it?

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