How Does Making Disciples Really Work?
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“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” You have likely read, memorized, reread, and preached on these verses numerous times! But the key command to “make disciples” can sometimes still feel out of reach or confusing. What does it mean to make a disciple? How do we define what it means to be a disciple? Is a disciple someone who believes in Jesus, comes to church, and volunteers on a ministry team? Or is there more to it? As we look for the answers to these questions, we will look at the first century, the Bible, and even how training works in our day.
Believe it or not, Jesus was not the first person to make disciples. Greek philosophers developed the discipleship paradigm, and the concept spread across the Mediterranean world. It was a training system meant to give students hands-on training so that they could become masters themselves. Even in our day, many trade occupations still use this training paradigm. Trade professionals like electricians, plumbers, painters, welders, and more all have periods of apprenticeship where they train under a master.
Wherever you find discipleship, in first-century Greece or twenty-first-century America, you encounter three distinct stages: Be With the Master, Become Like the Master, and finally, Do What the Master Does. All these stages are necessary, and a disciple can never advance without first going through the earlier stages. This is how we see Jesus engage His disciples throughout the Gospels. Let’s take a look at each stage in turn as we seek to apply this paradigm to our ministries.
1. Be With Jesus
Being with Jesus, our teacher, is the most crucial step in becoming His disciple. This is how Jesus started with His 12. Before Jesus instructed them directly or sent them out to teach and cast out demons, the disciples were just there, watching. They were learning what it meant to be with Jesus. If you are going to be with Jesus consistently, you have to slow down and learn to be present with Him even in the most hectic times. In your life, this is still the first and most essential step. Dallas Willard, one of the most influential voices on spiritual formation in the Twentieth Century, once said, "the first and most basic thing we can and must do is keep God before our minds.” Yet, this most basic task can often be one of the most difficult challenges.
2. Become Like Jesus
Becoming like Jesus is the natural outworking of spending time with Jesus and letting His way shape our own. We have all experienced this in our relationships. The more time you spend with someone, the more you become like them. This is why being with Jesus is so important! You can only become like Jesus once you have spent time with Him. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul claims that looking at Jesus and meditating on Him transforms us into His image more and more. But once again, this is easier said than done. Changing into the image of Jesus means that parts of you have to fall away. You need to adopt His entire way of life - His mission, His understanding of work, marriage, politics, sexuality...everything! You have to give up the parts of yourself that are out of step with the way of Jesus because His way is the one that leads to life. If you want to experience the life of Jesus, you need to adopt the lifestyle of Jesus.
3. Do What Jesus Did
Only when you have started to become like Jesus will you be able to do what Jesus did. If you have not been redeemed by the life that Jesus gives and transformed by the Holy Spirit, you will only ever do good things out of your own effort. Discipleship has been compared with training to run a marathon. You cannot wake up one day and run 26.2 miles. And if you try, you’ll die! Even if you try really, REALLY hard, the effort is not sustainable. Eventually, you will fail, you will get discouraged, and you might even just quit altogether. The same is true when doing the works of Jesus. Without the presence of Jesus changing us into His image, all of your efforts will eventually fall short and leave you wondering what went wrong.
So what does this mean for your ministry? Now that we have covered what discipleship is and what it looks like, let’s get practical. First and foremost, you need to be a disciple yourself. Take time to evaluate how you are doing in your personal walk with Jesus. What are the areas where you struggle? Is being with Jesus an ongoing reality in your life? In what areas of your own life do you need to be "conformed to the image of Jesus"? What are the works of Jesus that you have been putting off? One way to ensure that you’re staying on track is to have a “master-disciple” of Jesus who can lead you – someone who is further along in their faith and can mentor you. Your students need someone to help them progress as disciples of Jesus, and so do you!
Second, be practical with your teaching. Knowing all the right answers on a Bible quiz doesn’t make us good disciples. Knowing the Bible is necessary; it’s how we know who Jesus is and how to be like Him, but don’t forget that knowing the right answers doesn’t always mean knowing the right Person. Teach your students how to be with Jesus, become like Jesus, and do what Jesus did through practices like prayer, fasting, community, and Bible study. Your students need these skills to continue growing as disciples throughout their lives.
Finally, you will never be able to lead your students in discipleship alone. Just like Jesus had many followers but was deeply invested in the twelve, you can only be deeply invested in a handful of people. But that’s how it’s supposed to be! Include the parents of your students in the process. In most cases, they’ll have more influence on your students than you will. Give them the tools they need to be successful as they seek to train their children. Teach your team what it means to engage students in discipleship. Allow them to take ownership of being the primary teacher of a group of students in the ministry. Your students need everyone – you, their parents, and their leaders – to help them become growing disciples of Jesus.
Discipleship is hard, but it’s our mission. You never do this alone; your Master is always with you. Remember how the Great Commission ends, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- What systems or processes for discipleship do you have in your ministry? How do you use them?
- How do you teach your students about discipleship? Do they seem to be living it out? What can you implement from the article above that might help your students?
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