The call to discipleship almost wrecked our lives. It seemed so illogical. Recently married, my wife and I were settling down and enjoying our first jobs, with our first child on the way. We were both raised in Christian homes, attended Christian churches, and met at a Christian college. We assumed our upbringing was all part of the preparation to return and do the same. But Jesus’ call to discipleship was moving us forward.
Neither of us knew a foreign language nor were we fond of international travel. We had never visited another country (with the exception of crossing into Canada) and international cuisine wasn’t part of our culture. Foreign friends were minimal and missions had never crossed our minds; yet the call of discipleship was moving us onward.
What seemed so illogical about the call was that it would strip us of everything we had grown accustomed to do. We were familiar with ministry culture. I was raised in a minister’s home. We had grown to love the churches and people we served. Our professional ministry skills came quite naturally. Yet the call to carry our cross would remove us from nearly everything that had become familiar.
And that is exactly what happened. God’s call upon our lives meant carrying the cross to another country and culture. We were not alone, however. Others had heard the Lord’s invitation, and we were grateful to be included among them. It wasn’t easy. Honestly, it was often quite difficult. But the process of losing that which had become so commonplace to see that which was so compelling was crucial to our commitment to make disciples. Our livelihood depended upon it.
While that process took place many years ago, it remains a powerful reminder of the simplicity of our call. We were blessed to be accompanied by a gifted team of coworkers serving in a country hungry for the gospel. The Lord’s blessing was paramount; without it we would have been paralyzed. But God honored our feeble efforts and after years of a disciple-making focus, the results are clear. Self-financed, self-governed, self-multiplying, and self-correcting churches continue to exercise increased influence in their communities today. In addition, a national missionary movement emerged that is sending its own to unreached people groups within her borders as well as other countries of the world. The urgency of that work is evident today as the country has basically closed its doors to foreign missionaries. What would be invested by us has been done.
So what are the takeaways? What principles can be drawn from our experience to guide disciple makers through the uncertain and shifting times of the twenty-first century? Here are a few.
A Great Start
Let’s begin with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I know of no greater starting point in discipleship than to spend extended periods of time saturating oneself with these three chapters. Here’s a great question to ask upfront: “Am I a disciple worth reproducing?” We teach what we know; we reproduce who we are. The Beatitudes, the cultivation of who we are in secret, developing right relationships with friends and enemies, a worry-free life focused on the kingdom, and seeing life clearly through the images of two gates, two trees, two fruits, and two foundations are critical early on. We must decide if we are in the game to be hearers and doers of the Word, or hearers only.
During an earlier phase of our mission experience, a popular leadership course with potential for exponential growth became available. It was well done and made for reproduction. We were tempted to use it with new believers and we did on several occasions. But we soon learned that cultivating leadership skills without a clear call to Christlike character could be devastating to a movement. We quickly changed directions. We are human beings first, not human doers.
A Great Resource
I remember a godly man telling me several decades ago, “We are becoming experts on books about the Bible rather than on the Bible itself.” How self-fulfilling those words have become! It’s tempting to rely on the great books and resources others have produced about the Bible instead of on the Bible itself. Many are very good. We have used a few ourselves. But over the course of time we have discovered there is nothing like the Bible for producing self-feeding disciples.
Many of the great books and resources once available in the country we served have disappeared from bookstores and are severely cost-prohibitive. Even the Bible is a scarcity today. But those nurtured by the Word have not had to endure the difficult process of weaning themselves from extra biblical material. Instead, they continue to feed themselves. Simple questions to ask any texts for devotional reading may include: (1) What does this teach about God? (2) What does this teach about humankind? (3) What should I be doing about it? and, (4) Am I doing it? Questions like these can make for a rich daily devotional experience in God’s Word.
A Great Model
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). Notice how many generations Paul aspired to influence. He was constantly investing himself in others who would in turn do the same thing. There were Paul and Barnabas, Paul and Silas, Paul and Timothy, Paul and Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, just to name a few. And they continued the process.
How many generations do you aspire to influence for Christ? I am told the Amazon river meets the Atlantic Ocean with such force it spews out 1.4 million gallons of water a second and pushes fresh water 60 miles into the sea. Would it not be great if our goals for multiplying disciples had the same impact generationally?
A Great Command
“And teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Only once in the New Testament did Jesus tell his disciples to teach others. Notice the aim. It was not to teach others everything he taught, but to teach them to obey. Obedience to the teachings of Christ must be our target.
The first sin of the Bible involved seeking knowledge over obedience, and it continues to be a stumbling block today. If we are not careful, we can fill notebooks full of information with biblical knowledge but come up short in biblical obedience.
CHAT groups were a tool we often used in making disciples. The letters in CHAT stand for: Check your progress (18 accountability questions shared among two or three people), Hear the Word (discussing what the Lord has impressed upon you based on Scripture the group has agreed to read together, generally 25-30 chapters), Act on it (deciding how you will obey what you read, writing it down, and holding one another accountable), and Tell others (each individual praying for and working on a short list of names for evangelism). This is pure Bible lived out in mutual accountability.
Our 3/3rds groups provided another simple format for group Bible study divided into three equal time portions: Looking Back (reviewing successes and failures from the past week, including accountability from the previous lesson), Looking Up (reading a new story or text of the Bible two times and asking the following questions after each reading: What did you like or dislike? What was difficult to understand? What does this teach about God, humankind, evil, or the evil one? What does it teach about the life God would have us live?), and Looking Forward (asking one another: “How will you apply this? With whom will you share this story? Who could you train to reproduce this group?) These tools and others can be found at the Zume Project website (www.zumeproject.com).
Recently, we met a wonderful Christian family who grows popcorn in the Midwest. They are great at what they do. I understand it takes 280 bushels of seed to sow 1,000 acres, yet at harvest time they reap about 75,000 bushels of corn. That is a 268 percent return, 17 semi-loads a day—even more than the hundred times in Jesus’ parable! Jesus said in John 12:24, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” What power and potential there is in every seed that falls to the ground and dies! What is your vision for disciple making and reproduction in the twenty-first century?
David Linn is senior minister of the Heath Church of Christ in Heath, Ohio. He and his wife, Donna, served with Team Expansion as church planters in Caracas, Venezuela for nearly 30 years. They returned to his home church in 2016 to join the staff while occasionally returning to Venezuela. They have four grown children and two grandchildren.