Jesus made it clear that we are in the business of making disciples. We call it the Great Commission, not the Great Suggestion. But if that’s true, why don’t we prioritize disciple making? What’s keeping us from following this command, and what can we do to overcome those barriers?
Let’s get strategic help from a guy named Clyde Beatty. Clyde had a dangerous job—he was a lion tamer. His career began around the time of the first World War and continued past an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Many of his colleagues died in the ring but Beatty made use of a simple tool that preserved his life and livelihood. His tool was a chair.
Beatty kept a pistol strapped to his side but it was the chair that controlled the lion. He knew that when a chair is in front of a lion’s face, the lion will try to focus on all the legs at the same time. Because there are so many options, the lion’s focus is divided and it becomes confused. Instead of attacking the man with the chair, the lion freezes.
When it comes to discipleship, how often do you find yourself in the same position as the lion? You want to dig your claws into the task of making disciples but you end up confused by programs, curricula, and philosophies. You feel like you can’t focus or you’re focusing on the wrong things, so you take less action and make less progress.
The key for the lion—and for us—is to ignore the distractions and focus on one goal. Here are three common factors that can distract us and the goal we need to focus on if we want to really make a difference in discipling others.
The Distraction of Guilt
A common parenting pitfall is experienced by the adult who feels no moral authority because when he was a teenager, he did the very things he is warning his children against. It goes something like this: “How can I tell my kids not to smoke pot when I lit up every weekend in high school?” Or, “How can I teach sexual purity to my children when I became pregnant as a teenager?”
These parents feel guilty. They feel inadequate. This is unfortunate because parents are not charged with raising children to behave like they behaved when they were teenagers. Parents are charged with raising children to become who God has called them to be.
The same is true of making disciples. Some of us feel inadequate because our lives are far from perfect. But the gospel thrives in people who admit their shortcomings. The apostle Paul wrote, “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
If guilt and inadequacy are distracting you from making disciples, realize your goal is not to make clones of yourself. The goal of a disciple-maker is to develop followers of Jesus. Focus on Jesus, not your shortcomings.
The Distraction of Inexperience
Sadly, many Christians have not experienced disciple-building relationships. No one ever said to us, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Since we developed spiritually without mentors, we are not inclined to mentor others.
This is not just a distraction; it is an obstacle. It truly is difficult to lead others in paths we have not walked before. But neglecting discipleship because of inexperience is passing this problem to the next generation instead of correcting it today.
Instead of focusing on the support and help we didn’t receive, we can focus on supporting and helping others. It’s never too late to do the right thing. Inexperienced discipleship is still discipleship. What would you give to have grown up with a mentor or two? The next generation likely feels the same need for these relationships.
The Distraction of Programs
In an article titled, “How Do We Make Disciples Who Look Like Jesus?” (Christian Standard, July 8, 2007), Randy Gariss pointed out that our churches look more like small universities than they look like the first-century church. We build classrooms better than we build community. Discipleship is relationship based while our culture prefers programs.
Pastors (like me) love programs because they come with lead measures that can be, well, measured. We can take attendance. We know if participation is up or down. We strategize for growth. Programs are vehicles for education, training, and service. They allow us to use spiritual gifts in our congregation and they get us out of the church building and into the community. Programs support the mission of our churches.
However, while programs often accomplish certain objectives, only relationships can help us carry out the Great Commission. “Follow the Rabbi, drink in his words,” goes a Jewish proverb, “and be covered with the dust of his feet.” Jesus made disciples, not converts, members, or pupils.
Discipleship was not optional to Jesus. It was not for the higher-level members who participated in increasingly more demanding programs or had perfect attendance. Discipleship was for everyone. The first century church did not contain saved people who didn’t know about discipleship; it contained disciples who knew they were saved.
Focus on One Thing
If programs or inexperience or guilt are distracting you, if you find yourself like a lion with these chair legs waving in your face, then remember this: focus on one thing. The obvious focus should be Jesus. Discipleship is all about Jesus, not my guilt, not your experience, and not even your church’s programs.
Have you ever had a task you absolutely had to get done? What happened? You got it done. Making progress is about committing to a specific task. You have the ability to focus. You just need to choose where to direct your efforts.
But even when we focus on Jesus we can complicate things. We know a healthy disciple will possess knowledge about Jesus and display servanthood like Jesus and practice spiritual disciplines like Jesus. Why not study a book of the Bible, participate in service projects, and practice fasting and prayer? It’s tempting to overwhelm yourself and your learner with multiple goals, but it’s better to focus on what you do best and share that skill with another.
You may be the kind of mentor who trains parents to be better in times of conflict. You may teach new Christians how to properly read and apply the Scriptures. Perhaps you understand blended family dynamics and can share your insight and experience. You might be able to share financial practices that ease family stress and promote generosity. Each of these life skills points us to Jesus’ call to be disciples. You will not teach all of these things to everyone, but you can teach one of them to someone.
Take Smart Steps
The Christian life is not a sprint. It is not even a marathon. It is a series of marathons. In order to complete multiple marathons you have to take a lot of steps. Don’t be paralyzed by possibilities. Instead, take smart steps such as identifying your value as a mentor, building a genuine friendship, and investing yourself in another person. It really is that simple.
No one is demanding that you be perfect like Jesus. You just have to point people to Jesus in one specific way. There’s no need to hang on to guilt or feel inadequate because of your experience. You don’t need your church to create a program. Think about it. What is your favorite part of living the Christian life? Who is your favorite new Christian? Now go and share your favorite thing with them!
Matt Johnson serves as pastor with Levittown (Pennsylvania) Christian Church.