Over the years of being a pastor, reading the Bible, and studying the discipleship strategy of Jesus, I’ve always thought we made discipleship too complicated. I’ve heard pastors make theological excuses for struggling to multiply disciples by saying, “You can’t measure spiritual growth.” On one hand, that is true. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can help us grow and produce fruit that multiplies the kingdom harvest. I totally agree. On the other hand, we must look at Jesus and recognize that he intentionally discovered (called), developed (discipled), and then deployed (sent) the twelve disciples. How many church leaders establish rhythms of doing the same? Too few, I think.
One of the great hermeneutical (a fancy seminary word to describe how we translate the Bible) teachings I received at Seminary was interpreting obscure Scripture, such as prophecy in Daniel or Revelation, in light of clear-cut teachings, such as justification by grace through faith. Said simply, we should not build deep theological principles based on obscure Scriptures. I love this teaching!
Yet, it has always amazed me that the clear way in which Jesus discovered, developed, and deployed His disciples has, almost subconsciously, been dismissed as, “Oh, that’s just the way Jesus did it in a first-century Jewish context. We do it differently today.” I get it. Our culture is very different from the culture of first-century Israel under Roman occupation and oppression. Nonetheless, I think we miss something significant if we roundly dismiss the simple discipleship practice of Jesus and the impact it had on the explosive growth of the early church. It's almost like hermeneutically jumping to complex theologies and missing the simplicity of the way Jesus multiplied disciples. Jesus’ approach sure impacted Peter, Paul, and the Mary’s (sorry, I couldn’t resist) in the way they trusted the Spirit, raised up leaders who were filled with character and ability to teach, and started churches that started churches.
I love alliteration. It helps the brain remember. I ran across the 3-D Discipleship Model of Jesus from a number of leaders. I may have heard it at a conference years ago. I forgot who said it. I’m pretty sure it came from the Holy Spirit as a pneumonic handle to make Jesus’ discipleship model sticky.
Jesus discovered and called the disciples. “Hey, you—Andrew, Peter, James, John—come
follow me. Come learn how I do life. Come learn my rhythms. Come learn to fish for men. I see something in you. I’ve got plans for you. Come follow me.” There is a lot of the story that we don’t know. What was it about Jesus that led them to leave everything behind to follow Him? Did they have a deep relationship with Jesus prior to His formal ministry? I don’t know. What I do know is that Jesus was a respected Rabbi who saw something in the disciples that other Rabbis had never seen. They were an unlikely group to be discovered. Fishermen. Tax collectors. Sinners.
Church Leader, there are unlikely leaders waiting to be discovered in your context. They’ve been overlooked by others called pastors and church workers. Will you overlook them, too? They’ve wanted to be a part of the mission, but they’ve never been asked. Some of them have amazing potential, but they’ve come to believe that the best way they can advance the kingdom is through ushering or greeting (no disrespect to these needed Sunday hospitality roles).
You may say, “But I’ve never been trained to have these conversations.” Don’t worry, the Holy Spirit will guide you. Simply hear their story. Hear their passions. They are so gifted. Then simply ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom on how their gifts can be developed and deployed to expand God’s kingdom. Every baptized member of the body of Christ is worthy of being discovered. Please notice them.
Develop is another word for discipleship. Jesus deeply developed the twelve disciples for three years. They got front-row seats to all of Jesus’ work! Furthermore, Jesus sent them to do what He did during the course of His ministry (Matthew 10 and Luke 9). To put it in our context, they preached while under Jesus’ supervision. Jesus certainly taught the crowds, but He reserved His deepest and clearest words for His disciples. John 13 through 17 gives us a sneak peek into the depth of Jesus' truth and love for His disciples.
How do you develop others? Bring the person (or people) you’ve discovered into your world. Let them see the way you do life. Talk about the joys and sorrows of ministry. Ask them deep theological questions. Invite them to help you do ministry.
Two words of caution to the pastor.
One, you can’t develop everyone in your congregation. Don’t feel guilty because you can’t. Jesus only deeply discipled 12 and up to 70. No matter the size of your congregation (unless it is twelve or less), you’re going to need teams of leaders, coaches, and potentially directors to help you develop others. The ULC can help you set up this structure through our year-long cohort, which assists congregations in establishing a leadership development culture and system.
Two, development is not a program. Granted, you may need to establish a rhythm of meetings and even classes to aid your development work. Yet deep discipleship is a cultural change that the pastor must deeply embrace and embody. Start by humbly admitting your fear or insecurities about the responsibilities of developing others. That is a perfect posture. Humbly confess you’re going to need Jesus and His Spirit to work and speak through you, or you’re really going to mess things up. Pastor, you can change your culture by simply asking for help from people gifted differently from you in diverse ways. Trust me, they will be honored that you asked them for help and desired to share your life with them.
This is my favorite and least favorite part of 3-D discipleship. I love seeing people sent to use their gifts. Yet I’m also sad when proximity changes. I’ve learned to embrace the kingdom tension of deep connection in the present, with the understanding that a deployment will take place at some point in the future.
I’ve always been struck by the humanity of Jesus’ story. Jesus shared all of Himself with the twelve disciples for three years. Everything He received from the Father Jesus made known to His disciples.
Listen to the humanity of Jesus in John 15:15-16:
15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant, does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
The fuel of the disciples deployment would be their proximity to Jesus as His chosen friends. Their fruit bearing would be entirely in response to Jesus’ discovering, developing, and filling them with His Spirit. I imagine there was a part of Jesus and the disciples that was a bit sad after the three years were over. Things would change. The disciples would be sent with the Holy Spirit, and they would not be as relationally close. Yet the season of development with Jesus would be the catalyst to lead the twelve disciples to develop and deploy others, just like Jesus did with them. The mission was too important to hoard those in need of deployment.
To close, I would like to offer two next steps in line with 3-D discipleship.
1. Discover and develop and dream with a team.
I’m always amazed at the number of leaders (mostly pastors) who do not have a team they meet with weekly in one-on-one and group settings. Many say, “We’re too small of a church.
We don’t have enough money to pay for staff.” Who said anything about paying anyone anything? Our church has a paid staff, but there are dozens of leaders and coaches voluntarily using their gifts to advance the kingdom. You may have to get creative when organizing meetings to develop and dream with your team. Regardless, please meet with them. One reason your church may be small is that many of your potential leaders have left when they realized “the pastor pretty much does everything around here.” I’m sorry if that one hurt.
2. Cast vision for discipleship deployment.
Create this expectation from the very beginning. Some will stay in your context. Others will be sent to help existing ministries or start new ones. Either way, the kingdom of God will expand. That is our ultimate goal and joy.
Let the ULC know if we can serve your 3-D discipleship plan in any way. The fields are ripe unto the harvest. Pray to the Lord of the harvest for workers. They are there waiting for development and deployment right in your congregation.