4 Ways Jesus Made Disciples–Which One Do You Do Best? (And Which One Are You Missing?)

“How big is your church?” “How big is your youth group?” “How big is your organization?” It’s often one of the first questions we ask to try to understand context. And, of course, it leads to lots of controversy. Should we listen to the 15,000 member mega-church pastor because the size of his church establishes his success? Or, should we listen to the pastor whose network has planted hundreds of house churches? And, most importantly, where does real disciple-making happen?

(Photo by satty4u at www.sxc.hu)

(Photo by satty4u at www.sxc.hu)

That is, after all, the goal: disciples. It was Jesus’ final command to His disciples, and it’s the churches primary responsibility. I heard Jim Brown put it this way: “BMW makes cars. Coca Cola makes soft drinks. The church makes disciples. It’s what we do.”

And we try to do it in a lot of different ways. One pastor of a large church, while teaching a class on preaching, told us his goal is always “More and better disciples. Not just more, not just better.” Others have told me that they have a ‘disciple-making church,’ focused on teaching God’s word and equipping believers. Some, however, scoff at the idea of large churches truly making disciples. “No one is actually discipled in a large group,” they say. Smaller is always better–after all, that’s what Jesus did, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

I’ve taken a closer look at that lately. Often, when we think of Jesus as disciple-maker, we think of the disciples. And by the disciple, we mean the twelve that Jesus called to himself on the mountain. But I wonder if we need a more nuanced understanding of disciple-making. I’d imagine that the 70 Jesus sent out on mission considered themselves disciples. And the ‘disciples’ Jesus walks with on the road to Emmaus (in Luke 24) aren’t part of the twelve. In fact, I’d even imagine that the crowds that followed Jesus were discipled by Him in some way. I have a hard time imagining Jesus ever not making disciples. But, of course, there are differences in how He related with each group.

  • The multitudes: We learn a lot about Jesus by how He related to the crowds–to the thousands (thousands!) who followed him around, looking for a bite to eat, a miracle, and maybe some interesting teaching. Jesus loved the crowds, had compassion on the crowds, fed the crowds, and taught the crowds. He also used the crowds as ‘practice’ and ‘exercise’ for his close disciples. And when faced between pleasing the crowds and doing what His Father sent Him to do, He rejected the crowds (John 6). He also often withdrew from the crowds with His disciples. Nonetheless, after his resurrection, He appeared to over 500 believers–disciples. Jesus both loved the crowds and rejected the crowds. I wonder what role ‘crowds’ need to play in our disciple-making philosophy . . . 
  • The 70: It’s interesting to try to imagine Jesus’ disciple-making relationship with the 70. The Bible clearly describes them as ‘disciples.’ Yet it would have been impossible for Jesus to spend significant one-on-one or small group time with each of them over His three years of public ministry. Somehow, however, He discipled them. He sent them on mission (Luke 10). He walked the road with them (Luke 24). He debriefed with them (Luke 10). And He taught them, again and again. They were neither part of the crowds, nor the 12, but they were disciples, sent on mission. Do you have disciples around you that fit in this category? Those you have led, taught, and sent, on a larger scale?
  • The 12: The gospels give us interesting clues about the closeness Jesus shared with this group. In Luke 6, we see that Jesus prayed all night about this choice. It was clearly a significant decision for Him. These weren’t disciples who chose Him; He called them out of the larger group into a closer relationship. They had nicknames (“Thomas, called the Twin,” “Sons of Thunder.”). They had hard talks (“You of little faith…”). They failed and succeeded with Jesus. They did ministry with Jesus. They walked the roads, sat around campfires, and soaked in Jesus’ presence. And it was these twelve whom Jesus specifically equipped to lead the early church. This was a level of disciple-making distinctly different from mere teaching, or once-a-week meetings, or disciple-making ‘on the run.’ Jesus spent focused, extended, intentional time, even when it came at the cost of other parts of His ministry. He knew that in three years He would leave His Kingdom in their hands. He multiplied Himself into them.
  • The 3: Peter, James, and John. Other than Jesus, are there any people more central to the early gospel story? It’s Peter who becomes the ‘de facto’ leader of the early church. James is one of its first martyrs. And John is the aged Elder who calls the church to cling to truth and love, late into the first century. No other disciples have more impact than these three (with the potential exception of Paul–who is another story . . .). Notice the special moments they share with Jesus. It’s Peter who steps out in faith to walk on the water–and then sinks. It’s Peter who first calls Jesus by His real title (“You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”). And it’s Peter whom Jesus chastises with the label of “Satan” when Peter tries to stand in the way of the cross. It’s James and John who ask, with their mother’s help, for positions of power in Christ’s Kingdom. And it’s James and John who plead for the opportunity to call down fire on the Samaritan village (Maybe they had done their quiet time in 2 Kings 1 that morning?!). Perhaps most significantly, it’s Peter, James, and John who are with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration and the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus invites them into His moments of greatest earthly glory, and greatest earthly agony–the high and the low. It’s not surprising, then, that these men lead the early church. Jesus discipled and mentored them at a level that no one else experienced.

When Jesus gave the command in Matthew 28 to “Go and make disciples,” He gave the command to all who consider themselves disciples. He expected it to be a group effort. Some find themselves more naturally engaging the multitudes, some the 70, some the 12, and some the 3. As we follow the gospel story into the book of Acts, we continue to see these types of groups celebrated. We learn that thousands came to Christ at Peter’s first sermon. No one said, “Hey, that’s too many people in a church. We can’t disciple you all. Some of you have to un-convert!” But we do see Peter, James, and John–and later Paul–finding smaller groups of men and women to disciple at a deeper level. In Ephesus, Paul gathers 12 around him to be trained for leadership. Perhaps Timothy and Titus are Paul’s version of the 3. We find that no matter how large the church became, its leaders were always gathering around themselves those who needed a deeper level of discipleship and training. We’d be wise to do the same.

My guess is that each of us find certain parts of disciple-making easier than others. And that’s ok. But this last part is for those of us who lead entire ministries: Do our disciple-making ministries reflect the priorities of Jesus? Do we have a place for crowds–where multitudes of people can come and hear the good news of the gospel? Do we have our version of the 70, where disciples are being equipped to be sent on mission? Do we have a close group, maybe 8 to 12 people, whom we are equipping for genuine leadership? And do we have 2 or 3 that we are sharing everything with–the highs, the lows, and the daily–for the sake of mentoring them for ministry?

This type of intentionality takes real work–real focus. Maybe that’s why Jesus was so good at it . . .

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