Discipleship has become a buzzword in many Christian circles lately. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact it’s a great thing. Jesus commands all of His followers to make disciples in what’s known as the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20. Sadly, we have fallen away from this being a commandment to all believers. We expect the people who work for our churches to teach the Word to everyone else, leaving the rest of us no responsibility to make disciples whatsoever. We have replaced what is our duty by passing the job on to the staff of our churches. This is not only lazy, but I would argue that is disobedient and therefore sinful.
However, we must be careful in this. Making disciples and teaching others God’s Word IS a command. In fact, I would go so far as to say that teaching the Bible to our disciples is one of the most significant eternal investments we can make as believers. But we can’t forget one important thing… It’s not our greatest command. In Mark 12:28-30 we see someone approach Jesus and ask Him about that very issue. He says to Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28 ESV). Jesus answers him by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4 and saying that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He then goes on to say that we are to also love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves. We see that God’s greatest command is based on love.
If the goal of making disciples were to just teach the Bible then we were right by passing this job off to our pastors. After all, they often know much more about the Bible than we do and could easily do this Bible teaching from the pulpit. But teaching God’s Word is only part of the equation. Making disciples, just like anything else, needs to be founded on love. Love of God and love of our disciples. This love is built through our growing relationship with them. This is an unrealistic expectation for 1 pastor to have with a whole congregation. No one would ever even suggest that it would be possible for him to have a deep relationship with everyone who attends his church.
Our initial goal should be to spend time, show love, and serve them in any way we can. This will show our disciples that we value them. A byproduct of this love will be a strong relationship. Now you don’t have a relationship that is just you preaching at them. It is a relationship that is built on love.
If we start with loving our disciples, caring for them, and being their friend they will know that what we teach and tell them matters. It matters to them and becomes real because they know we care about them. They know what we say to them is in love. It is God’s Word that we want them to know and love the same way that we do.
Now we’re not just guessing at what we want to teach them because we know them. We know their struggles. We know their interests. We know their victories and we know their failures. We know their stories. We know who they are. We know them well enough to show them that God’s Word is relevant to their lives. We can show them that everything they are going through is addressed in the Bible. We can show them that it’s not just some study, it’s a love letter written to them from God.
I think one of the reasons that people want to jump right into teaching is because at the end of the day it’s easier. It’s not less work, but it definitely has a systematic formula. You teach them a passage or section of scripture and then call it a day. This isn’t so when you invest the time that it takes to formulate a loving friendship. There is no life-on-life with the Bible study driven model. Living life with someone takes time. We see this very clearly in the life of Jesus. Many Bible scholars have said that Jesus spent up to 85% of His final 3 years with His 12 disciples. He spent time with them because He loved them. He spent time with them because He didn’t see them as a project; He saw them as an eternal investment. He saw them as the ones who would carry on His message long after He was gone.
If I were to ask 100 people, “what do Christians do?” The answer I’m going to get 90-100 times is “read the Bible, pray, and go to church”. While these are definitely things that we do to connect and communicate with the God we love, these aren’t our primary actions. If you made a chart of my time usage from month to month these actions would only make up a small fraction of my time. So why are we defined by them? In John 13:34-35 we see that Jesus says that we will be known as His disciples by the way we love one another. Jesus says that our Bible study and prayer times don’t define us. He says that we are known and defined by our love for one another. This should be true of our discipleship relationships as well.
All of our earthly relationships should be a reflection of our love of Jesus. And because of this love we will want to obey the commands that He has given us. This of course includes the command to make disciples. We should begin by loving them, and striving for them to love Jesus in the same way that we do. We show them His love by teaching His Word and sharing His Gospel. Only then will our disciples want to start the cycle themselves and begin making their own disciples. They will inevitably repeat what you model in front of them. If you model a Bible study, they will start a Bible study. If you love and emotionally invest in them, they will do the same for their disciples. I’ve turned this idea into the chart below:
Why do we make disciples in the first place?
Let me be clear, I think that teaching the Bible and sharing theological truths are some of the most needed yet most neglected areas of discipleship. I’m simply suggesting that this isn’t WHY we disciple, nor should it be the place that we start. We start with love so that the relationship can grow. The transference of knowledge is what we are working toward, which is why it’s important to begin the relationship with the end in mind.
Making disciples can be intimidating. Fortunately we have ministries like DownLine and DownLine Online that can teach you all you need to know to get started when making a disciple. They have even released the DownLine Builder, a customizable curriculum that takes the guesswork out of the Bible study side of the relationship. Loving them, however, is going to take intentional time and effort on your part. There is no formula, system, or curriculum for that. This is why it is called giving your life away for the sake of others. This is what Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 when he says, “We cared so much for you, and you became so dear to us, that we were willing to give our lives for you when we gave you God's message. (CEV)”
At the end of any discipleship relationship I have been in I want them to be able to say, “Jeff taught me a lot about the Bible. He also taught me what I need to know to be a successful Christian man. He did all of this by showing me the love of Jesus Christ.” That’s a success in my book. That’s what Jesus did with His 12 disciples, and that’s exactly what I want my disciples to do with their lives and the men disciple as well.