About a year ago, I was praying and reading and studying through some leadership challenges and content decisions for the upcoming year of ministry for the college ministry I lead. I was in my good introverted routine of waking up early in the morning to be by myself to read, pray, and listen for about 90 minutes. Then I would go on a run to process, pray, and listen to a sermon or two on podcast.
At the time I was reading through Building A Discipling Culture and listening to series of lectures given by Mike Breen, the author. It is just one of those books that collides with your life at the right time in such a way that you know you will never be the same again.
If you are a minister, let alone a Christian, I’m sure you have (like me) wrestled with the difficulties and challenges of making disciples who make disciples – mature Christians who don’t just survive but even thrive and go on to reproduce and multiply. Breen presents not just a theology of discipleship but also holistic Biblical vehicle for transmitting the discipleship principles Jesus taught in such simple and yet compelling way. I’m sure he is not the first or the last author to do this with discipleship, but his work connected so many scattered dots in my brain. I could see exponential potential for discipleship spreading like a virus through our church and ministry.
Needless to say, I was loving every minute of it. God’s spirit was downloading a renewed passion and vision for discipleship and mission. I was encouraged, challenged, overwhelmed, and committed. I was certain this was the direction our ministry should head. (By the way, the endorphins that this kind of revelation releases are incredibly helpful in fueling early morning long-distance runs.)
On one particular morning, my run and lecture were both about to end. (I love it when I time those things right.) I was running down a hill with only about .3 miles left to my house. The lecture I was listening to ended with prayer and then went into a Q and A time. It sounded and felt like the audio guy had just forgot to turn off the record button, because there was no audio from the audience, and Mike was answering questions I couldn’t even hear. I was gliding down a hill, almost home, half-listening to Mike answer unspoken questions, half-dreaming about the next year in ministry, when it happened. I heard Mike give an answer to an unheard question, and it stopped me dead in my tracks.
Here is what he said that left me on my knees, fighting back the tears, at the bottom of that hill:
“Well, the reason your church is not making disciples is probably because you have never been discipled yourself.”
Oh my, I think that’s me. I don’t know if I have ever been discipled by someone.
I tried to shake it off, to justify it, to excuse it.
…I had been taught the fundamentals of faith by many wonderful Sunday school teachers.
…I had been invested in (more than I deserved) by great youth workers and ministers.
…I had been taught by some truly great men and women of God in college and seminary.
…I had worked in ministry for more than 15 years and was trained and led by great men and women.
…I was a fairly competent teacher, communicator, and student of God’s word.
…I had been immersed in several committed communities where intense vulnerability, learning, and growing took place.
I felt so guilty for even questioning whether I had really been discipled. Wasn’t I acting like an overindulged, overeducated kid pointing his finger at past failures to justify present predicaments?
But the question simply would not go away.
Have I been discipled in any shape or form similar to the way Jesus discipled?
What it boiled down to for me was this: no person had ever looked me in eyes, said, “Follow me,” and then challenged me to go and do likewise. No one had ever invited me intentionally into to his life and said, “Imitate me.”
I have been in plenty of Bible studies.
I have been in more worship services than I can count.
I have a graduate degree in theology.
But no one had ever called me to be their disciple.
Maybe it is just semantics. But maybe it is not. As I processed this devastating and humbling conclusion with one of my oldest friends, he helped show me that many teachers and friends have all played important discipleship roles in my life, and that is true. I am grateful for the diverse, quilted pattern of my spiritual formation.
But the truth still haunted me. I had no spiritual father at that time in my life. I was not intentionally being discipled by anyone, nor was I personally discipling anyone else with the clearly defined goal of them going on to disciple someone else. Sure, I was teaching, preaching, leading, and investing in people, but I was merely hoping some of them would go and do the same.
I was modeling what had been done for me — teaching, preaching, leading at a distance or from a stage with no intentionality or expectations but instead just a hope that somehow, in the end, it might help produce a mature follower of Christ.
First Corinthians 4:15 puts the discipleship dilemma that many of us face this way: “You have 10,000 teachers, but very few fathers.”
I have had many great teachers (and/or guardians) but very few fathers who were willing to say, “Follow me; Imitate me,” and then commission me to go out and do the same. Lots of people were willing to disperse information, but very few invited imitation.
So I did the same. I became a teacher to many but a father to few. And with the select few I did let in, I was too scared to say, “Imitate me,” and even more scared to challenge them unapologetically to go and do likewise.
Some say the first step in solving a problem is admitting there is one. If that’s true, then the day my morning run became a walk (in more ways than one) was my first step toward solving the discipleship dilemma that our ministry was facing.
How can we expect leaders to disciple if they have never been discipled themselves?
One year later, my morning runs are getting longer, and the distances are getting shorter, but I am happy to have made some important strides in discipleship. I have sought a spiritual father to meet with me, invest in me, and open up his life for examination and imitation. I have humbled myself to actively learn and implement new ways of thinking about discipleship and mission. I have called my own disciples who are getting ready to call their own disciples and multiply my investment in them.
Is it perfect? Far from it. But I am confident we are making strides in the right direction. It is my hope that the young men and women who come through our ministry will be able to say two things with absolute certainty about their time at our church:
1. I was discipled.
2. I made disciples.