Focus on a Few

By J. Lee Grady:

I’m not against mass evangelism. I’m not criticizing people who organize big meetings. But I’m learning that the best way to impact a large number of people is to focus on a few.

This was Jesus’ method of ministry. Most of his conversations in the Gospels were with His small group of handpicked disciples. Even when He did mass meetings, He used them to instruct the people He was mentoring. For 3.5 years He invested in His closest followers in a deeply personal way—not as an instructor but as a friend. Jesus did not mass-produce legions of followers. He hand-carved a few—and they became the pillars of the early church.

Jesus calls us to do ministry His way—by making disciples. Yet in today’s performance-based culture, we think bigger is better. We put all our money and time into splashy events while ignoring relationships. We want the sensational, not the simple. We crave big meetings, bigger platforms, noisy sermons, hyped-up altar calls and instant results. It may look spectacular on opening night, but the show fades fast.

This shallowness is killing us. Christianity in so many parts of the world is a mile wide and an inch deep because we think faith is best transmitted to people by preachers standing behind pulpits. Preaching is certainly important, but without personal discipleship leaders aren’t formed and Christians don’t develop true character. If this vital relational aspect is overlooked, our faith becomes programmed, superficial and horribly fake.

I’ve changed my priorities as I have grasped this truth. I’m not as interested in flashy conferences or huge crowds as I am in making an indelible mark on people who can then disciple others. And as the Lord has shifted my paradigm, I have become more intentional about making discipleship a part of my daily life. I’ve done this by following what I call the Five “I’s” of Discipleship:

1. Identify. Jesus prayed carefully before selecting those who would travel with Him. Paul selected people like Timothy, Silas, Aquilla and Priscilla to be his ministry companions. Who are you called to disciple? God connects people in discipleship relationships.

2. Invest. Don’t look at discipleship as a program. It must flow out of love and genuine friendship. It is a precious investment of your time into a younger Christian. Paul told the Thessalonians: “We were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8, NASB).

3. Include. One of the ways I disciple young men is by taking them with me on ministry trips. I would have fewer hassles if I traveled alone, but my privacy is not that precious. In the last couple of years I’ve invited emerging leaders such as Jason, Steven, Vitaly, Khuram, Donnie, Felipe, Lyndle and Ryan to accompany me to various events. Investing in a disciple, to me, has become more exciting than preaching to a multitude!

4. Instruct. Jesus didn’t lecture his disciples; He artfully wove His teaching into the events of daily life—a storm, the death of a friend or an encounter with a needy beggar. His teaching flowed out of His relationship with His companions. Discipleship does not have to happen in a classroom setting. It can happen at a doughnut shop, during a bike ride or in a car. Expect “teaching moments” to flow naturally when you are spending time with those you are mentoring.

5. Intercede. Paul told Timothy that he constantly remembered him in his prayers “night and day” (2 Tim. 1:3). The most effective discipleship occurs when the discipler invests time in prayer for those he or she is mentoring. After some of my young disciples gave me an iPad last year, I decided to return the favor by using it to help me pray for them. I now have a “visual prayer list” with photos of the people I intercede for regularly.

Floyd McClung, a former leader of Youth With a Mission who now lives in South Africa, says he wishes he had spent more of his time making disciples when he was younger. He recently wrote: “I’ve been blessed to do many things: books, conferences, television, etc. But that’s nothing compared to pouring into others and seeing them go for it.”

Leaders all around the world are coming to this same conclusion. They recognize that today’s fatherless generation is looking for more than the hottest music, the coolest stage lighting or the hippest techno-pastor. They just want authentic role models who will spend time with them.

J. Lee Grady is the former editor of Charisma and the director of The Mordecai Project. He is ministering in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this week. You can follow him on Twitter at leegrady.


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Weekly Meanderings, 26 May 2018

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  • Percival

    This should not be an either/or issue. Mass evangelism or a wide scattering of the seed should not be synonymous with shallowness. Jesus did both, and before the Resurrection and Pentecost one would be hard-pressed to see Jesus as successful with either approach. Until Pentecost, those few into whom he had invested his time most intensely didn’t understand, didn’t buy into, and did not stay faithful to his teachings or his example. By the time Jesus reached the cross, not only had the multitudes disappeared but so had his disciples.

    However, at Pentecost we see a mass movement of people coming to faith through Spirit-filled preaching and powerful community transformation. Not only was this due to the Resurrection and Pentecost transformation, but also a result of the years of Jesus preaching and healing the multitudes. Was Jesus’ ministry to the crowds somehow not strategic and shallow? Of course not.

    In addition, with the birth of the church we see the emergence of dynamic and powerful leadership from new names never mentioned in the gospel accounts. Were they close disciples of Jesus or close to the 12? Not as far as I can tell. And what happened to the 12? We have legends and a few stories about them, but the myth that these 12 in turn discipled small numbers of leaders who then did the same, is in my opinion, not demonstrable from history.

  • DRT

    Good points Percival. Certainly Jesus addressed the 4,000 and/or the 5,000 at least once.

  • AHH

    I’m all for lifting up the importance of depth in such things; we don’t want them to be the proverbial mile wide and inch deep.

    Yet I also hear hints of something that bothers me. The idea that top leaders “identify” a few key people to “invest” in, and by implication ignore the people they don’t pick. This can in practice mean that the leader picks people who already think like him (maybe also look like him) and grooms near-clones as future leaders. While those who don’t strike the leader as being likely future leaders (perhaps women, or introverts, or those who wrestle with doubts, or lower socioeconomic classes, or anybody the leader has a hard time identifying with [like scientists]) don’t get that sort of investment for discipleship.

    Maybe what I’m saying is that yes, there is value for church leaders to invest deeply in a smaller number. But this should not be done in a way that excludes people from such investment for the wrong reasons. Leaders need to be aware that the natural tendency is to pick people who already are like them, and need to make a conscious effort toward diversity in the people they choose to invest in.

  • Percival

    Wow, AHH. That is so true and I have never really thought about that before. Now I will have to re-examine a mentoring situation that I have recently been asked to pursue. I have been asked by my mission to take in and train a young restless reformed guy (and his tag-along wife, which is basically how he described their calling to work in the Muslim world) and initially I turned it down because I am neither young, restless, or reformed.

  • David Dollins

    Great article by Grady! Convicting…

  • Rick


    This brings to mind John Maxwell’s Catalyst talk several years back:

    From Out of Ur:

    “John Maxwell talked about “natural selection” (my term, not his), that is, the unavoidable inequalities of leadership. People’s gifting for leadership isn’t all the same. He claimed that anyone can go from a low level to a high level of spirituality because it’s a choice people make. (I’ll pass on the theology embedded in that.) But not all people have the potential to be strong leaders, because it’s a gift and a skill. And if a person is a level 2 as a leader, they can work hard and reach a level 4 or 5, but they’ll never become a level 9. Only people who are born as a level 6 or 7 can ever hope to become a level 9. The implication: if you want to develop strong leaders, don’t waste your time with people of low potential. Focus on those who can reach the higher levels. He cited the example of Jesus, who didn’t spend equal amounts of time with all people, nor even with all the disciples. He focused on the three, then the twelve, then everyone else. While this may be true, it’s also true that Jesus made sure to spend significant “face time” and “touch time” with the lame, blind, and powerless. IMHO, this is an element often lacking among those who choose to spend their quality time only with those of great leadership potential.”

  • DRT


    Leaders need to be aware that the natural tendency is to pick people who already are like them, and need to make a conscious effort toward diversity in the people they choose to invest in.

    Wise words that anyone in a leadership position needs to consciously control.

    If I may add a bit more color to this too.

    Certainly there are many temptations to hire people like yourself in all of the obvious ways. But there is one that is particularly dastardly. You will often hear people who characterize others as not getting it. The it that they are referring to is generally a similarity in the way that others process information. For instance, in situations of high urgency I tend to focus on getting results and eliminating risk. So someone who who gets it to me is someone who corresponds with that intuitive nature. In times of low stress they are big ideas and involve people, but they also know how to buckle down and get results while minimizing risk in urgent situations.

    That is a very big problem. There is no single “it that is always appropriate. Add to that the fact that people feel it is as obvious as the nose on my face what it is that they have a difficult time learning to appreciate another type of it.

    For instance, in times of high urgency my wife and I share the need to get things done right away. But she does not have the same aversion to risk that I do. Instead, she would not feel good if we did not involve other people. Likewise, there are people who feel that getting it is to stop what you are doing (!!) and look at the big picture, to take some time. It is hard to appreciate those other ways of doing things, particularly since most people have not gone beyond simply thinking about it as whether so and so gets it.

    I hope that makes sense.

  • DRT

    Rick#6, those are very dangerous ideas in light of what I wrote in #7. In my experience, people generally don’t have a good basis for picking who has a lot of potential. The tend to pick people who they think get it and little else.

    So that is the big question, isn’t t? How do you pick people? How do you evaluate people? How do you know what leads to high performing leaders? Like AHH said, do you pick gregarious extroverts that are tall?

  • Yes, how do you pick people?
    Jesus invested in
    a multiple divorced woman,
    a guy that dissed his hometown,
    and even me.

  • E.A.B.

    Thank you Lee for this great reminder. Your comment, “Who are you called to disciple? God connects people in discipleship relationships,” reminded me that we are all called to make disciples—not just publicly recognized or ordained leaders. And it prompted me to pause and take a look at who God has already put within the sphere of my life and consider which of these people he might be asking me to invest more into.

    Sometimes I tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and ignore what is right in front of me.

    I also appreciated your 5 “I’s” of discipleship—a simple and concise framework to keep in mind.

  • Rob Henderson

    Great article that gets right to the heart of the matter of Biblical evangelism. The Apostle Paul never once chides his churches with numerical growth matters. This does not negate the necessity of numerical growth but simply tells us what mattered most to him and should to us.

    I would say that discipleship is a both/and matter. For true instruction to take hold there is a need for right programming but not at the expense of personal one-to-one discipleship. As our ministry is seeking to rework itself discipleship has risen to the surface as our greatest need. This involves teaching others how to disciple as well as actually discipling.

    Furthermore, the pastoral call in smaller churches is something that should not be overlooked as a means of discipleship. I find that in my visitation ministry with my “old guard” I am able to assure them of the ministry strategies by answering questions but I also strive to bring them prayer requests of those we are working with (without compromising anything confidential).

    Again, great article and some really great comments.

  • Matt O

    A few thoughts on “picking” people:

    I agree with the cautions (I think) given above. . .

    As someone who tries to faithfully pastor the “mob”, but spends the majority of his time in relational contexts having spiritual formational conversations, I would offer the following:

    1. When you make discipleship a “program”, the picking will take on the feel of picking kickball teams in elementary school. . .and you definitely run the risk of picking those similar to you and/or with your predisposed idea of what “IT” is.

    2. I look for humility and teachability first. Even in the midst of youthful pride and zeal (arrogance too perhaps), I look for at least a shred of open ears and willingness to listen and change. I don’t force change on them, I ask questions. . .and then ask some more. . .direct them to some scriptures for meditation and then follow up with more dialogue.

    3. I also try not look for an “it” that coincides with my “it” though I did that for a while and payed the price. On top of teachability, I look for hunger. . .not just a hunger of knowledge but a hunger for understanding. Knowledge puffs up too often. . .understanding transforms knowledge into compassion, holiness, and endurance.

    4. With that hunger and teachability, I am also looking for evidence for the Holy Spirit in their lives. . .not the gifts, but the fruit. I particularly am looking for self-control, gentleness, and faithfulness. (Obviously with love, etc.)

    5. Lastly, I try to remember the Lord’s words to Samuel when perusing the sons of Jesse looking for the next King of Israel. . .the classic “God looks at the heart, man looks at the outside”. Our contemporary Churchianity culture believes this in theory but practices the opposite. We say we love David, but we worship the awesomeness of Goliath’s armor.

    I remember Gideon hiding in his winepress.

    And I remember the 12 themselves and how many times that didn’t get “It”. But eventually they did get understanding when the Holy Spirit came down.

    Who are Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters (end of Matthew 12)? His disciples, who did His will. But they weren’t perfect. . .in fact in a few chapters, Peter the Rock was about to be rebuked as Satan for telling Jesus He wouldn’t have to die.

    They weren’t perfect, but in that passage they were sitting at Jesus’ feet.

    And that’s what I look for in all of its raw messy humanity. People who sit at the feet of Jesus. Not at the feet of passionate music, or scathing blogs, or popular church movements. I don’t have a fail-proof set of diagnostics, but I do ask for wisdom and discernment. I’ve had people who were like me, people who were outcasts, people who I never would have associated with in another life, and I’ve had Foot-in-mouth Peters, and Judas Iscariots.

    But I still believe that the process is worth it.