I occasionally wonder if we make discipleship too complicated. The systems we create exhibit a complexity that is foreign to the New Testament. For instance, I’m not certain what all goes into dropping plastic eggs from a helicopter on Easter morning in order to attract families to church, but such a stunt amounts to a strategy of shark jumping to ensure more butts in seats, bucks in the bank, and brains entertained each week.
We reinforce systems that struggle to effectively reproduce. Whoever first said it is correct. What you win them with, you win them to. And it is working. According to Exponential co-founder Todd Wilson, only 7% of the 300,000 churches in the United States multiply. While we might be tempted to applaud such efforts, the net result is a contracting Christianity. Our system is clearly broken yet we insanely continue propagating the system.
Years ago, Warren Wiersbe quipped, “Methods are many, principles are few. Methods always change, principles never do.” Somewhere along the line, we substituted methods or systems for principles.
Forms of Multiplication
Multiplication of disciples takes many forms. Jesus, for example, had 12 close disciples, another 120 who were faithful followers, and thousands of curious. Among his family, His mother followed Him and eventually two brothers became leaders in the church. All of those early believers came from every walk of life. And, of course, their testimonies about Jesus spread to such an extent that Christianity claims to be the largest religion in the world.
Among the lessons we learn from the first Christ-followers we see multiplication continuing through the early centuries of church history. Eusebius writes:
Then starting out upon long journeys they performed the office of evangelists, being filled with the desire to preach Christ to those who had not yet heard the word of faith, and to deliver to them the divine Gospels. And when they had only laid the foundations of faith in foreign places, they appointed others as shepherds, and entrusted them with the nurture of those that had recently been brought in, while they themselves went on again to other countries and peoples, with the grace and the cooperation of God. For a great many wonderful works were done through them by the power of the divine Spirit, so that at the first hearing whole multitudes of people eagerly embraced the religion of the Creator of the universe. (Eusebius, Church Histories)
So, the final characteristic of a disciple in the church in Ephesus is not simply a quantitative one. It speaks just as much to the manner in which our lives manifest as a testimony to our faith as it does to how we talk with others about Jesus.
Finally, disciples are committed to multiplying more disciples (2 Tim 2:2). If you have a church of one hundred people, there is no reason why it cannot be a church of two hundred people next year. This doesn’t require new programs, Facebook ads or more staff, although it might require that you reexamine the staff you have to be sure they are the right team of movement leaders. It will require you to make disciples who will make more disciples. They will not be content sitting in the pew listening to sermons or volunteering for the church’s programs. Pure and simple, disciples multiply while volunteers stay busy. Disciples are engaged in their Father’s business. A movement leader ensures that they have every opportunity to do so. (Ephesiology, loc 3769)
In our times, we read stories of multiplication that excite our imagination. Movement scholars tell us that we are witnessing phenomenal growth of Christianity in South America, sub-Saharan Africa, South and East Asia. Recently, we learned that in just one movement organization, more than 10 million people heard the gospel last year, and over one million people professed faith in Christ, while nearly 30 thousand churches were started!
Yet, the stories of phenomenal growth often overshadow the stories of the faithful parents who are raising their children to follow the Lord. Stories that testify to the powerful witness of the lives of mothers and fathers. Those who live out their faith before their children in such a manner that the vision of reaching the unreached captivate their minds. In fact, Paul seems to expect as much, at least from leaders in the church (Titus 1:6).
Certainly, multiplication happens in our homes, but also in our neighborhoods, at our offices, even at our children’s sporting events. It occurs as much through our verbal proclamation as it does through the witness of our lives. The way in which we show kindness and compassion, welcome the stranger, care for the marginalized open opportunities for spiritual conversation.
Disciples do not hide behind church programs or pithy advertisements to Sunday services. While these no doubt open avenues for conversations, more often than not they provide opportunities to add people to the membership role of church rather than multiply disciples. As they actively engage in the lives of others, disciples multiply.
Churches that grow exponentially are not content with starting more Sunday services and hiring more professional clergy. Instead, they multiply disciples who are imbued with what Alan Hirsch calls mDNA. The six characteristics of churches that multiply begin with disciples who recognize that Jesus is Lord. He is not simply the figure head of a church, he is the source and originator.
Next, a church that multiplies clearly identifies discipleship pathways including opportunities for disciples to make disciples. These disciples collectively incarnate the gospel in their community, work place, and world.
Church leaders empower disciples by equipping them for ministry not controlling them as volunteers. Such empowerment unites the disciples on mission until they reach maturity and fullness (Eph 4:11-16). When disciples act like missionaries, speak into culture, share the gospel, care for those within their proximity, and teach sound doctrine, you have a church functioning as Christ intended.
Disciples who multiply work in an organic system that adapts and adjusts as much to their culture as to their giftedness. By so doing, they recognize inherent risks when they engage their community but are willing to lean into those risks together.
An Old Paradigm
What I hope we’ve seen over the past ten chapters is an old paradigm. Simply stated, discipleship focuses on a relations-oriented rather than systems-oriented posture. Disciples are first and foremost in a relationship with God and with others. So, they:
- Know God’s will to unite all things in Christ
- Encounter people where they are
- Prepare for ministry
- Unite on mission to declare the gospel, care for the marginalized, and defend the faith
- Witness to others by their lives and by their words
- Are godly examples for others to follow
- Pray together
- Are respectful of others, even of those with whom they disagree
- Learn together
- Suffer together
As a result, disciples simply multiply because they desire for others to experience a relationship with God. They do not program discipleship neither do they systematized it. Instead, discipleship is relational—organic and natural—because a disciple cannot be who he is not. In his classic treatment of what it means to be a disciple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a brilliant observation:
“With all this, the followers of Jesus are no longer faced with a decision. The only decision possible for them has already been made. Now they have to be what they are, or they are not following Jesus.” (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 81)