I’ve wrestled with this question over the past several years. It started when I was meeting with some buddies for accountability, prayer, mutual encouragement, and so on. One of the guys is on staff with The Navigators – a discipleship-focused organization – and he emphasizes discipleship in his ministry. Since I’ve been heavily influenced by the Navs throughout my life, I understood John’s emphasis, but the question remained, Did Jesus want or expect all those who follow him to be his disciples?
I have concluded that the answer to that question is No. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was followed by a great many people – throngs, multitudes, crowds. Seldom did Jesus condemn them for following, though he did acknowledge that following alone would not earn them entry into the kingdom of heaven. (“Not all who call me Lord, Lord will….”) Also, his words on discipleship usually included a conditional statement: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, [then]….” I can’t think of one time that Jesus condemned a follower for not being a disciple. (By the way, I grew up thinking Jesus had only 12 disciples – a fallacy I learned in Sunday School, no doubt! In reality, he had many, from whom he selected 12 and appointed them to be apostles. See Mark 3:14 and Luke 6:13. Of course, Matthew 28:16 refers to “the eleven disciples” [emphasis mine].)
What I find particularly intriguing, though – the statement that causes me to question my own conclusion – is the last command Jesus gave: to go and make disciples. Apparently his desire is for disciples, not just followers. Given all that he said about suffering and persecution, it’s clear Jesus knew that if his word was to be spread, it would require the commitment of a disciple, not merely a follower. It would mean dying to self, leaving family and friends and home and job behind, and maintaining a singular focus on building his kingdom.
All of this, I think, has great importance for how I approach my role as a minister of the gospel.
- I need to recognize that there will be a lot of Christ-followers who will be content with that position – to be one of the crowd around Jesus. Like Jesus, I need to believe that that’s okay, even as I recognize that those are not the people who are going to get the word out.
- I need to recognize that discipleship is primarily a relationship, not a program. Jesus spent three years training his disciples in the “everydayness” of life. How can I practice, teach, or expect any less? I love how 1 Thessalonians 2:8 describes Paul’s relationship with that church: “…we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives.”
- I need to recognize – and teach – that discipleship is costly. It requires great commitment from both disciple and “discipler”. It will entail persecution (though little in our American life can compare with the persecution our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world endure). It will require sacrifice…of home, family, friends, career, reputation perhaps….
- The key job of a disciple is to make more disciples. According to Matthew 28, Jesus was addressing his disciples (or rather, only the remaining 11 apostles) when he said to “go…make disciples.” After all, a primary principle of reproduction is that it takes one to make one; that is, we reproduce after our own kind. A follower cannot make a disciple, only a disciple can.
Corollary to all of these things is the realization that, if I want to be a disciple who makes disciples, then I need to focus the vast majority of my time and energies on “my” disciples. That doesn’t mean I neglect the followers, but my focus needs to be on those who want to be disciples. Jesus set the example of this, often withdrawing from the multitudes to spend time with his disciples, often going off with just The Twelve, sometimes only with the Inner Circle of three, and maybe on occasion hanging out with just one or two of them. And, of course, he often got alone with God, something I also need to do. These are examples I need to follow.