Consider what we mean today when we talk about “discipling” someone. In a typical evangelical setting, that’s going to mean you grab a cup of coffee for an hour once a week. You’ll talk about life, share some wisdom, pray for each other. There may be Bible reading and Scripture memory, a book you’re working through together, or (if you’re really exotic) a shared prayer rule.
Now consider what Jesus did. Jesus had many followers with variable levels of involvement. It would be fair to describe Lazarus, Zacchaeus, and the Gadarene (former) demoniac as disciples of Jesus, would it not? They were all Jesus-followers in their respective places. But His closest disciples, the Twelve – what did He do with them?
He accepted those twelve men fully into His life for years at a time. They stayed together, ate together, traveled together. He took them along with Him to weddings and dinner parties; when it was time, He sent them out in pairs to do the work without Him, and then report back.
Let’s step back for a moment and contemplate the gap between the full spectrum of Jesus’ practice on one hand, and our own limited scope on the other. Grabbing coffee once a week with a younger believer is great! Please keep doing it! But if that’s all we’re doing, then Jesus has a greater and richer obedience for us than we’ve yet embraced. When He said “Go make disciples,” He had the full spectrum of His example in view. Do we?
I would like to challenge you: if you have never made a disciple by accepting someone into your life as thoroughly as you can for an extended period of time, start looking for an opportunity to do that. Jesus would.
I understand, of course, all the reasons that such a thing is impossible. You’re already working 50 hours a week, or homeschooling three kids, or picking up a second job to get the mortgage paid off, or taking 18 hours this semester, or helping run the clothing bank at church, or…. Of course you haven’t got the time and energy for additional responsibilities. I concede all that. But let’s be honest: Jesus’ praxis was what it was, and none of us want to arrive at the last day saying “Jesus, I’d have loved to obey You more fully, but I had to get the kids to soccer practice. You know how it is.”
Jesus will remind you, of course, that taking the kids to soccer practice is disciple-making, because your children are your pre-eminent disciples – who is accepted more fully into your life than they? There is much more to say there, but that’s another article. The question we’re exploring today is your disciple-making beyond the circle of your immediate family, and here, too, Jesus does know how it is.
Precisely because He knows how it is, He calls us to come boldly to Him to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. So let’s assume that you’re willing to jump in, but can’t see how it’s possible: Where would you get the time, the energy, the bandwidth? Where would you find the right person – or the right people? Could you even handle more than one? How would it work anyway?
There’s an obvious gap between what you’re called to do and your ability to get it done. Well, if that’s not “time of need,” what would be? This is exactly the kind of thing we bring to Jesus because He understands our plight better than anybody. So hit your knees, and ask God to give you what you need.
It is possible that God will help you see that you’re already maxed out and don’t need to change a thing. But let’s not rush to that conclusion – really ask God to open your eyes, because I suspect there are some things you’re missing. Now, of course, I don’t have access to the specifics of your situation, but that’s no excuse for me to just say “Depart in peace; be warmed and filled!” and leave you to your own devices. I’ve been at this disciple-making endeavor for a while, and I can offer you three things that my own disciples have found helpful.
First, break out of the “discipleship is a coffee meeting” mold. There was no coffee in Israel. Jesus never had a cup of coffee in His life, and He didn’t do all His disciple-making sitting in a cafe. He did it on the go, pursuing the calling the Father had given Him, taking people with Him.
Second, stop looking at all the things you can’t do. A lot of disciple-making happens by example rather than by conversation; they see you living your life, and then you maybe talk about it afterwards. Get someone into your life however you can. Ask yourself: “Suppose I aim to follow the full breadth of Jesus’ example – as hard as I can – in the life He’s given me today. What could I do differently?” If you “can’t” spend time with a disciple on Wednesday because the kids have soccer games on Wednesday, take a disciple with you to the game, and let ‘em hand out orange slices at halftime. If you “can’t” disciple someone because you’re slaving away at a second job, is there someone at work that God wants you to disciple? Are you buried under errands and laundry? Take someone with you. “Who’s going to want to do that?” you wonder. You might be surprised – I know I was.
The last thing I can offer is a little bit about the doors God has opened for me. Your situation probably doesn’t look a lot like mine, but hopefully this will at least be an encouragement to you. I started disciple-making as best I could early on, but in truth I didn’t really understand the process well for a number of years. Once a good disciple-maker taught me how, I had all the same objections we just talked about.
I also had an advantage that you may not: I’d seen it done up close, on me. I dove in with enthusiasm, and for many years now, I’ve been blessed to be part of disciple-making friendships. During that time, I’ve been a school bus driver, curriculum writer, church staffer, teacher, massage therapist, and various other things. Accepting someone into my life deeply looks different as the shape of my life changes – there’s no simple formula. Over the years, “discipling time” has looked like Sunday lunches, game nights, working together, mens’ groups, service projects, Bible studies, serving food to homeless folks, counseling sessions, walks through the neighborhood, shoveling snow, folding laundry while we talk, and much more. As things change, God is always faithful to provide opportunities.
In my current floridly polyvocational life, here’s what it looks like. My closest disciple (there are others) typically joins me for church two Sundays a month and Greek exegesis two Mondays a month. Wednesday, we team-teach a Bible class together, and then there’s a martial arts class that evening. We’ll do a podcast recording session Thursday, then spend half the day together Friday on whatever subject matter is most important at the time. The discussion will range from debriefing the week to the big four topics in ministry training (how to pray, how to read, the Story of our People, and fruitful living) to practical exigencies of ministering to youth or homeless folks, to how to live with it when a parishioner dies, to finer points of martial arts or bodywork. Then Saturday we minister together at Centerpoint, a church for homeless folks, and depending on the night, there may be another Greek lesson afterwards. In addition, there’s social time with my wife and I and other mutual friends, game and movie nights, and various pastoral calls and other one-off opportunities as they come up. Both of us have hefty work responsibilities, and all of this takes conscious effort to pull off, but we get there.
Does that sound like a high-cost endeavor? It is. And I promise you, it’s well worth it. A number of the peers I depend on today are people I’ve taught or discipled over the years. They’re capable and steady help in a crisis. They’ve worked and lived with me closely; they know my strengths and weaknesses. They call me to repentance when I need it, and to stir me up to love and good deeds daily. It’s a privilege to serve beside them. I don’t know exactly what a disciple-making life would look like for you, but I do know this: God will make it worth your while. Let Him.
Tim Nichols is a minister, teacher, bodyworker, martial arts instructor, and the co-author with Joe Anderson of Loving: Spiritual Exercises in Tangibly Loving Your Literal Neighbors, the Victorious Bible curriculum, and the forthcoming book Boniface in the Front Yard. He lives with his wife Kimberly in Englewood, Colorado.
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