Recently a pastor told me about a difficult time his church had gone through. A large portion of the church members had left after a series of difficult situations that had occurred. After the dust settled, they made a remarkable discovery. They had several hundred people in intentional discipleship groups before the problems began. While a huge portion of the people in the church had left, the numbers of those in the discipleship groups almost remained the same. There is certainly a lesson to be learned here.
When we look at the birth of the Church in Acts, we see something similar. Just weeks and months earlier, Jesus is speaking to huge crowds. He is being followed daily, and the sick are being brought to him. Miracles are happening. The dead are being raised. Jesus is feeding thousands and walking on water. There is an excitement. There are people talking about what is happening. There is momentum.
Now Jesus has been crucified, has risen again, and has ascended into heaven. Some of the same people who months earlier had been fed by Jesus now yelled, ‘crucify him.‘ Unlike the day of the Sermon on the mount, it was now a dangerous to associated with Christ. It is here where the scene of the Upper Room takes place, where the Holy Spirit is poured out. It is recorded that there were only one hundred and twenty people there.
Let’s take a moment to consider who was there. Certainly not all of the crowds of thousands. Besides Judas, all of the disciples were there. Perhaps many of the seventy-two were there to. It can certainly be argued most of them would have been the people close to Jesus. When the going gets tough it is disciples that are most likely to remain.
After spending many years sharing about why people leave the church, I have come to some conclusions. I now believe that knowing what discipleship is, and how to do it, may be the Church’s biggest weakness today. What is astonishing about even making such a statement is that this is the mission and calling of the Church.
One of the things Jesus was called was the ‘Truth’. He spoke, and is the true and living Word at the same time. In Jesus, we see what happens when someone actually lives what they say and believe. He spoke about fruitfulness and, at the same time, His life started something that has spread across an entire planet and has outlasted every mocker, critic, and adversary.
Jesus lived out in the flesh what He is asking us to do. Consider this. After Jesus washed His disciples feet He said to them, ‘I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.’ (John 13:15 NLT) How did they understand that? Much of the teaching on this, and scriptures like it, focus on doing miracles like Jesus, about having the character of Christ, and on doing His good works. However, we may be missing the simplest answer because it doesn’t fit our Christian model.
Remember that this statement was said within the context of the twelve disciples, those closest to him. I believe they would have understood it as He was saying, ‘what I have just done, you now do.‘ This is the same message Jesus says many times. For example He says in John 15:9-10, ‘
‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.’ (NLT) This is something that is at the root of true discipleship, Christ likeness.
Jesus was telling His disciples to do for others what He had just done for them. Christ likeness does not just include character, it also, includes deeds and actions. It is everything, your entire life. We may be guilty of trying to take parts of who Jesus is and living them out but missing out on the part He entrusted us with once He left, which is making disciples. It is here where we must be personally involved with the lives of others, where people have to actually know us, and honestly it scares us. This does not fit with a spectator type church model where you can attend but everyone remains at a safe distance
While it is true that Jesus spoke to thousands of people, His main ministry was really to a select few. Take a moment to consider what the lives of the first disciples looked like. Jesus knew each of his disciples by name. Jesus knew who each of the twelve were personally. At the same time, if someone had asked one of the twelve disciples, ‘Who is your Rabbi?’ or ‘Who are you following?’, they undoubtedly would have said, ‘Jesus.‘ There was a very specific relationship and no mistaking who Jesus called to follow him.
We may be failing to produce lasting disciples because in our pride we believed that we, (whether you are a minister, church member, leader of some kind, or follower of Christ) could disciple an entire mass of people or congregation. It is true that we can teach, evangelize, and minister to many, much like Jesus did for the masses. However, perhaps it is impossible or unwise for one person to try and disciple many people. Nowhere in scripture are the crowds called disciples. We may be trying to do something that in His wisdom even Jesus wouldn’t do.
The implication of believing that Jesus’ life is God’s blueprint for us totally changes what we do as believers. Our focus and goals change from just attending services or running programs to pouring our lives out for our friends. Have you ever pictured what your life would look like if you actually did what Jesus did on a daily basis? Spending time talking, praying, teaching, and encouraging others. Doing things that would even cause others religious people to call you a friend of sinners, glutton, drunkard, and other things said about Jesus.
If we were literally following Jesus’ model of discipleship then someone could ask you, ’who is your disciple?’ and you would be able to tell them by name. This would also mean that someone else could be asked who is helping and pouring into their life, and their answer would be your name. Surprisingly few people have fostered this kind of relationship, even despite our declarations that making disciples is ‘our commission’.