I’ve heard plenty of talk about discipleship and multiplication recently, and it usually goes something like this…
If you want to make disciples the way Jesus wants, you have to do it the way Jesus did it. And Jesus, in His earthly ministry, chose only a few people, weeded out those who weren’t true followers, and avoided letting crowds follow him. Therefore, discipleship is one-on-one, takes a year and a half, and doesn’t involve seeing masses of people come to know Him.
If you’re arguing that the model of true discipleship is found in Jesus’ earthly ministry, you’re forgetting a few vital facts.
- Jesus invited, accepted, and received tons of people who weren’t counted among the twelve.
- Jesus was very intentionally laying the foundation for the church, which really took off after his earthly ministry was over, and now serves as God’s “plan A” for the discipling of the nations.
- Jesus’ earthly ministry was not the end of His ministry. He was alive and well on Pentecost where He proceeded to add 3,000 souls to the church, all at once.
- Jesus was alive and well when He empowered the first missionary movements under Paul which put whole towns in uproar and eventually disturbed Rome, the capital of ancient culture.
- Jesus inspired the epistles, which provided structure for a young and rapidly spreading church.
- When Jesus talked about the future of the kingdom, He compared it to a mustard seed becoming the largest tree in the garden and a tiny bit of leaven which would spread to fill the earth.
- Jesus spent a lot of time with a few people, but then commissioned those people to tell the whole planet about Him, empowered them by sending the Holy Spirit, and promised that they would do even “greater works” than He had done (in my interpretation, referencing the great commission).
So what can we learn from Jesus’ earthly ministry? Let me be clear – there is nothing wrong, and everything right about spending a great deal of time with a few people whom we are mentoring. But to dogmatically proclaim this as THE way Jesus wants discipleship done is to ignore the rest of the New Testament, to minimize the role of the larger church community, and to reduce the level of faith we place in the Comforter who is fully capable of growing new believers into mature followers.
In other words, to argue that Jesus’ earthly ministry is the ultimate model for disciple-making is to focus only on His pre-resurrection ministry. But we serve a risen Savior who is in the world today. And it seems He has been doing some pretty big things since He sent His original posse of twelve to turn the world upside down.
Keep doing one-on-one discipleship. It’s vital. But don’t knock big movements that seek for the larger church context to occupy a central role in the discipling of the nations.