We can only go so deep with Jesus until we start yearning to reach out. When our life in him is healthy and vibrant, we not only ache to keep sinking our roots down deep in him, but also to stretch our branches out and extend his goodness to others.
But not only does going deep with Jesus soon lead us to reach out to others, but also reaching out sends us deeper with him. In other words, getting on board with Jesus’s mission to disciple the nations may be the very thing he uses to push through your spiritual slump and jumpstart your stalled sanctification. One veteran pastor writes,
Often I meet Christians who are in spiritual malaise, holding on to their faith but not advancing it much. Bible study has become a chore; prayer is a dry routine. The miracle of their own conversion, once recounted with great passion, is now a distant, fading memory. And going to church is — well, it’s something they just do. Mechanically and halfheartedly, these people trudge along through the drudgery of quarantined Christianity.
But when these lethargic believers break out of spiritual isolation and meet some spiritual seekers, something incredible starts to happen. As they experience the high-stakes conversations that tend to happen with unchurched people, they begin to notice a sort of inner renewal taking place. Areas long ignored suddenly come alive with fresh significance. . . . Isn’t it incredible how elevating our efforts to reach others can be a catalyst for personal growth? (Becoming a Contagious Christian, 30, 32)
Living on mission is not only an effect of God’s grace coming to us through the channels of his word, prayer, and fellowship, but it also becomes a means of his grace to us in the Christian life.
Disciplemaking as a Means of Grace
Disciplemaking is the process in which a maturing believer invests himself, for a particular period of time, in one or just a few younger believers, in order to help their growth in the faith — including helping them also to invest in others who will invest in others. Such was the lion’s share of Jesus’s “public ministry” — from the time he called to only twelve, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19), until he sent them out, “Go, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
It’s not surprising that we typically think of disciplemaking as one-sided. The “older,” more mature Christian is giving of their time and energy to intentionally invest in a younger believer. The discipler’s own enjoyment of the means of grace in God’s word, prayer, and fellowship serves to fuel them spiritually for pouring out into others. However, disciplemaking is the stuff of Christian fellowship, and every believer, indwelt by God’s Spirit, can be a channel of God’s grace to another.
“Isn’t it incredible how elevating our efforts to reach others can be a catalyst for personal growth?”
Which means good disciplemaking is always a two-way street. The “disciple” and the “discipler” are most fundamentally disciples of Jesus. And so, as Stephen Smallman says, “Our involvement in making disciples will be one of the most significant things we can do for our own growth as disciples” (The Walk, 211). It’s like any pursuit; we get it better as we teach it to others.
Making disciples is a great means of God’s ongoing grace in the life of the one doing the discipling. Here are four ways, among the many, that discipling others will help your own life, growth, and joy in Christ.
1) Disciplemaking shows us our smallness and God’s bigness.
Actively making disciples helps us see our lives in better proportion — not with ourselves at the center, doing the big things, but situated happily on the periphery, doing our small part, of a big and glorious God-sized plan. It is astonishing that Jesus summons his church to “the nations.” Disciple the nations. The vision is huge — as big as it could be. And yet our part is small.
One memorable refrain I’ve heard over and over again in Campus Outreach circles is “Think big, start small, go deep.” Think big: God’s global glory, among all the nations. Start small: focus on a few, like Jesus did. Go deep: invest at depth in those few, so deeply that one day they are equipped and ready to do the same in the lives of others.
Disciplemaking is as massive as the Great Commission and as minute as the menial details of everyday life. The Christian life not only connects our little lives with God’s global purposes, but it also translates the bigness of his mission into the smallness of our daily decisions and actions. Disciplemaking is a major way — and the only way expressly mentioned in the Commission — in which our minor, local lives connect to God’s major, global plan.
“Disciplemaking is as massive as the Great Commission and as minute as the menial details of everyday life.”
Here there is a place for the Christian’s almost heroic, big-picture, world-changing impulse. But such vision is fleshed out in the uncelebrated, often unattractive normalcy of everyday life. Think big, start small, go deep. Envision big, global, many. Act small, local, few. As Robert Coleman says, “One cannot transform a world except as individuals in the world as transformed.”
2) Disciplemaking challenges us to be holistic Christians.
As we invest in younger believers toward their balanced, overall spiritual growth, we ourselves are reminded of, and encouraged toward, holistic health in the faith.
Good disciplemaking requires both intentionality and relationality (to coin a term). It means being strategic and being social. Most of us are bent one way or the other. We’re naturally relational, but lacking the intentional. Or we find it easy to be intentional, but not as relational. We typically tip, or lean, one way or the other as we begin the disciplemaking process.
But tipping and leaning won’t cover the full picture of what life-on-life disciplemaking is. It’s not just friend-to-friend, and it’s not just teacher-to-student. There is an element of both — the sharing of ordinary life (relationship) and seeking to initiate and make the most of teachable moments (intentionality). There are the long walks through Galilee and the sermons on the mount. There is the journey to Jerusalem and the Last Supper together. Disciplemaking is both organic and engineered, relational and intentional, with shared context and content, quality and quantity time.
3) Disciplemaking makes us more aware of our sin.
Disciplemaking is more than mere truth-speaking; it is also life-sharing, as Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). If Paul says “not only the gospel,” sit up and take notice. Not easily does he put anything in such a place of privilege alongside the Message.
Sharing your own self with someone means getting close — not just sharing information, but sharing life, sharing space. And the closer sinners get, the more sin comes out. (Which is why marriage can be such a matrix for sanctification as two sinners getting increasingly close.)
In good disciplemaking, we can demonstrate for our disciples something Jesus’s disciples never saw in him: how to repent. Those who are looking to our lives and seeking to imitate our faith need to see us be honest and forthright about our sin, hear our confessions, witness our repentance, and watch us earnestly seek change.
“We can demonstrate for our disciples something Jesus’s disciples never saw in him: how to repent.”
To get more specific, disciplemaking requires that we die to selfishness — selfishness with our time and with our space. To get even more specific, it means dying to much of our precious privacy. Most of us do life alone so much more than is necessary. But in disciplemaking, we learn to ask, How can we live the Christian life together? How can I give this younger Christian access to my real life in the faith, not some façade I can put on once a week? It marks the death to much, if not all, of our privacy. We bring that one or few in whom we are investing into the process and mess of our sanctification as we are entering theirs.
We aim to “be with them” (Mark 3:14) to find the kind of effect Jesus had on his men: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). And as we do so, new manifestations of sin will be exposed in us, and we’ll find ourselves all the more in need of God’s ongoing grace.
4) Disciplemaking teaches us to lean heavier on Jesus.
Disciplemaking is often messy, difficult work. You will see your weaknesses and failures and inadequacies like never before, and with God’s help, it will teach you all the more to lean on Jesus.
Good disciplers must learn, in reliance on the Spirit, how to deal well with failure. And the Christian way to deal well with failure is take it to the cross.
As simple as disciplemaking may sound, it will not be easy, and if you are honest with yourself, it will not be without failure. Failures in our love. Failures in initiating. Failures to share the gospel with clarity and boldness. Failures to share our own selves because of selfishness. Failures to follow through, and sufficiently equip, and pray without ceasing, and walk in patience.
Disciplemaking hems us in, exposes our weaknesses, and teaches us to draw our daily strength not from ourselves, but from Jesus and the gospel, which are the essence of disciplemaking. The gospel is the baton to be passed, after all. This is the content, “the deposit” (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14) passed from one spiritual generation to the next in disciplemaking. This is the treasure in us we work to build into other jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7).
We disciple not to clone ourselves, not to reproduce our idiosyncrasies and personal hobbyhorses. Rather, we make disciples to pass on the gospel. We don’t center on ourselves, but on Jesus, who is not only the great model but also the content of disciplemaking. We baptize in Jesus’s name, not ours. And we teach them to observe everything that he has commanded, not what we personally would advise.
But Jesus and his gospel are not only the main content of disciplemaking. He is also the flawed and failing discipler’s Great Comfort, who frees us from having to be the perfect discipler. There has already been one — and he was perfect all the way from the shores of Galilee to the cross of Calvary, where he took our sins and failures. We need not imitate his perfection in disciplemaking. We cannot.
But we can take great comfort that in him our failures are covered, and that the sovereign one who promises to build his church (Matthew 16:18) and be with us always as we carry out his Commission (Matthew 28:20) loves to sanctify half-baked, substandard disciplemaking and make himself look good by showing himself, not the underling discipler, to be the great power source behind it.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.