My discipleship journey got sticky when I started leading adults in the church. They were so much different than teens and college students. Young people are less jaded. They are excitable, willing to test the boundaries, and loyal to follow you wherever. Adults are sensitive, cranky, set in their ways, and, well they are kind of sissies. You often want to lean in and say, “You can’t handle the truth!” But that is not fair.
There are definitely those that just don’t want to be pushed, that don’t want to adjust their lives to God’s truths. But, there are also plenty of adult humans who are looking for guidance, who want a better life, and who long to realize the hope that drew them to Christ. I was one of them when I accepted Christ as an adult.
The problem is that the church is failing both of the would-be disciples. Most of our discipleship efforts are focused on assimilation and education. Oh, sometimes we get a little transformation in there. But most of what we call discipleship is getting people to become part of our mission or us filling them full of education that doesn’t transform. Even when we feel the call and remember that the only thing Jesus told us to do is make disciples – we are just too busy running churches.
Compound that with the fact that most Christian leaders have never been disciples and we have the blind leading the blind even when the blind find time to make disciples.
Back to my story. When I started to try to make adult disciples, followers of Christ, I kept hitting a wall. The effects of retreats wore off too quickly. The spark of special events faded fast. Most of the resources I found focused on making educated Christians or assimilating new members. I could not get the life transformation I had found to stick in others. I tried everything – one on one, mentoring programs, life groups, and any program that seemed promising. Nothing really worked.
You know the drill. I moved from thing to thing, from program to program and only the minority of members followed me through it all. I was ready to quit. I did not leave the corporate world to run a church, deal with deacons, and managing ministries.
But before I quit, I had this crazy idea. What if I studied people who got it and tried to figure out how they got it? I decided to use my secular training as a Decision Scientist to solve the problem. The first person I looked at was me. Then I went on the hunt for others and I found them. I studied them, asked a thousand questions, and found five common characteristics among their lives. When I looked at the ones who discipled these great followers, I found seven core principles showing up again and again.
The data was clear. Discipleship could work! People’s lives could be transformed. People could see the value of applying God’s truths on their own.
I started trying new methods out on the guinea pigs at our church. There were so many failures but one by one, there were successes. Things that worked. Things that worked better. I began to build a system that got results across age ranges, gender, maturity levels. And then I did something that I should have done at the beginning. I studied disciple-making in the Bible.
Not just how Jesus made disciples but how God had been shaping followers long before Jesus came to call us back. I studied the successful followers cover-to-cover in the Bible. I rediscovered two irrefutable models of disciple-making that God had leveraged among his people. And along the way, I leveraged the science of how people make decisions, why they do what they do, and how God designed them to learn and think.
Ten or so years later, what we call Sustainable Discipleship, was formalized in a book for our disciple-makers (we later published How to Make Disciples for other leaders, also available on Audible). Now we are on our ninth generation of disciples who make disciples on their own. They are healthy, spiritually maturing, and full of God. They describe themselves as prepared, confident, and skilled. These disciples of Christ don’t need our leaders to lead them. They have become our peers. They are incredible.
We hit a tipping point when about 30% of our people had accelerated their discipleship and were following on their own. Church became easy. Finances were no longer an issue. Volunteers were plentiful. Drama decreased. Unity became unanimity. Transparency reigned. It makes sense looking back – healthy people do healthy things and make healthy communities. Doing that one thing God told us to do first, make disciples, worked like a genius for them and for the church. They were living their best days and so was the church.
Yes, there were bumps along the way. Not everyone went on the journey. But today, 90% of our people tithe, serve those around them and travel the world sharing the Gospel. Interestingly, our track record for success has stayed a pretty constant 90%. We have been tracking that data not only in our church but in the other churches that are using Sustainable Discipleship. It is now a 12-year success record. Years after finishing the formal process of discipleship, these incredible people are still following confidently on their own.
Our lives are so different now. We used to do just about everything trying to make disciples. Now we make disciples in many different ways leveraging what God has taught us through Sustainable Discipleship. It works. My journey is so much easier now. My passion grows. My life has changed. I now spend 70% of my time making disciples or championing disciple-making. I am getting to focus on that one thing that Jesus called me to do.