Do you know the difference between a witch doctor and a doctor doctor?
Doctor doctors have spent their lives researching why what they do works. And that research increases their success. Whereas witch doctors have no idea why what they do does what it does. And no one else in the tribe knows why what they do works. That’s why it seems like magic.
So many of us have found some success in disciple making. The question is, “Why are we succeeding?” Some disciple-making programs work in some churches and not others. Some methods yield great success but seem dependent on who is making disciples. When we get it right, when Bob the disciple sticks following Christ, why did it work? And how do I make it work on a broad scale?
I have spent most of my adult life cracking that nut. Our research reveals five factors that are critical to disciple-making success. Every disciple-making program that works embraces at least one of these five ideas. Some two. Maybe even three. But every successful program or method has at least one of these success factors.
Every disciple-making program we research uses the Bible in some fashion. It makes sense. What most programs do not do is use the entire Bible. We know of only two that get disciples to read the Bible cover-to-cover. Amazing. Disturbing. And only one where disciples avidly consume the Bible at least three times. Guess which method is most effective at producing long-term results and replication. Disciples who hang in there for the long run consume all of God’s words. Which only makes sense when you remember what the Bible teaches. God’s words transform us. God’s word is sharper than a two-edged sword. God’s word prepares us, corrects us, and guides us. How can disciples succeed without being exposed to all God’s Words?
The Bible also reveals that disciple making is done intentionally, not accidentally. Successful disciple makers have poured their resources, time, and money into making disciples. It is their top priority. Everything they do focuses on helping others be all they can be in Christ by following him and applying Biblical truth. Every program, every event, and every relationship drips with the intent to move someone closer to Christ. And their process of making disciples is intentional. They use well-thought methods, tested for success, refined, and consistently applied.
The Definition is Simple
You can be as intentional as you want, but if you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, you will fail intentionally. In our workshops, we ask folks to articulate what discipleship is in thirty seconds. It’s pretty amazing how difficult it is to explain what we think we know about making disciples. Here’s our best answer so far,
Introducing people to a God who loves and understands them, who knows who they are and who they can be, helping them apply God’s transforming truths, and releasing them to live the abundant life God promised as prepared, confident, and skilled followers of Christ.
If disciples cannot be released to live on their own. We have failed. We have failed if they are not prepared, confident, and skilled. We have failed if disciples don’t have a healthy relationship with God. That is our best answer. But every program that succeeds in disciple making has a clear end goal.
Focused on Individuals
One size does not fit all in disciple making. The truths of God are enduring, eternal, and universal. But the application comes in different ways at different moments for different people. Every thriving disciple-making effort focuses on its target audience: the individual. Even when discipling in groups, successful programs are laser-focused on the individual. Successful disciple makers listen to individuals, speak to individuals, and do their best to customize whatever material they use for each individual.
Along the Way
Success in disciple making requires the maker to spend time with the disciple. We get that. But our research showed us something unexpected. Life-on-life, along the way, does not increase success. People have been doing that for decades in life groups and Sunday School with meager results. Realizing that “along the way” means it will take time seems to make a difference.
Expecting a baby to jump out of a highchair, make dinner, walk, and talk all in six months is just nuts. And it is nuts to think that a human will become a prepared, confident, and skilled follower in six months or a year. Even worse, if they aren’t ready, they will crash and burn when it comes to following and making disciples. We need to take this seriously. In loose God words, “The blood is on our hands if they fall to the enemy because we didn’t do our jobs.” Spiritual maturity takes time.
Successful programs allow disciples to grow up naturally instead of giving them spiritual steroids. This simple truth led us to a super-successful, leisurely, three-year process.
An Aha Moment
We had a thought when we realized that all successful disciple-making efforts have at least one of these five success factors. What if we engineered a system that embraced all five factors? So we did. That’s what Sustainable Discipleship is. A method that makes all the difference.
We are thirteen years in and still experiencing an overall 95% success rate in disciple making. We still research. We still fine-tune. And we sometimes fail. But our church (and others across six denominations and three continents) is finally experiencing success at making self-sustaining, self-replicating followers of Christ.
If you feel a bit like that witch doctor, succeeding but not knowing why, we would love to share what God has shared with us. There is no cost. You can choose to invest to help others share the success, but there is no hook, no cost, no material. Just a simple, repeatable method that makes all the difference in the world.