For those of you who know my story, you know that I lost my father to cancer at the age of 11. However, before that horrible event ever occurred, I grew up with two, passionate, Jesus-loving Christian, parents who were heavily bought-into the idea of carrying out the Great Commission. You know the one: "Go and make disciples of all nations..."
I was raised in a "Bible-believing" church with a heavy emphasis on teaching and discipleship. That meant Tuesday Night Bible Studies, Sunday School, and "Faith Quest" - a replacement for youth group that involved Bible memorization, homework and grades. But that's not what I want to focus on right now... what I want to zero in on was what I saw happening OUTSIDE of church.
Every week it seemed like my mom and dad were either going out to coffee with someone or having a small group over to the house to go deeper in the Word of God. Without fail - I don't ever remember a season of my life when my parents were not meeting with at least one person weekly or bi-weekly. At first, I just figured they liked making new friends. But after a few times of listening in on the conversation, I realized that this was more than just "coffee-talk." No - there were highlighters, notepads and the infamous "discipleship manual."
You see, I've always known the process of discipleship to be personal, simply because that's what I've seen modeled. Not only did I watch the process unfold, but I can attest to its success because those people my parents discipled are, for the most part, all still in church today and following Jesus.
But if I were to be honest, it's been a long time since I've seen that "form" of discipleship taking place in the church. I am 100% convinced that it's the culprit for a lack of growth in the Evangelical Church at large - and I'm not just talking about NUMERICAL growth - but SPIRITUAL growth.
When I was a Student Pastor in Abilene, TX, I started my youth ministry with 12 students. I took those students to my house every Sunday for the first few months and walked them through the process discipleship in a personal setting, along with our adult leadership team. Those 12 turned our youth ministry into nearing 300 every Wednesday Night without ever doing an event in our first year of ministry. They believed in the message that could change the world - and they had been given the tools to carry it out. Discipleship proved its success rate - and I desperately believe it's the answer that we've been looking for.
1. PASTORING DOESN'T HAPPEN ON THE PLATFORM
Preaching doesn't make disciples, pastoring does - and pastoring is personal. Look - I'm all about large numbers and big churches. I believe that our churches should be reaching as many people as possible - but what has happened is that we have become more hungry for growth and, in doing so, have bypassed the process that will sustain growth. You simply CANNOT disciple a crowd. Jesus never attempted to do so. He gave his TIME to crowds but He gave His LIFE to 12. Jesus understood that to build big, you must start small. He was not swayed by the size of his congregations - He was motivated by the readiness of His disciples. The crowds would eventually leave Him - crowds are always fickle... they could never change the world - but 12 could. And they did.
We can't afford to keep training our congregations that evangelism is "bringing people to church." By doing that, we're creating a bigger problem: Christians who don't know how to share Jesus without sharing "church." We've got to put the power back in the hands of the people.
2. GOOD THINGS COME WITH TIME & PAIN
Building the Kingdom means building culture, which that takes time and intentionality. We must come to the agreement that Jesus was, is, and will forever be THE greatest leader of all time. We could go into all the reasons why this is true, but the fact that we are still following him thousands of years later is enough for me. Jesus spent three years discipling 12 and retained 11. I believe that Jesus was giving us a model of leadership and discipleship that could take our churches to new levels if we would follow it: discipleship takes time and pain. It's easy to get up in front of a crowd and preach a message - but this isn't discipleship. Discipleship brings proximity close enough to cause pain. What about Judas? You don't think it was painful for Jesus, after 3 years of doing life together, to experience the betrayal and frustration of the discipleship process gone wrong? But what was the value of 11 taking His message to the ends of the earth and igniting the launch of a global movement?
Discipleship takes time & pain - but the payoff is sustained revival. If we put the work in on the front end, we will see quality AND quantity.
3. REAL CHANGE IS CAUGHT MORE THAN TAUGHT
You can teach what you know, but you can only reproduce who you are. Jesus built His entire ministry around pouring Himself out to those who could take His DNA further than He could. He didn't do this through parables or sermons - He did it through every day life. As His disciples, the 12 would follow Him around everywhere. They would see how He ministered to people, how He prayed to His Father and how He made personal and private decisions. Paul said, "Imitate me as I imitate Christ" (1 Cor 11:1) and insisted that people do as he did. This wasn't arrogance - it was confidence in his connection to God. As a leader, your life should be your greatest sermon. You can either teach people to pray or show them how. You can teach them to evangelize or do it with them.
Real change is caught more than taught. Disciples should look like the person they are following. Our generation is desperate for spiritual fathers and mothers to take up the mantle of modeling what it looks like to live this stuff out in real life. Let's answer their cries.
4. DISCIPLESHIP IS EFFICIENCY
Most churches aren't growing because they're relying on the "faithful few" to do all the ministry, while their congregations have never been discipled deeply enough to be activated to do anything more than sit there on Sundays. Ephesians 4 tells us that as Pastors, our job is not to "do the ministry" but to "equip the saints for the work of the ministry." There's a reason why Jesus made disciples of 12 before He required disciples of all nations - it's just plain efficient. Even the Son of God knew that it was impossible for Him to evangelize the entire world alone. He would need a system of MULTIPLICATION, and He could only bring addition. The math was simple - disciple 12 who were deep enough to disciple 12 who would be deep enough to disciple 12, and so on and so forth.
Growing your church is far easier than events and gimmicks - it's true discipleship. Want to avoid burnout? Raise up others to carry on the work. That's efficiency!
5. LEGACY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN LEVERAGE
As leaders, we must prioritize what we are handing off to the next generation more than what we are handling ourselves. Jesus was the greatest model of this - a ministry of only 3 years and then got out of the way so that His followers could step into their moment of ministry. We cannot be stingy and self-absorbed by focusing on how to enlarge our own platforms. We must move away from the idea of "job security" and focus on "Kingdom-building." The legacy we leave will be remembered more than the leverage we have due to our own leadership. Let's focus on empowering others instead of surrounding ourselves with more followers.
I believe what when we come back to the value of discipleship, we will see a radical shift in the growth of our churches worldwide. It'll be the greatest growth spirt in Church history since Acts - not just in numbers, but in depth and power - an army of true Jesus-followers who bring the power of the Gospel to every sphere of influence. Discipleship is the answer!
Jared Ellis was called into ministry at the age of 16 years old, after being delivered out of a life of darkness, depression and depravity. He has traveled all over the world, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and has worked with some of the leading churches in the nation such as Bethel Church and Elevation Church. He pastored in Abilene, Texas for 3 years and grew a youth ministry of 12 students to over 300 - signs, wonders and miracles happening each week. Jared is the author of "Unlocking Your Destiny: Keys To Accessing God's Master Plan For Your Life." He travels full-time as an evangelist and preaches at churches, conferences and events. He is also the GE Director at Christ For The Nations Institute where he teaches and trains Youth Pastors. While at home in Dallas, TX, he serves as a worship leader at Trinity Church.