You’ve probably heard most of the illustrations about the power of exponential growth vs. linear growth. For example, if you were able to keep folding a piece of paper in half indefinitely (essentially doubling its height every fold), it would only take you 42 folds to reach the moon. Or, if you started with one dollar and doubled your money every day, by the end of the first week you’d have $64. But by the end of the first month you’d have $268,435,456!
When you think about it, making disciples of Jesus could be like this. If I make, say, 8 disciples, and they all make 6 disciples each, and all of those people make 4 disciples each, you end up with 248 disciples of Jesus by the third generation. The exponential equation only gets more incredible after that. And all I have to do in the first generation is make 8 disciples. So why do we find it hard to invest our energy in making disciples who can make disciples? I can think of a couple reasons.
1. The gap between linear and exponential
The gap in the graph above is a clue as to one of the reasons. Investing in an exponential discipleship equation is a long-term endeavor that requires us to maintain focus and not get sidetracked by the short-term “lack of results.” Western church leaders are accustomed to quick return on investment and think that something must be wrong if we’re not seeing immediate results.
For example, in 2004 when Paul Maconochie took over leading St. Thomas’ Church in Sheffield, UK (after Mike Breen left), they saw almost no growth at all for three years (and the entire senior staff team left). I can imagine being tempted to panic, but as they continued to invest in the exponential equation of discipleship, the church has now more than doubled in size (and they only count disciples, not attendance).
Leaders need an immense amount of patience, focus, and faith to endure those kinds of seasons, because oftentimes the growth isn’t constant. We’re used the timelines of linear growth, not the exponential timelines of discipleship. Everyone loves an exponential equation once it reaches a tipping point, but at first it will always feel like you’re “not doing enough” and you’ll be tempted to take energy away from discipleship and put it into things that produce more short-term “results” (especially if you’re feeling pressure to “pay the bills” or impress those who are).
2. Relative anonymity
Another reason that it’s hard to invest in the exponential equation of discipleship is that we won’t get to take all the credit. Exponential growth means that you don’t personally get to invest in everyone. Good fruit may blossom a few generations out from you that you are completely unaware of, which means you can’t claim it or control it or directly benefit from it.
People who truly invest in the exponential equation of discipleship sacrifice most of the public accolades that could be theirs if they invested in “getting their name out there” or getting on the conference circuit. So that’s just a good gut-check for us: do you want to make disciples or do you just want to be famous? Our desires to control outcomes, manage our reputations, and be in the limelight are major hindrances to exponential growth.
What do you think? Are these accurate, in your view? Can you think of other reasons we don’t see more leaders investing in the exponential equation of discipleship?