In reflecting on the process of making disciples that I’m learning to practice, I’ve realized that it involves a real death to self for the leader at every stage along the way. As Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is certainly true in making disciples.
In fact, the success of the discipling process depends largely on the leader’s willingness to die to their own desires, laying down their lives for those they are discipling. The death is slightly different in every stage, but it is a death nonetheless, which perhaps explains why many find it easier to just keep doing ministry as usual. Here are my observations about how a leader dies to self in the first couple stages of the discipling journey.
Death in the First Phase
A discipling relationship starts when a leader decides that they are going call someone else to follow them (typically this is done in small groups, like Jesus did it, but let’s just focus on a leader and a disciple for now). This is when a leader gives a strong, clear vision for others to follow.
The leader dies in this phase by casting clear enough vision for people to say “No thanks.” The temptation is always to sugar-coat the vision in order to rally more people around it, because it feels like you’ll have a better chance of success with more people. Plus it feels like a validation of the awesomeness of your vision! This is what you need to die to.
The leader dies in the first phase by being willing to see people leave because they don’t resonate with the vision. You need to be willing to say, kindly but firmly, “This is where I’m going. I’d love for you to come, but you don’t have to. But regardless of whether you come or not, this is where I’m going.”
Mike Breen says that a discipling culture means that everyone looks like a sheep from the front and a shepherd from the back. The death in the first phase is being willing to let people go if they don’t see you as a shepherd. We have to be willing to step out in the role of the shepherd, calling others to imitate us as we imitate Christ.
Death in the Second Phase
After a leader has called a group of people together around a vision, it’s kind of fun and exciting for awhile, but then reality hits. People begin to realize they’ve got all kinds of junk in their lives that needs to be taken care of. Character issues surface, incompetencies rear their ugly heads, frustration seems to be flourishing, fruit is not forthcoming, the vision seems unattainable and people are sorely tempted to quit altogether or go find another vision.
This phase is the hardest, longest, and most important part of the journey for the disciples. And they almost never get through it unless the leader can undergo a second death. The leader needs to offer an abundance of time, vision, and grace during this phase, becoming a patient coach to get them through. One of the temptations for leaders during this phase is to selfishly guard your time and not give your disciples enough access to your life.
The leader dies in the second phase by being willing to be interrupted and inconvenienced by the disciple’s struggles and needs, by giving access when it would be easier to keep the walls up, by taking a phone call when you’d rather go to bed. The leader lays down the independent use of his time in the second phase, allowing herself to become a ladder for others to climb out of the pit of the second phase.
I’m sure there are other deaths a leader must die to make disciples. These are simply recent personal experiences for me. The “aha” moment for me was simply realizing that making disciples is less of a mechanical systematic process and more of a continual surrender to Christ, increasing death to self, and fruitfulness emerging from weakness and brokenness.