We cannot disciple people en mass. It simply doesn't work. It might appear to work, but it doesn't consistently produce the maturity and multiplication necessary for sustainable Kingdom impact. We cannot get an auditorium full of people to experience ongoing transformation without intentional relationships as well. You cannot disciple people without knowing them.
Jesus often drew a crowd and the masses were enthralled with him, but he chose only twelve to be his closest companions. He preached to the masses and fed the multitudes, but he chose only twelve to be his apostles. Jesus healed the sick and loved the unlovable, but he entrusted the stewardship of his message to only twelve. Jesus' example shows us that even if we can draw a crowd, we cannot ignore the necessity of intentionally investing in a few strategic relationships.
Mass discipleship is appealing. It feels like a quicker pathway and in the short-term, it probably is. If we can fine tune our systems and environment on Sunday mornings, we can draw a crowd. And that isn't such a bad thing, but it becomes a problem if we pursue it at the expense of the discipleship that happens through intentional relationships. As we saw with Jesus, there are many in the crowds who loved to simply be part of the crowd. But when the pressure of life came, they happily deserted the celebrity they followed to join the new trend.
We need to get into relationships
We like to drift toward isolation rather than relationship. Our preference is to remain hidden, not needing to reveal the deepest parts of us, because it is scary to be vulnerable. Exposing our fears, sins and struggles with requires intentionality with others, because it is more natural to stay hidden than it is to step into the light. It can be easy to hide in the crowd - often it's the easiest place to hide.
We all need to take on the responsibility of investing in our relationships with others. Don't wait for someone else to invite you out to lunch or ask you if you need prayer. Don't wait for someone else to suggest going to a baseball game or meeting to study the Bible. Feel the weight of that responsibility and find ways to initiate and invest in disciple-making relationships.
This is for everyone
No matter your stage of life or maturity as a Christian, this is for you. Whether you are discipling others in the role of a mentor, or you initiate a relationship of mutual discipleship with a peer, or whether you seek out an older and more mature believer to invest in you and your growth, discipleship requires relational investment. And no matter where you are in your own life, you can initiate this sort of relationship.
Church leaders must also consider this dynamic as we create systems and structures in our congregations. Have we given enough thought to how our models and programs are helping our people to invest in relationships? It can be easy to develop strategies and systems to reach the masses, with the hope that it will accelerate growth. But there is no shortcut to developing mature Christians, and it will always require life-on-life, getting into the weeds, laughing, crying, transparent and sacrificial relationships. Are your church structures helping to facilitate this sort of relational investment in your people?
It's about multiplication
Jesus was not necessarily concerned with the crowds of his day, but he did have a disciple-making movement in mind. He was most particularly concerned with his closest twelve, because he knew they would multiply into a massive movement of people. What started as twelve is now a worldwide movement of billions.
The vision is that our relationships would lead to the multiplication of many more disciples. This strategy won't fill stadiums, and it won't lead to your own celebrity status, but it will have an immeasurable impact on the Kingdom.
There are men who have invested in me over the years, who were once upon a time invested in by others. Their work has lead toward my own growth and re-investment into other men, who are now scattered around the world. The men whom I have invested in are now doing the same for others. It truly is immeasurable, because it would be impossible to know the full impact of those relational networks.
It's never too late to start
Whether you are an individual and you are thinking about your own life, or whether you are a church leader and you are thinking about your congregation's systems and structures, it is never too late to start. You may feel like the 35-year old who has saved no money, and you have lost out on many years of the powerful effect of compound interest. It is never too late to start. Better to begin now than at age 55.
Like a 401k, discipleship through relational investment, leading to multiplication, also takes advantage of the powerful principle of compound interest. It isn't about your ability to fill pews on the following Sunday, but about the ongoing discipleship possibilities in the decades to come. You may have missed out on some of your past opportunities to invest in discipleship like this, but it is not too late to start. Better now than never.