by Dave Rhodes
Pastors have a heart for disciple making, but do they have the stomach for it?
According to a February 2021 survey of church leaders conducted by the Catapult Group, 82 percent of respondents believed that changing their discipleship process was the biggest win they could gain in the next year. In another survey several months later, half said that as they looked ahead to the next five years, the prospect of creating a disciple-making culture in their church energized them more than anything else.
Yet I wonder, will this renewed heart for disciple making still be pumping five years from now? Or even after one year of focused effort?
Heart is essential to start instilling a disciple making culture, but guts are essential to see it through. It’s hard work that takes a long time and garners few thanks with extended stretches of no evident progress and a finish line that looks like it isn’t getting any closer.
I know this sounds like a discouraging word, but I actually mean it to be the opposite. There’s nothing more discouraging than throwing yourself into a project and not seeing the results you hoped for, especially when you’ve been led to believe that you should see more than you’re seeing and everybody else is having great success. That’s when the devil whispers to us that we’re no good and should just give up.
In reality, the father of lies is terrified of us, because we’re taking a jackhammer to the foundation of his fortress, and he can only stop it by getting us to quit.
We fight lies with truth, and that includes realistic expectations. As you develop a disciple making culture in your church, you can expect three frustrations: no evident progress, people complaining (again), and imperfection. These are normal! They aren’t signs that you’re doing anything wrong—they’re opportunities to grow on the road ahead.
You don’t realize how much you’ve learned about how to function in life until you’re raising children. You find out how many habits you take for granted when you’re responsible for people who don’t have them and show little interest in acquiring them.
This comes home to me every time I see dirty dishes in the kitchen that aren’t in the dishwasher. The rule in our house is that if the dishwasher can take dirty dishes, that’s where they should be. This rule is well-established. Everyone has been instructed to abide by it. Nobody’s unclear about it or denies it. But our children ignore it for long stretches of time.
When I see dirty dishes outside the dishwasher, I groan because of what it requires of me as a parent. I have a choice. One option is to put the dishes in the dishwasher myself. It’s annoying and it interrupts my day, but only briefly. The other option is to travel through the house looking for my children (or, let’s be honest, yelling for them), assemble them, point out the dishes, listen to them deny fault and blame each other, sort out whose responsibility they are, ignore that child’s grumbling, get them to put the dishes in the dishwasher, then check to make sure they actually put all the dishes in and call them back if they didn’t.
One option is easy; the other is hard. I want to pick the easy one, and I often do. I have plenty else to do; it’s not like I budget time in my day to endure the irritating dishwasher ritual. Still, I often pick the hard option instead, because I’m responsible to train my children even if it appears to be producing no fruit whatsoever. (Okay, let’s be honest—it’s my wife, Kim, who usually picks the hard option!)
It’s not as though our kids are showing us gradual progress that we can take heart in. To the contrary, we can go weeks, months, even years with one child never putting their dishes in the dishwasher unless they’re specifically compelled to do it. But we know that we didn’t come out of the womb putting our dishes in the dishwasher as we do now. Somewhere along the way we made the behavior a habit because our parents didn’t give up training us. We find the same thing with our children. At some point a switch flips and they start putting their dishes where they belong. All the time we were trying to train them, we seemed to be getting nowhere. Then one day they start doing it on their own as if they’ve been doing it all their lives.
Making disciples is like this. Whatever behavior or skill you’re training in disciples, it’s always easier and faster to do it yourself. Involving others takes time you don’t have. And working with them often seems to yield no progress. They remain immature in their thinking and priorities, selfish in their commitments and preferences, sluggish and scattered in their performance. But if you stick with it, eventually, all at once, you start seeing goodness coming from them you never saw before. (Look at Jesus and the Twelve!)
This isn’t a problem you can solve with the right technique or resource—it’s inherent in discipling.
The house I grew up in didn’t have a dishwasher for a long time; we had to wash dishes by hand. Dishwashers were invented to make washing dishes easier, but a new machine didn’t solve the problem of getting kids to participate in washing dishes—it can’t. Similarly, we have more discipleship resources than ever before. It’s as if we keep inventing new dishwashers with cooler features. But the coolest dishwasher in the world is not going to get a kid to load it, and the coolest resource in the world is not going to make a disciple. You need to have the stomach to stick with it when people just don’t seem to be getting it.
Developing a disciple-making culture is also hard because people are certain to complain, and that can make a leader miserable.
Of course, people in your church are already complaining, probably more than ever before. We’re living in the golden age of grumbling. So in one respect this isn’t new.
Still, even though people are sure to complain, you can influence what they complain about—you can choose your pain. If people will complain anyway, have you made sure they’ll complain about something that really matters: becoming a disciple-making community?
As Moses learned, you can’t take people from Egypt to the promised land without leading them through the desert. And the desert is no fun. When people complain in the desert and want to go back to Egypt because Egypt was better, they’re right: the way it used to be was better than it is right now, at least as to what’s available for them to consume.
When you start developing a disciple-making culture in your church, people react the same way. They don’t like that you’re raising the standard that you expect of them, and they complain about it. They don’t like that things they enjoyed have been taken away. They want things back the way they were. Even if it wasn’t ideal before, it felt better than it feels now. As they did to Moses, some might try to replace you with a new leader who will take them back to where they used to be. Some might find another church that’s more like what they left behind. Then even if you make it to the edge of the promised land and people can glimpse the genuinely better situation you’ve led them to, they’ll complain that you’re playing favorites and not giving them the attention they deserve.
As people use their voices and their feet to express displeasure, it seems like you lose five times before you win once. Unless you have the stomach to endure those losses—and if you’re a good shepherd, one who is tender, gentle, and compassionate, those losses are heartrending—you’ll never make it to a big win.
For some reason, most people in our culture seem to expect that the first time they do something ought to be the best it’s ever been done. When their effort doesn’t measure up to the ideal, they think something is wrong. In reality, nothing is wrong. We have to do something badly before we can do it better, and we’ll probably never do it best. If we don’t accept that, our perfectionism will halt us from achieving anything.
For instance, let’s say you learn about missional communities. You can imagine the ideal, and you want it. So you devote yourself to it for two years, and after that time and effort you still don’t have one missional community that measures up to what you aimed for. You did all that work, and it looks like you have no progress to show for it. It makes you want to give up.
But it only looks hopeless because you’re comparing your reality to your ideal. But instead imagine comparing the present with the past. If you looked back, you would see that over time you truly did build a connection with neighbors you didn’t have before, and you did see your friends grow from where they were when you started. From this point of view, forming a missional community would look like a good idea because it got you to move.
It’s crucial to gain a stomach for imperfection, because in developing a disciple-making culture, I don’t think we’re ever doing it really well. In the family of churches I serve, we’ve been at this for a long time, and many days I’m still not sure we’re doing it well. When leaders ask to see what we’re doing, I hesitate to show them because we’re not a perfect model. But that’s because I’m holding our work up to an ideal, and all I see is holes. It’s deflating. But when I hold it up to what we used to be, I see progress everywhere. That keeps me going.
Leaders are commonly praised for their foresight, their charisma, their intelligence, and many other qualities. Sometimes their integrity is praised. But to have the stomach to develop a disciple-making culture, leaders need a character quality I rarely hear praised while they’re leading. It isn’t until they stop leading that I hear it celebrated. It’s an attribute that’s among the first things said at a leadership transition or a retirement ceremony or even a funeral.
The quality I’m talking about is steadiness.
Think about it: when a leader steps aside, the first thing people lift up is the steady, consistent work the leader put in faithfully for years. Or if the leader is succeeded by someone without steadiness, it’s the first thing people miss. People celebrate steadiness when it’s over. They rarely celebrate it while the leader is actually exercising it.
It’s such a shame, because it’s while they’re leading that leaders need encouragement to keep at it. When leaders are losing their stomach for disciple making, they need a community around them who still have theirs. Consultants and coaches, mentors and models all have their place. But it’s the people in the muck and mire doing it with you that keep you going. No one develops a disciple-making culture alone.
Yes, disciple making is hard. Frustrations are certain, and steadiness is required. But don’t underestimate the power of making progress in one direction a little at a time. Progress is hardly perceptible over a short run, but it’s plainly visible over the long run.
Don’t underestimate what people will remember about you when your labor is over. Just because you aren’t being celebrated now doesn’t mean you aren’t living a life worth celebrating.
Lots of pastors today have a heart for disciple making. I bet you do too. I pray that God gives you the stomach to see it through.
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