To ‘make disciples,’ first become one (Part 2)

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” (1 Cor 1:26-27)

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Hebrews 5:12)

Do you have any experience?

How many times in your working life have you heard that, whether applying for a brand-new job or assuming a different role in the same company or agency?

If you’re on the job-offering side of the equation and you value efficiency, quality and success, it’s the indispensable standard you use to measure every applicant. And usually the most important standard.

Just suppose you went to an engineering firm with your diploma in hand from a prestigious university. They might be momentarily impressed, and you might be politely received with the promise of taking a look at your résumé, and then, perhaps, an offer to start at entry level tasks.

But I want to be in a senior position, with a lot of responsibility.

The H.R. person gives you a dubious look, and then says, As I said, we can offer you an entry level position.

But I have all this knowledge—from one of the best engineering schools in the United States—and that knowledge should qualify me for a higher level of responsibility.

The H.R. person: But you have no experience. [Shaking his head] No one puts someone like you in a senior leadership position just because they have a lot of knowledge.

Really? Are you sure about that?

Don’t churches do it all the time? Academic training and the doctrinal purity it imparts take precedence over experience.

In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus assigns us the greatest task of the work of the ministry: making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything the Lord commanded. It takes place on two levels: in the church, believers are turned into disciples who then, in turn, make disciples of those outside the church.

The problem: Many of us don’t have the experience to accomplish this. We know we should do it—it’s a command, after all, and we’ve heard it preached a dozen times—but we don’t know how to do it.

And the how part isn’t how to develop a winsome, easygoing style when talking with someone, or when to segue the discussion of the Netflix movie to an analogy to some scriptural truth, or how to compress the gospel message into a 2-minute power-packed presentation.

It’s not about techniques, essentially turning a spiritual transaction into a technological problem to be solved, as if we were inert matter to be transformed magically into something else (like alchemists used to do).

I mean we don’t know how to be disciples ourselves. That’s the missing experience, being disciples.

You see, the non-religious world has a tried-and-true formula for success. Once you latch onto something you like to do (at least sort of) or seem to have an aptitude for, you start doing it over and over, 40 hours a week, sometimes with someone else looking over your shoulder to offer advice, sometimes on your own.

By doing it over and over you get better at it. You become more efficient because you’ve acquired, slowly and incrementally, the understanding of how it works, the right emphasis to put on each phase of the work, the ability to discern and then anticipate problems and how to avoid them.

The experience we lack is what James described in plain terms: “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (Jas 1:22) [rendered “be doers of the word” in the Amplified Classic translation, and you can’t get any plainer than that].

The knowledge we acquire as disciples transforms church from a place we go to hear about God to a place we hear from God, because that weekly meeting is part of an all-encompassing relationship, not a discourse on a set of theological propositions.

Have you ever a read an article or a passage in a book about someone you know and stopped when you realized that the description sounds nothing like them? The person you’ve spent time with, talked with, argued with, sat across the table from, forgave or been forgiven by? You would be justified in wondering who knows the subject better—the author or you.

Likewise, in a Sunday school class or small group discussion on some topic, you can always distinguish the person who knows something of the mind of God from the person who’s read three books on the subject but who keeps God at arm’s length.

And if I found myself in a tight spot that required great faith, I’d rather be in the company of the apostles Peter and John—of whom the Sanhedrin “took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13)—than Nicodemus, “Israel’s teacher” who couldn’t understand spiritual basics (Jn 3:5-15).

I hope and pray you don’t stumble over what I’ve said or get offended by its simplicity. Knowledge puffs up; simplicity punctures that.

I am well-educated (post-graduate degree), but it took becoming like “a little child” to realize that to be a leader of anything or anyone in his kingdom, I first had to obey that initial command: “Follow me.” Leaders are made from followers.

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