The Cost of Disciple-Making

Bethlehem 2017 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders | Minneapolis

No disrespect to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote The Cost of Disicpleship, but Christians are called to more than mere discipleship. We are indeed called to embrace the cost of discipleship — make no mistake about that — to following Jesus, denying self, taking up our cross, and walking in the steps of our Lord, with all the believing, praying, giving, loving, and serving that involves. This is the first and most basic aspect of Christian discipleship: being a disciple of Jesus.

But Jesus himself calls us to more than just following him. Better put, his call to discipleship includes the call to disciple-making. Those who are disciples of Jesus seek to “observe all that [he] commanded” us (Matthew 28:20). And when Jesus said that in his Great Commission, what was the most recent thing he had commanded? “Make disciples.”

Being a disciple of Jesus involves following a person whose pattern of life was emphatically not monastic, nor was it, on the other hand, preoccupied with the masses. He got alone to pray (Mark 1:35), and he preached the crowds (Mark 2:13), but then we have the Gospels’ curious glimpses into how he invested the bulk of his ministry: with those few men to whom he had called, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He told the world his enigmatic parables (Matthew 13:34), then drew his Twelve aside and explained riddles for them (Matthew 13:36). Even Jesus’s “alone time” was often with his men. “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him” (Luke 9:18). After all, why had he called them? “He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him . . .” (Mark 3:14).

Jesus was willing to bless the masses, but what drove his ministry was investing in the few who would lead the church after his inimitable redemptive work was accomplished and he returned to his Father.

Jesus’s own life was not one of mere personal holiness and uninterrupted focus on his Father. His time and attention moved beyond his own purity and vertical faithfulness. He not only counted the cost of discipleship, but he embraced the cost of disciple-making.

My hope for the session is that it might somehow serve as a catalyst for us to do what we already know we should do, and in some ways want to do, but simply haven’t or aren’t, because everything else in life seems to be going another direction than life-on-life disciplemaking.

We live in a day of ceaseless distraction. We think mass production as we look for the next life-hack. It may be obvious to us what we really should be doing in ministry, into what basket it is wisest to be putting our eggs, but we’re being carried in just about every other direction. There’s pressure to plan and execute endless events, and pressure to watch the number of people coming in and out of the doors. Perhaps your church expects you to do just about everything, except spend serious time discipling a few who will one day disciple others.

Maybe today is the first time you’re really hearing about life-on-life disciplemaking, but for most of us that’s not the case. We know all about it; we’re just not doing it. Because we haven’t yet been willing to embrace the costs. We intuit the costs, but we haven’t embraced them.

And my hope this afternoon is that God’s Spirit, through God’s word, would help us over our hurdles, not by hiding how costly disciplemaking is, but by being utterly honest and explicit about the costs, and holding them out in the light for us to see, and then finding whether something in us might just rise to the peculiar glory of it all. God makes foolish the wisdom of the world, with its short cuts and mass production, through the folly of disciplemaking. As he did when his Son took a rag-tag band of uneducated peasants, invested in them at depth, and launched them out to change the world.

1. What Is Disciple-Making?

In emphasizing the Christian call to disciple-making, not mere discipleship, I don’t want, in any way, to minimize the increasing cost of true Christian discipleship in our day. There is indeed a cost to following Jesus, as he says in Luke 14:25–33, especially verse 33: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

Yes, there is a cost to discipleship. Let’s not neglect or minimize that. But we’re not here to talk simply about the cost of following Jesus, but the increased cost of one particular aspect of following him — which is being his instrument in making others into followers of him.

And by “making others into followers of Jesus,” I don’t simply mean evangelism and conversion. Disciplemaking begins there, but it does not end there. Not even close. When Jesus says, “Make disciples,” he doesn’t only flesh that out with “baptizing them,” but also with “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Baptism, like conversion, happens in a moment. It’s a glorious event. The angels rejoice, with all those who love Jesus. But “teaching them to observe all that [he] commanded” does not happen in a moment. Making disciples has a clear event at the beginning and then unfolds into an involved, extended, time-consuming process.

So before we explore what some of the costs of that involved, extended, time-consuming process are, let me give you one more anchor text on disciplemaking. We’ve already mentioned the Great Commission, which is our Lord’s charter to his church, and the first pillar of disciplemaking, but let me draw in a second that addresses you, in particular, as pastor-leaders in the church. I know you’ve heard it before, but I’m praying that God would renew this charge and its clarity in our souls this afternoon. Let’s put 2 Timothy 2:2 in context and read verses 1–7. So 2 Timothy 2:1–7:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. 3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. 5 An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 6 It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. 7 Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

This is a charge that has ripple effects for the whole church, in how we think about ministry and how the kingdom moves forward, but the center of the bullseye is the pastor-elders, the formal leaders of the church. “Teach” is a loaded word throughout the Bible, and in the New Testament it has special ties to the teaching office of the church, called “pastor” or “elder” or “overseer.” And verse 2 mentions “teaching.”

Now, there is a sense in which all Christians should be “teachers” (Hebrews 5:12), but in particular, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, the “teachers” are the elders. An expressly stated qualification for the pastoral office in the local church is “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), perhaps even better, “skillful in teaching.” Titus 1:9: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

So disciplemaking in the local church begins with the elders. And if the elders lead the congregation in this, then it soon will shape how the congregation thinks and goes about Christian ministry in the lives of others. And what is disciplemaking? It is personal attention and guidance from one spiritual generation to the next. It’s essentially spiritual parenting. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Four generations here: Paul to Timothy, Timothy to faithful men, faithful men to others also, and on and on.

So, I define disciplemaking as intentionally and relationally investing oneself in the spiritual growth and maturity of a few disciples — part of which is training those disciples to then disciple others who disciple others. I have a little triad, see if you find this helpful, for capturing what I think are the essential components of life-on-life disciplemaking: content, intent, and context.

  • The content is the gospel. This is what we center on and aim to pass to the next generation. Not our quirks and idiosyncrasies and hobbyhorses, but the main things. Not the backroom, one-off conversations, but “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses” — our story and song, the heart of the faith.

  • The intent is multiplication. It’s not merely addition; just simply discipling. It’s making disciples who make disciples. Part of the disciplemaking process is training up disciples who will then turn and themselves make disciples.

  • The context is relationship. It is personal and time-consuming. Books and sermons and conferences and articles play a wonderful supplementary part in the discipleship process, but no distant writer, speaker, or preacher can sit across the table from you and apply Christian truth precisely to your specific life because he’s knows you in particular and has seen your sins and patterns. Real-live relationship is vital.

So we’re not just talking discipleship, but an important and especially costly aspect of discipleship called disciple-making. Not just being a disciple of Jesus, but “sharing one’s own self” as Paul talks about in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 so that others also might be mature in following Jesus.

2. What Makes Disciplemaking So Hard?

Now I want to try to capture some of the biggest of the many costs of investing in others’ lives like this. We could list dozens of costs, no doubt, and approach organizing them in many different ways, but here’s what I’d like to do: I’d like for us to keep reading beyond 2 Timothy 2:2 to verses 3 and 4 and 5 and 6, and let this passage shape our approach to the costs. Surely you, just like me, can think of costs that aren’t immediately in these four verses. That’s okay. We don’t need a comprehensive list of all of them; if we can get enough sense of the big ones, that will serve our purposes (and I do find that these verses mention or get close enough to the big ones to help us count the cost of disciplemaking).

Where we’re heading is I want to highlight six costs related to verses 4–6, but first let’s look at verse 3.

Share in Suffering (verse 3)

For those of us who have heard 2 Timothy 2:2 so often, and likely even can repeat it from memory, how often have we considered verse 3? Without looking it up, can you tell me how verse 3 starts? It says, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”

Once Paul gives Timothy the charge to make disciples who make disciples, the very next thing he says is “Share in suffering.” And should we really be surprised? The Master disciple-maker was put to death on a cross. And Timothy’s own discipler is writing this letter to him from prison. Paul wasn’t in prison just for being a disciple of Jesus. If he would have just loved Jesus and kept it to himself, no one would have bothered to go to all the trouble to put Paul into prison. But what got him locked up was that he made disciples of Jesus. He was fruitful in multiplying his life.

1. Opposition

So we can start with this cost in verse 3: One of the costs of disciplemaking can be opposition, even persecution. Enemies of Jesus don’t typically bother opposing Christians who keep to themselves. It’s not worth the hassle. But when followers of Jesus are fruitful in making disciples, they become strategic targets for resistance. Very few today oppose simply holding the Christian faith; it’s proselytizing — or disciple-making – that will get you in trouble.

Verses 4–6, then, give us three illustrations: the solider, the athlete, and the farmer, and in each of these we can identify various costs. I’ll identify two with each (for a total of six), but it would be very easy to point out more.

The Soldier (verse 4)

Verse 4: “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.”

2. Attention

We live in the age of distraction. And not only will disciplemaking be sidelined if we smartphone and entertain ourselves to death, but Satan has a thousand readymade, event-oriented distractions to divert us from pleasing Jesus in the grunt work of advancing the gospel through the process of disciplemaking. We are bombarded not just by obvious time-wasters, but good initiatives that, if we’re not careful, will not just supplement disciplemaking, but supplant it. So the first cost is not getting “entangled in civilian pursuits,” but keeping our mission, the Great Commission in mind. And an aspect of this is not just attention in our schedule, but attention in the moment.

3. Pleasing others

This is very hard for some of us (others can find it way too easy!). Our aim is “to please the one who enlisted” us, not anyone who walks through the door or joins the church or anyone who considers themselves worthy of our investment. One of the hardest aspects of the disciplemaking process is “selection.” Jesus chose twelve, and in doing so left out hundreds, even thousands, who would have benefited from his time and energy. In disciplemaking, we must remember our aim is to please Jesus, and this will cost us favor with certain persons when we have to say no to our involvement in their program or event or even to discipling them in particular, because we’re sensing the call to invest in a few.

The Athlete (verse 5)

Verse 5: “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”

4. Perseverance

Disciplemaking often feels like a really long lap around the stadium. It would be so much easier to take a short cut across the field. There is great temptation to cut corners by constructing mechanism after mechanism, and program after program, for mass-producing disciples. But disciples who make disciples can’t be mass-produced. I’ve seen it again and again where Christians made by event after event, but not coupled with intentional, relational, gospel-centered disciplemaking, go haywire at the strangest times. Defaulting to the easier, often more single-event, hype-oriented methods doesn’t produce the same depth of gospel transformation, and then gospel transmission and multiplication, as life-on-life disciplemaking.

5. Energy

Another cost the athlete image calls to mind is the energy it involves to disciple. Early-morning and late-night intense conversations are demanding. It’s much easier to avoid them and just watch TV. Disciplemaking costs us energy. But when you have a one-on-one meeting scheduled after a long day, or you have an early morning appointment after a short night, the discipler says with Paul, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15). When we think we can’t do any more, we keep pushing to the finish line, like an athlete, as we learn the invaluable dynamic of serving in another’s strength.

Another way to say it is that it costs us comfort. It costs us comfort to say hard things to those we’re investing in. There is no real discipling of sinners without telling someone things about themselves that they don’t want to hear and you don’t want to say.

The Farmer (verse 6)

Verse 6: “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”

Perhaps one cost we might count here under “farmer” is recognition. We know loads of athletes, but know many famous farmers? If you want to be well known, disciplemaking is not the most effective path. Much better to write and speaker. Pour your energy into something more immediately scalable. To make disciples, at depth, means you pour the best of your thought and time and energy into private interactions that you can’t leverage to make you look good to thousands. To embrace disciple-making is to embrace obscurity in some real ways. But that’s not what I have in mind with the farmer.

6. Taking the Initiative

Perhaps initiative is where some in this room are hung up in making disciples. You have a vision. You see men who seem to be good fits for your investment for a season, but simply taking the initiative to have that potentially awkward conversation about getting together regularly to read the Bible and pray has you hung up. Initiative is so huge today. So much of leadership is simply initiative. You don’t have to have all the answers; you don’t need to have everything figured out. Others just need someone to risk the awkwardness and risk being misunderstood and take the initiative to get the process going. And with it, planning: taking the time to think through the plan: how often will we meet, where will we meet, what if anything will we study together, how long will the commitment be, in what areas does this person need to learn and grow?

7. Time

Disicplemaking, like raising crops, is time-consuming. It take time to plow the field, time to plant, time to water, time to fertilize, then time to harvest. So with discplemaking. It’s not one meeting, but often a year’s worth of regular meetings. It’s not one conversation, but sometime difficult conversation after conversation. Which requires patience. Like with crops, we don’t typically see the progress all at once, but over the course of months, it’s amazing what kind of harvest can happen.

More Blessed to Give

In sum, disciplemaking is costly because it is giving, giving, giving. Giving time, giving energy, giving attention, taking initiative, making sacrifices, facing opposition, shedding tears. Disciplemaking means sharing your own self, spending and being spent. Giving, giving, giving. And we have a Savior who said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The heart of a disciple says, “It makes me happier for you to have my time, my energy, my attention, my initiative than for me to keep them to myself.

God does richly reward the costs in disciplemaking. We’ve already seen it in the soldier working to please the one who enlisted him, and the athlete receiving a crown, and the farmer sharing in the crops. So let’s close with the incentive, with the reward. Let me give me you three glimpses from the New Testament about the particular joys that are commensurate with emptying yourself to fill up what is lacking in others through disciplemaking.

3. What Makes It Worth the Cost?

Here are three tastes from the New Testament, among others:

First is 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20. Paul writes, “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” I would not have expected him to say it like that — would you? What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting at Jesus coming? The Thessalonians are Paul’s glory and joy? What makes discipling worth the cost is that those in whom we invest become, in a real and sanctified sense, our glory and joy. Not in completion with our joy in Jesus, but as a completion of it. Those in whom we invest are not the enemies of our joy in Christ, but the expression of our joy in him.

The second is just a few verse later in 1 Thessalonians 3:6–10. Just in case you wondered if Paul got a little carried away in 2:19–20, here’s 3:6–10:

Now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— 7 for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. 8 For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

It is “good news” (that’s sacred language for Paul) that the Thessalonians are well. “Now we live,” he says, since the report came that they are well. His joy has been deeply tied to those in whom he has invested. To hear they are well in the faith gives him a joy that is hard to express. And again, this is a holy, not idolatrous, joy, in good conscience before God. His soul is tied to their souls in a way that too few of us have tasted. Verse 9: “all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God” — a joy in God he would not have apart from them.

Finally, maybe my favorite, 3 John 4: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” No greater joy. If I would have been standing there as the apostle John wrote that sentence, I might have finished it differently. What if he had written, “I have no greater joy than . . .” and then paused and said, “How would you finish the sentence?” I would have said, “Jesus.” But John says, “to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” How can he say that? Because this is just how Jesus would have it: that our joy in him wouldn’t be inward and sequestered from others, but that it would grow and expand and mature and draw others in — that our joy would become greater as we invest at depth in particular individuals for an extended period of time, and see God work to give the growth.

So, disciplemaking is costly — and designed by God, when healthy, to be a great joy-producing enterprise. Not easy. It’s hard work. But deeply rewarding, with joys you will not otherwise taste apart from God’s work in and through you in disciplemaking.