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Becoming a Disciple Takes Three Years

If you want to get good at something, experience tells us that it takes time. Malcom Gladwell suggests that on average it takes 10,000 hours practice, or about three years, to become an expert in an area. The best musicians may start out as child prodigies, but they had to continue to practice …
By Seth Barnes

If you want to get good at something, experience tells us that it takes time. Malcom Gladwell suggests that on average it takes 10,000 hours practice, or about three years, to become an expert in an area.

The best musicians may start out as child prodigies, but they had to continue to practice on into adulthood if they wanted to be counted among the best.

So how long does it take to become a disciple?

As he traveled the Galilean hillside, Jesus took about three years to train his disciples. It makes sense that it should take at least that long for the rest of us. The fact is, that’s a minimum – most of us will take a lot longer to grow to a place where we are spiritually strong.

How do we know?

How do we arrive at the three year number? Although the Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us it was three years, scholars make that estimate based on a number of factors:

  • The gospels tell us that Herod the Great persecuted the Jews and that Mary and Joseph had to flee. Herod died in 4 BC, so we know that Jesus had to be born before then. Luke 3:23 says that he was “about 30 years of age” at that time that he started preaching.
  • Luke 3:1 tells us John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign. Tiberius was appointed in 11 AD. 15 years later would be 26 AD.
  • In John 2:20 the Jews tell Jesus, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years. Given that the temple project began in 18 BC, this indicates that Jesus had this conversation around 28 AD.
  • When you look at estimates concerning Jesus’ death as corroborated by Josephus and Tacitus, scholars place the date of his crucifixion as being no earlier than 30 AD.
  • Interestingly, a number of astronomers beginning with Isaac Newton have estimated the date of the crucifixion as having occurred on 23 April, AD 34. Newton calculated the relative visibility of the crescent of the new moon.

Three years wasn’t enough

Actually, even three years wasn’t enough. Three years of intensely challenging life together was just barely adequate to get them to a place where the disciples were succeeding as much as they were failing.

At the end of three years, Jesus’ disciples still looked like a mess. Jesus’ best disciple, Peter, the rock upon which Jesus said he’d build his church, was like a spiritual toddler falling down as he learned to walk. There he is walking on water one minute and chopping off a soldier’s ear or denying Jesus multiple times the next minute.

Along the way, Peter got plenty of real life faith tests followed by immediate debriefings from Jesus.  Each time he failed, Peter could look at his spiritual reflection and see his brokenness.

Three years was enough for Peter to absorb Jesus’ teachings, to observe his life, and to begin trying to model his own life accordingly. But it wasn’t enough time to develop a consistent faith. He needed even more time for that to happen.

We take short cuts

So, what are we to do in this modern day? First, we need to recognize the role that culture has played in our understanding of how to grow spiritually. We live in a society that prizes efficiency. We are raised looking for short cuts. We are forever shopping for new apps on our iphones that will make our lives easier.

It’s only natural that we would want to cut corners on discipling our young people. We outsource our discipleship to youth groups and give them a few hours a week. In that short time, we hope that they’ll learn enough religion to not embarrass us or get in too much trouble.

The urge to find spiritual short cuts was similar in Jesus’ day. Lots of people came to hear Jesus preach. But few stuck around to do life with him. Those are the ones who got to experience deep life change.

My experience

Most of my adult life I’ve sought to find a way around the long road of commitment that Jesus’ pattern of relationship requires.  It just takes a lot longer than I realized. You have to walk with a mentor – you have to be able to see his or her model. 
You need to see your mentor risk big and fail big in front of you. You deserve to see that both are possible and that life goes on afterwards. You deserve to see your mentor at play and to see him or her when they’re tired.
It took my own children to show me the depth of investment necessary.  Ask them and they’ll talk to you about a process that has spanned years and years. Most are in their twenties now and we still talk all the time.
I remember early 2002. The nation was still reeling from the shock of 9/11. My kids were growing up in a dangerous world, and I felt God whispering to me, “Make them more dangerous in me than the world in which they’re being raised.”
All of them were teenagers and I could sense my window of opportunity was closing. So our family prayed together and God led us to spend half a year studying the book of Acts and then going to Peru for a month to practice what we’d been learning.
They evangelized, they preached, they saw healings and they planted churches. They were able to walk out for themselves what they’d studied. And as the years passed, they each went on a gap year that further cemented their faith.
With all that, they still need encouragement and periodic coaching. Walking out a life of faith takes a lot of investment. Three years of intense discipleship is just a start.
What about you? What has been your experience? Has someone invested intentionally in you? Have you aside three years to cement your faith? What would it take to do that?
Your life is precious and it should be wild, not tame. It takes time, years even, to unwind bad habits and domesticated ways. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will you be.
Three years is a good start. You are worth the investment.

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