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Discipleship should take at least 3 years

Partly it’s our puritanical drive for efficiency.  Partly it’s our microwaved McMuffin approach to life.  We want to cut corners on discipleship when we need to take at least three long years.  We outsource our discipleship to youth groups and give them a few hours a week.  Bu…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Partly it’s our puritanical drive for efficiency.  Partly it’s our microwaved McMuffin approach to life.  We want to cut corners on discipleship when we need to take at least three long years.  We outsource our discipleship to youth groups and give them a few hours a week.  But to do what? Sprinkle them with spiritual fairy dust?  Whatever our intent, we need to rethink our methods – they aren’t working. 

Jesus took three years to disciple his disciples and they still looked like a mess in the end.  Three years of intensive, personal, challenging life together was just barely enough to get them to a place where they were succeeding as much as they were failing.

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.

It took about three years and 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.

If you’re in the business of discipling others, there is no way around it.  If the Master took three years and his best pupil was still failing half the time, then how long should you and I be prepared to devote?
I calculate that Jesus invested approximately 15,000 hours in his disciples (5,000 hours/year of constant modeling, teaching and debriefing).  Then their spirits were seared by watching him die, and then they spent days waiting for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  Who are we to do any less?
Most of my adult life I’ve sought to find a way around the long road of commitment that Jesus’ pattern of relationship requires.  I’ve done the Sunday youth group and thrown myself at Bible studies and pizza parties in an effort to disciple young people.  And they all have their place.  It just takes a lot longer than I realized. You have to walk with them – they have to be able to see your model.  You have to risk big and fail big in front of them.  They have to see that both are possible. They have to see you at play and see you when you’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 spanned years and years.  They’re in their twenties now and we still talk all the time. I couldn’t be prouder of the way they follow their master.
That’s the kind of discipleship pattern that Jesus modeled. There really are no short cuts.

Comments (11)

  • Great blog Seth! You must have the same bible as me, the one that reads “Go make disciples of all Nations” rather than the alternate Bible of ” Go make converts to put bums on seats in churches” version!

  • Pastor George Kinyanjui

    Hi Seth. This is my first time to read your articles. I am from South Africa and i pastor a church here. Reading these articles on discipleship have sparked something in me. I want to fulfill the Great Commission. I want to follow the pattern of Jesus Christ on discipleship. Plse tell me how i can get more resources on this subject. Thank You

  • Amen Seth, discipleship is doing life WITH someone. We had a certain student that got into some trouble with drugs several years ago. The parents approached the pastor and me complaining that we don’t have people trained to spot these issues in students…My response was that it was an issue of him lacking discipleship and that I only have them around 3-4 hours per week on average and that’s simply not enough time to make them into disciples or give them any meaningful discipleship. (I eluded to the fact that this was the parent’s job…big mistake!) To be honest, this was frustrating because one of my passions is making disciples and being discipled, but the church model we were operating in just didn’t offer this kind of personal interaction. I’ve been looking at youth ministry specifically and it appears to be rather dysfunctional from a discipleship point of view, IMO…fun, challenging and necessary? yes, but that’s not the great commission. Generally speaking, youth ministries (and the same could be said of many churches) do a great job of getting people interested in the kingdom and even through the front door, we make converts, but we’re failing at making Christ followers…

    Great post Seth!

  • In order to dciple how Jesus did, the discipled and the discipled must be unemployed. And foresake all other areas of life. You also have to look at the specific situation at that time. Jesus was teaching a new covenant, it was the start of the church.

    So for many, most, nearly all….3 years simply will not work. You have just put God in a box.

    Discipleship can take place over 3 weeks or a lifetime. Older men are to council the younger. That in itself is discipleship. 3 years something that was specific for Jesus. It doesn’t mean that we must everything exactly the same as what happened in the New Testament. God does not work in formulas. He gives us guidelines to follow…not cookie cutters.

    • This is good pushback on my thesis. Of course we can’t apply Jesus’ wineskin exactly to our time. However, I look at not only what he did, but what it takes to make disciples who are as sold out and consecrated as he wanted.

      In my 30 years experience discipling, it takes the kind of focus and experience that Jesus gave his disciples to unwind all that we have assimilated in living lives organized around meeting our own needs in a culture that militates against his values. In other words, his intense model may seem anachronistic, but it is the only thing that I have seen that works.

  • Yes it definitely takes focus. But saying that 3 years is how to do it limits people. We don’t even know how long each of the Apostles was discipled by Jesus. It’s a guess for each of them. So to say 3 years based on what Jesus did is inaccurate. Adding a number where Jesus never did is adding ones own formula. Paul successfully discipled Timothy, but in some aspects it looked different than how Jesus did it. So to say that there is one specific way that only works is not true. God does not work only in one way…which is why there have been church “movements” throughout history. There are general guidelines we follow. But to say there is one way is not true. There is only one thing that can be said is one way, that is to the ather through Jesus. In all other areas we see God do things differently with different people. Discipleship included. And we only get a glimpse of how Jesus spent time with each Apostle (disciples before Apostles obviously). So we don’t know how differently he worked with them and preparaired them. So the point being, guidelines are good to follow. But formulas are mans wisdom. God doesn’t work in formulas. He works in so many different ways we can’t fathom it. Yes we see consistencies, but that’s where the general guidelines come from.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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