The Discipleship Square: Multiplying Disciples

To learn more about the Discipleship Square, get a copy of Building a Culture of Discipleship by Mike Breen available through 3DM.

Key Scriptures Matthew 28:16-20, Philippians 4:9, and I Thessalonians 1:4-10, especially verses 6-7

Leadership squarePart of discipleship is learning to help others become disciples.   In I Thessalonians, Paul writes, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” But Paul was not discipled directly by Jesus. Paul was probably discipled by Barnabas, who was discipled by Peter, who was discipled by Jesus. Paul was a fourth generation disciple. And Paul discipled others like Timothy and Titus, who in turn discipled still more.

Discipleship is often misunderstood. Some confuse it with evangelism or conversion. Discipleship, however, involves more than believing and accepting Christ for the forgiveness of sin. It may, in fact, precede crossing the line of faith in Christ and definitely continues afterward. Still others confuse discipleship with church activity.   However, discipleship is about learning to imitate Jesus, and church activities may or may not help with that.

The commission to make disciples comes at the end of Matthew. The disciples meet the risen Lord Jesus on a mountain. As they come, some are doubting, but all of them worship him. (That’s a very encouraging thing if you’ve ever struggled with faith). Over the previous three years, Jesus had shown them how he did ministry. He had involved them in ministry. He had sent them out to minister in the same way he had. Over time, they had learned from Jesus how to live like Jesus. Now he was sending them out to make disciples in the same way he had shown them. Matthew 28:16-20 Jesus says to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, as you go, make disciples of all people…”   So the way Jesus wants to make disciples involves sending out imperfect (even doubting) disciples who would show others how to be disciples.

Jesus sent them to make disciples, and by extension he sends us.   So how do we learn to be disciples and how will we help others become disciples? It may help to consider how we learn and master other skills. Whether it’s playing a musical instrument, developing a professional competence, or learning to swim, there is a progression from novice to master that we must pass through.   The same holds true for mastering the skills and practices of discipleship. Thinking through discipleship as a process and a systematic progression in this way can be very helpful.   It helps with planning, discerning and measuring progress, and making adjustments in order to make the most of time.

In the more chronological gospels, (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) you can pick out evidence about the way Jesus led and developed his disciples. At first, he invited them to be with him while he ministered. He did ministry and they watched. Then he took twelve aside and involved them in his ministry. He did ministry and they helped. Then, he began to give them assignments on their own. They were doing ministry and he helped. Eventually, we see the disciples doing what Jesus had done on their own. And Jesus celebrated. We see that Jesus was very intentional.

As disciple makers, we want to take our cues from Jesus: we want to do things the way Jesus would do them if he were us. By doing things Jesus’ way, the gospel narratives become very helpful and instructive. We can anticipate how disciples develop, the challenges they face, and how to interact with them as they pass through different phases of growth.   The discipleship square captures this progression and offers important guidance and insights that will help the leader and disciple anticipate what lies ahead in order to sustain growth and progress.

But be warned: spiritual growth and discipleship are rarely as neat as marching around a square. Relationships and learning are often messy. (This is also evident in the gospels.) And the Holy Spirit grows people as He sees fit. However, these stages are fairly easy to recognize, and you can pick them out in the Gospels. Most of us have experienced something like these growth stages in other areas of life.

The list below offers insight on the natural way disciples react as they learn new skills and grow with some wisdom for how the leader can be most helpful. Again, this is based on the way Jesus did things.   In the description and on the square, “L” stands for leader and “D” stands for disciple.  Leadership square

Event 1: The leader and the disciple start the journey together. The Leader does. The disciple watches. “I do. You watch.”

D1— High Enthusiasm. High Confidence. Low experience. Low competence. Disciples are excited about being on the journey, but don’t really understand how difficult it will be. They don’t know what they don’t know.

L1 – High Direction. High Example. Low Consensus. Low Explanation.   The leader simply invites disciples to follow and watch. “Be here.” “Bring this.” “Try this.”   In Luke 5, when Jesus tells the disciples to cast the net on the other side of the boat, he doesn’t offer much explanation. He just invites them to trust him.

Event 2: The leader recognizes the disciples are ready to begin trying to do things on their own and to move into the difficult (even disillusioning) part of the journey. But without passing through D2, the disciple will not grow. D2 is marked by this: the leader begins to invite the disciples to help in ministry. “I do. You help.”

D2—Low Enthusiasm. Low Confidence. Low Experience. Low Competence. This is the most disillusioning stage. The disciples are discovering what they don’t know. Their incompetence is exposed at the first attempt. In the gospels, the disciples are learning they are expected to pray, speak, and heal and they can’t get it right. They are also facing opposition and are being asked questions by Jesus’ adversaries. It’s a tough time.

L2—High Direction. High Discussion. High Example. High Accessibility. If the leader is not aware of what is going on at this stage, the disciples will drop out. The leader needs to be very present. It is vital to listen to what the disciples are saying, to pray for them, and to offer encouragement. This is the stage for regular vision reminders and regular explanations about what to do and why. The leader needs to explain things clearly, offer hope, model the skills, celebrate successes, and even rescue. Peter tried walking on the water at this stage.   Jesus was there.

Event 3: The leader recognizes the growing competencies of the disciples. It’s time to turn the corner toward letting the disciples do things on their own, toward, “I help. You do.”

D3—Growing Enthusiasm. Growing Experience. Growing Competence. Intermittent Confidence. This is a rewarding stage for the disciple, but there’s still a lot of work to do.   The disciples now know what they know. They have new skills but have to think about what they are doing as they do it. They begin to see success and that feeds their growing confidence and motivation. There are still set-backs, but overall, they are growing and getting guardedly excited and hopeful. They have just been through a set of challenges together, so they are usually very close to one another as well.

L3—Lower Direction. High Consensus. High Discussion. High Accessibility. It is essential for the leader to change behavior at this stage from giving direction to giving support. The disciples will tend to succeed but will still need coaching, direction, and some redirection. However, the leader needs to include them in the conversation and decision making and invite them to help and teach one another. Keep casting vision. The fellowship will likely be sweet at this stage. Enjoy it—but remind the disciples they need to think about passing on they’ve received. Expect them not to be too confident about that step.

Event 4: The disciples are ready to go on their own. The leader’s role shifts to encouragement. “You do. I celebrate.”

D4—High Enthusiasm. High Confidence. High Experience. High Competence. The end goal is in sight. They have been trained. They have practiced. They have “been in the game.” They have stories. They begin teaching one another and are ready to teach others. They may be a little overconfident, but not likely. At this stage, they don’t know what they know. It just flows from them.

L4—Low Direction and Example. High Consensus and Explanation. Celebrate success!   Review why you did things the way you did along the journey. Talk things over with the disciples about next steps. The leader does not need to be “doing the ministry” anymore if the disciples are present. For that matter, if the leader does so, they might “get in the way”.   Guard against jealousy because some of the disciples will be better skilled than the leader. And it is also essential for the leader to begin encouraging the disciples to find others to disciple. Skills are often not mastered until they are passed on. If any are reluctant to take that step just remind them gently Jesus didn’t just call us to be disciples, he also called us to make disciples.

Event 5: The disciple becomes a leader. They have been trained and are now ready to make disciples on their own. The cycle repeats itself and continues.

A word about who to disciple:

I cannot overstate the importance of prayer and patience in discerning who to disciple. The Person-of-Peace teaching is critical to consider when trying to build a group. But a general rule of thumb is for a discipleship group to have between three and ten people. One-on-one can introduce some awkward dynamics and it’s hard to keep up with more than ten. Pray about who to disciple and invite them to join a discipleship huddle.   Be as clear as you can be about the commitment you are seeking from them. If you have never been in a discipleship huddle, it is best to be in a huddle first.

Questions for reflection:

1) What is the emotional journey for the disciple going around the square? D2 is arguably the most dangerous stage. Why is that?   What are the dangers for the disciple at each stage?

2) What are the temptations the leader faces at each stage that could hamper the disciple’s growth?

3) What happens if a leader remains too “hands-on” in D3 and D4?

4) What sort of things you would expect a disciple to say on each stage of the journey?

5) Who are you imitating? Who are you inviting to imitate you? Who might be imitating you without a formal agreement? (i.e. your kids).

6) Is God saying anything? What will you do about it?


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