How Long Does It Take to Make a Disciple?
It probably takes longer than you think, at least if you intend to make them as Jesus did. The details might disturb you.
Let’s start by looking at how Jesus made disciples. Jesus spent at least three years (some scholars think it was closer to four) molding His team into the mighty disciple makers that would change the world. He walked with them, talked with them, and taught them the narrow way. But just how long is three years?
Assuming Jesus was with them sixteen hours every day for three years (subtracting eight hours a night for sleep), Jesus would have spent 1,095 days or 17,520 hours with them. That’s a lot of time! How does that compare to our modern methods of disciple making?
Unfortunately, most churches don’t intentionally practice Jesus-style (i.e. relational, generational) disciple making. Yet, most of those who do churn out disciples with a speed and efficiency that makes Jesus look bad. These church leaders have taken cues from consumerism and developed systems to “make disciples” in as little as three to six months. Can we really compare these disciples to those Jesus made? According to the churches, we can. But just how long are they investing in these disciples? Let’s look a little closer.
First, let’s acknowledge that Jesus didn’t spend all 17,520 hours with just one disciple. He spent the majority of His time with twelve at a time. So to understand how much time He could have focused on each disciple, let’s divide 17,520 by 12. This leaves us with 1,460 hours that he could have focused on each individual disciple. We can get more specific though. Per year, Jesus could have given each disciple individual attention for 486 hours and 40 minutes. Per week, it would be 9 hours and 25 minutes. That’s a lot of time!
How long do churches typically spend as they disciple? Typically, churches make disciples by using curriculum and systems. It happens like this: First, they encourage people to join a group focused on disciple making. Often these are micro-groups of three or four. Each participant then purchases a discipleship curriculum and signs a covenant to faithfully participate in the weekly (or bi-weekly) meetings. They commit to coming prepared, applying the lessons to their lives, and then leading a new group when theirs concludes at the scheduled time. These groups typically meet for 1-2 hours and last six months to a year.
While Jesus took over 1,460 hours to make a disciple, churches do it in far less time. Consider the most generous scenario for these discipleship groups. Let’s say they meet weekly for two hours a session for a year. After 52 weeks, they would have spent 156 hours together. Yet, since there are two disciples and one leader in the group, each disciple could have had focused individual attention for just 78 hours.
So to review what we’ve found so far, churches are able to make nearly 19 disciples in the time it took Jesus, the Son of God, to make one.
Does that sit well with you?
It’s true that much of my math is guesswork. No one really knows how many hours Jesus spent with His disciples each day or how many days the disciples were sent out two-by-two, on missions away from Jesus (Luke 9:6). We also don’t know exactly how long into Jesus’ ministry He invited the others to join the few that started following in John 1. But even if we cut Jesus’ number in half (from 1460 to 730) and double the church’s number (from 78 to 156), the church still makes 4.5 disciples in the time it took Jesus to make just 1.
How can we be making between 4.5 and 19 disciples in the time it took Jesus to make one? If we were making the same thing Jesus was, would America still be experiencing a rapid decline of faith and churches that are rapidly shrinking? How is it possible that churches can have so many involved in discipleship programs and so few who are winning the lost to Jesus?
I’m bothered because, in an effort to scale, disciple makers all over the world are rushing the process. Instead of building vision, heart, and skill into each one they disciple, they simply try to get the disciple to start discipling someone else. It’s just not enough.
It’s not enough vision to carry the new disciple maker through the drifts and distractions he’ll encounter in life. It’s not enough heart to keep the new disciple maker through rookie mistakes that she’ll make. And it’s not enough skill development for the new disciple maker to help another become a competent disciple maker.
What churches fail to realize is that making better disciples results in more disciples. While making shallow disciples results in stagnant disciples. The great weakness of modern disciple making is the belief that scale is superior to small and that faster is better than FATter.
The solution isn’t more consumerism-shaped disciple making. And it’s not a better disciple making curriculum. The solution is what it’s always been—disciple makers who are on a lifelong pursuit to become just. like. Jesus.
Making disciples like that takes time, lots of it.
About the Author
We all know the adage “We’re better together.” Yet, all too often we as church leaders do it the American way. We do it alone. But there are…
One way we at Navigators Church Ministries are helping with disciplemaking challenges is by sponsoring “The Practitioner’s Podcast: Applying Jesus-style Disciplemaking to Everyday Life.”
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