Mention the words “lead,” “leader” or “leadership” in a church context, and people usually think of things like an ordained pastor, skilled teacher, church staff member, elder, board member … Rarely does “leader” equate to the typical believer discipling someone else.
But that’s exactly what discipling is: Leading.
When you disciple someone else, you are:
- Setting examples and modeling expected behaviors
- Clarifying intent and casting vision
- Encouraging through hardship or failure
- Challenging existing paradigms, perceptions and world views
- Teaching, correcting, training and rebuking
- Shaping their self-identity
- Developing their abilities
- Exhibiting care and concern
- Equipping them for self-reliance
All of these are straight-up, textbook descriptions of things leaders do. Look at Jesus’ interaction with his 12 disciples in the gospels and these are the activities that consistently jump off the pages. A review of any worthy marketplace leadership book will give you a similar list (shameless plug: I suggest Taking the Lead: What Riding a Bike Can Teach You About Leadership).
Making disciples is (among other things) leading, and it’s what every believer is called to do.
“Rarely does ‘leader’ equate to the typical believer discipling another person.”
Why We Don’t Associate Discipleship With Leadership
It’s recognized that the West (and particularly North America) is one of the hardest places in the world to make disciples. I agree, and am convinced that one of the main reasons for this is, curiously enough, the form and practices of the church itself.
There are many points to discuss here, but one in particular is that church as we know it—what we call the legacy church—hasn’t focused on developing leadership behaviors in its members. Instead, for most of its history it has focused on compliance to biblical truth and preventing doctrinal error. While these are good and necessary (duh), they are not leadership oriented—they are management oriented.
This may seem nuanced and abstract, but stay with me—it’s vitally important. Managing and leading are two vastly different disciplines. Management emphasizes “doing things right.” It typically focuses on maintaining order and control, keeping things in a healthy status quo. On the other hand, leadership emphasizes “doing the right things.” It usually focuses on moving forward and breaking out of the status quo toward achieving a compelling goal.
“For most of its history the legacy church has focused on compliance to biblical truth and preventing doctrinal error.”
As you may sense, there’s some tension between these two disciplines. It’s analogous to having a marriage where one partner is goal- and action-oriented (where unknowns and surprises can be addressed as they surface), and the other is more of a planner (where advance preparation avoids unknowns and surprises so they don’t detract from the desired outcome).
The Impact on Disciple-Making
As it relates to making disciples in the West, the form of church we practice (for better or for worse) has a management-oriented culture. It vanguards the values of biblical accuracy, doctrinal purity and knowledge. It promotes authorized teaching, standardizing, analyzing, setting policies, and controlling.
In emphasizing management, the church has trained Christians to maintain, guard, validate, stay in line and defer to the organization for approval or direction. In disciple-making this creates hesitation, if not timidity. It resists empowering individual believers to hear from God personally and obey his leading. It blurs their self-identity: Instead of seeing themselves as disciple-makers, personally engaged in carrying out the Great Commission, they see themselves as adherents of an organization, tradition or a program.
“In disciple-making this creates hesitation, if not timidity.”
Implementing Disciple-Making in the Church
There’s a growing trend within the legacy church toward promoting discipleship—which is really exciting! The challenge, however, is that most of the current conversations promote a management perspective on discipleship. They usually focus on things like:
- Encouraging more Bible knowledge and mastering key doctrines
- Establishing a “right understanding” of key terms like gospel, disciple, faith, evangelize, baptize, etc.
- Creating standardized curricula
- Implementing an approved program.
Again, these are all good things. But separated from complementary leadership behaviors, they simply won’t move the needle much on discipleship multiplication: Making disciples that make disciples. They prolong a management-biased paradigm of discipleship whose main goal is to “do things right” so that nothing is done “wrong.”
A Simple Test
So how can you know which approach (managing or leading) you’re taking? The most basic litmus test is that of decision-making authority. Assume, for the moment, that your church members have been trained and equipped to go and make disciples. Then ask yourself: Does every believer in my church have the unquestioned freedom and authority to make disciples without being dependent upon the church’s established ministry programs?
If not, then management is probably the primary discipline in play.
“They prolong a management-biased paradigm of discipleship whose main goal is to ‘do things right’ so that nothing is done ‘wrong.'”
If you’re a pastor or church leader, the degree of concern you have over that scenario is an indication of how much your church leans on management instead of leadership. If you’re a church member or attender, the degree of apprehension, inadequacy or confusion you feel about it is an indication of how comfortable you are operating in a management-heavy organization.
Why is this important? It’s pretty simple:
- If individual believers are not released to lead others in disciple-making, we won’t see discipleship multiplication occur.
- If we don’t see the fruit of discipleship multiplication, we’ll never see viral movements started.
- If we don’t get movements, we can’t make disciples faster than the population is growing.
- If spiritual growth doesn’t surpass population growth, we can’t make disciples of all nations.
- If we don’t make disciples of all nations, we’ve failed in the mission our Savior gave us (Matt. 28.19-20).
I don’t know about you, but that’s not the conversation I want to have when I see my Savior face-to-face.
The Bottom Line
To be clear: I’m not suggesting all believers go rogue and disconnect from their church’s oversight. To overemphasize either discipline at the expense of the other invites dysfunction.
I’m NOT advocating for leadership INSTEAD OF management in the church; I’m advocating for leadership PLUS management.
“If we don’t make disciples of all nations, we’ve failed in the mission our Savior gave us.”
I implore the church: Teach and train people how to lead others in disciple-making, then release them to do it and continue walking with them as they get better at it.
I exhort believers: Go out among those who don’t know Jesus and start discipling them until they come to faith and are equipped to imitate what you’ve modeled. We must lead with “doing the right things” and manage the results the Lord brings us.