I love the enthusiasm I encounter among aspiring missionaries. It drips from them like water from your hands when there are no paper towels in the bathroom. Indeed, they’ll need every bit of that enthusiasm to make it over the hurdles to getting overseas. But I have come to a place—maybe it’s middle age—where I now ask certain questions. And even though the conversation sometimes feels like I just took the car keys from a teenager, I think they’re important questions to ask and answer. One of them goes like this:
So you wanna be a missionary—who are you discipling?
Now, why would I ask this? Well, the obvious answer comes from the Great Commission. Jesus said to go and make disciples of all nations, so you might call a missionary a “professional disciple-maker.” It totally makes sense that an aspiring missionary would need to possess and practice that skill set.
But that’s where the conversation can get a little awkward, especially when the enthusiast’s answer to my question is the equivalent of a shrug. Why would an aspiring professional disciple-maker not be discipling anyone? Here are a few common reasons I have found.
People assume they will learn on the job. Of course most aspiring missionaries want to make disciples! And of course they can learn so much on the field. But a soldier doesn’t wait until his first deployment to learn how to use his weapon; he learns how to use it before he ever sees the battlefield. And if he is shown to be unable or unwilling to wield that weapon, then it’s best for him to serve with a different, more fitting assignment. Waiting for on-the-job training may be a recipe for discipleship disaster.
The difference between evangelism and discipleship is the difference between making converts and making disciples.
Missions organizations tend to prioritize evangelism skills. Many missions organizations offer some form of pre-field training, but it often centers on evangelism. To give the benefit of the doubt, this may be so for lack of time. Regardless of the reasoning, however, the difference between evangelism and discipleship is the difference between making converts and making disciples. Aspiring missionaries will likely need their churches to press them toward pre-field discipleship training as well as evangelism training.
People assume they need authority in order to disciple. As a pastor, when I encourage people to be disciplers, I find that many of them are intimidated. Sometimes they will literally say, “Oh, I’m not a pastor though.” I know that in the context of Matthew 28 Jesus was speaking his commission to his apostles, who had tremendous authority, but if we’re going to apply the Great Commission to all believers, then we must also apply to them Jesus’s delegated authority to make disciples.
Schools tend to emphasize discipleship theory. There are many wonderful books and lectures and sermons and resources on discipleship. But I have found that the more you learn about discipleship without actually trying it, the more mystified you become. How many students have I met with an entire discipleship project that scored them an A+ in class who never came close to discipling someone in real life? What an opportunity to put theory to work in the local church!
The more you learn about discipleship without actually trying it, the more mystified you become.
People have never really been discipled themselves. This may be the most impactful reason why aspiring missionaries have never discipled someone. If they had experienced it themselves in a reproducible way, then they would have a framework for passing it on. Perhaps more than that, they would have a deep delight in passing it on. But with nothing to fall back on, they are unlikely to pioneer themselves into disciplers.
Those are some of the responses I’ve received when I’ve asked potential Sent Ones about their discipling habits. Hopefully, however, I’m not so curmudgeony in my middle age that I just pull the pin on my question and leave as it explodes. (A leader did that to me one time. It sucks.) The goal of my query isn’t to sour an otherwise fun conversation. I want the person I’m speaking with to experience the fullness of joy that comes with discipling. Their aspirations aren’t too strong—they’re too weak. Let them experience the thrill of guiding another person into Christian maturity. It will only magnify their missionary dreams!
What, then, does it practically look like to help them become disciplers? A few quick thoughts:
Don’t call it discipleship at first. I know this seems contradictory, but trust me, the word has baggage. Give them direction in common language, and then wait for the sweet moment down the road when you can say, “Guess what? That stuff you’ve been doing—it’s discipleship.”
Tell them exactly what to do. Don’t leave room for improvisation at first. They can do plenty of that later on their own. At my church we give new disciplers a one-page overview of what we expect them to do over the course of twelve topics. Simple, yet specific. And it’s a foundation they can build on as their confidence grows.
Let them experience the thrill of guiding another person into Christian maturity. It will only magnify their missionary dreams!
Model it for them. If they seem hesitant (or even if they don’t), consider showing them how discipleship is done. If you’re already investing in someone, then let them in on that relationship. Or perhaps take on the aspiring missionary as the next person in whom you’re investing.
Match them up. If you don’t take this step, then you might as well just be offering another discipleship theory class. Who is someone (preferably a new-ish believer within the church) that the aspiring missionary can be “assigned to”? Make the personal connection for them.
Give them feedback. Don’t just wind them up and let them go. Check in to see how it’s going. Also check in with the person(s) to whom they’re assigned to see how it’s going from their perspective (that’s the real test!). Then do some coaching.
Of course, it might not go well. There’s a chance that you find the enthusiast does indeed need a different, more fitting assignment besides “professional disciple-maker.” That will be a hard but important conversation to have. But it’s more likely that they’ll grow, and discipleship will be more tangible and doable, even desirable.
And if that’s the case, then guess what? That stuff you’ve been doing—it’s discipleship.
Bradley is a missiologist, pastor, and trainer. He has been at Upstream since 2014, producing blog and social media content, authoring The Sending Church Defined and Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning "Home" and How Churches Can Help, and serving as a board member. He is also the lead pastor at Antioch Church. As a former global Sent One, Bradley reflects on missions and formation at Broken Missiology.