Discipleship for Slow Learners

By Larry and Judy Niemeyer

Two of us began discipleship mobilization in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1984. The design we settled on put us with one person for 18 months so they could become reproductive disciple makers. Needless to say, our initial growth was very slow—two became four and four became eight, etc. We engaged in many other church and mission activities while we waited.

Today, we have seen 21,000 people become disciples and 27 percent of them (5,670) have been making disciples in 1,200 teams scattered throughout seven African nations. The experience has provided a wealth of lessons, and it seems we have needed all 22 years to learn most of them. We have been slow learners.

Can slow learners help a few others struggling with this ministry? Though the best lessons are those learned personally, we share 10 learned along the way.

1. Get the priority right: disciples, then churches.

Like many others, we started with churches and then tried to figure out how to get discipleship into the program. Then we compared Matthew 16:17, 18 with 28:18-20. In the former, Jesus said, “I will build the church.” In the latter, he told us to make disciples. We had it wrong. Like many others, we were trying to build the church but ignoring discipleship. We had it backwards. We needed to repent and start again.

2. Design a dynamic, expanding ministry.

If discipleship has no way to expand, it has no way to be dynamic. The command of Jesus was to “go.” When discipleship becomes an exercise in sitting, it cannot reach the world. Drinking coffee and talking with each other will not accomplish the purpose of Jesus’ command.

3. Seek reproduction, not mere production.

It is easy to produce a bunch of meetings, a set of materials, and a few benchmarks, and still never attain the goal of reproduction intended by Christ. We were committed to multiplication but it took quite a while to work reproduction into the design.

Strong discipline was required to make reproduction a constant expectation in the lives of those we discipled. New disciples often came seeking something to be produced in their lives instead of something reproduced through their lives.

4. Aim at God-inspired transformation, not mere formation.

God specializes in changing people, bringing completion to his creation in each one of them. Recognizing this, our design calls for 60 God-induced changes and 80 more possibilities for serious disciple makers. We train people to ask a transforming question at each discipleship session: “How has Christ changed you this week?”

We have learned the necessity of consistent encouragement to this goal. Even small efforts matter. We had long presented our discipleship design as 10 books. Then we realized the subtle message of formation still imbedded in that presentation. Belatedly, we decided to present the design in terms of 10 transformations. Big difference.

5. Disciplined practices don’t cut it; divine presence does.

The disciplines we worked into our design dealt with confidence, consistency, stability, Christlikeness, evangelism, and discipling. We agonized over people struggling to “keep up” with disciplines such as daily Bible reading, regular evangelism, and effective fruitfulness. We learned to spend more time emphasizing God’s presence in disciples, a presence that energizes obedience and growth.

After all, Jesus said, “And lo I am with you always.” He never expected us to rise to the heights of discipleship on our own. Discipleship is not about improving life, it is about the indwelling of his own life.

6. Avoid a membership mentality.

We rejoice when we see a man or woman we discipled take it back to his or her church. We enjoy seeing the names of those discipled in that new place. We are sad, however, whenever discipleship stops at membership within their church: We grieve to hear, “We have no one else to disciple.” This ministry was meant for the world. Short of that, it becomes something other than discipleship. A membership mentality will stop at the walls of the church and fall short of the world every time.

7. Don’t get stuck on mere religious activity.

We warn preachers against the temptation to merely add discipleship to their list of church activities and programs. Being religious, they often look for religious things and easily place discipleship in that category. Often believing “the latest is the greatest and the newest is the truest,” they stick to the activity for a while and then move on to something else that is later and “truer.” Discipleship requires long-term commitment to kingdom possibilities. Religious activity will not achieve what God designed for an eternity.

8. Be willing to wait.

By 1991, seven years after our start, we had only 90 disciples. We had to practice what we taught: “Discipleship is what you do while you continue everything else you do.” Preachers keep on preaching—and making disciples. Teachers keep on teaching—and making disciples. Farmers keep on farming—and making disciples. Business women keep on making money—and making disciples as they do so. We taught in a Christian university, worked on two more degrees, conducted mission research, trained and encouraged churches, and set up church-planting structures.

By 1996, we reached 1,000 disciples. It had taken 12 years. Within two more years we reached 2,000, however. In 2003, we finally reached 10,000. It had taken 19 years. Then it took only three more years to reach 20,000. We have learned to wait.

9. Spiritual formation is too solitary and secluded.

Though a part of the process, personal spiritual formation should never become the end result sought. This kind of “discipleship” becomes too inward, individualized, and independently minded. The “world” becomes the world of one’s own feelings, experiences, attitudes, and knowledge. It may lead to some good qualities but seldom leads to spiritual warfare—the real framework of discipleship. Along the way, we have learned that the Great Commission was from a general readying his troops for battle. The word Jesus used for go was a military word, not a mushy, touchy-feely word. And yes, soldiers learn to do things together in toughened, prescribed ways for the purposes of victory.

10. Let it go but follow the expansion.

We have learned to apply a relational reality to discipleship. Each person has a network of 120 to 150 people: friends, neighbors, old schoolmates, business associates, church members, relatives, and others. We learned the necessity of encouraging disciple-makers to go to as many of these network contacts as possible. If it were a Catholic friend, make a disciple and let it go into some Catholic circles. If a Pentecostal neighbor, make a disciple and let it go into Pentecostal circles. If an old schoolmate living in another town, make a disciple and let it go to that person’s network.

Some efforts go no further than the first person’s outreach. Some go on to surprising places. Follow the expansion. If discipleship planners show no interest in such expansion they should not be surprised when disciple makers lose the passion. If planners are indifferent to the names, localities, and experiences of people discipled by others and the possibilities of growth everywhere, they should not be surprised when frontline disciple-makers lose heart and quit.

We spent 10 years in ministry before learning the necessity of discipleship. It took us another 10 years to learn how to get started. That was 20 years to get to the right learning experience we needed. Then God gave us 22 years to learn the lessons of frontline fruitfulness. We pass these 10 lessons on to others in hopes they will not take so long.

Larry and Judy Niemeyer have served in Africa since 1967. They established Harvest Heralds, Inc., in 1980 and continue to work under that structure. They live in Nairobi, Kenya, from which they serve as trainers and consultants for Great Commission/Great Commandment ministries. Their Web site is www.harvest21.org.

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