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Our focus must be on making disciples, not leaders

Rebecca Burtram on July 18, 2018

Although the Bible has many great examples of leadership development, the Great Commission isn’t, “Therefore go and make leaders of all nations.”

As we prepared to launch our church, we encountered one suggestion more than any other: focus on making leaders. This message came through advice we received, books and articles we read, and even threads we saw on social media. I found this interesting since Jesus told us to make disciples.

I don’t disagree with the absolute need to develop leaders in our churches. However, we must be careful that our goal doesn’t become so focused on creating a successful organization that making disciples is simply a byproduct of our systems when it is clearly supposed to be our primary purpose.

A disciple is someone who adheres to the teachings of another. That means disciples are followers and learners. They follow the example of Jesus and learn to live like Him. Some of us need to shift our objective from being leaders who create leaders to being disciples who develop other disciples.

One of the dangers of the “make leaders” mantra is that we run the risk of seeing people primarily as tools to help our systems run better instead of people in need of a Savior. When new people enter our building, we should desire to help them follow Jesus and then use their giftings for Him.

Matthew 4:18-20 models the pattern for making disciples: “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.”

Jesus didn’t tell His disciples to go make more leaders; He told them to make disciples.

The first thing Jesus asked of them was to follow Him. The second was for them to use their skills and abilities to draw others to do the same. Our primary focus for those who enter our churches should be helping them develop deeper relationships with Jesus and follow in His footsteps.

Jesus poured into the disciples, lived in community with them, and built them up before He sent them out to make other disciples. The Lord knew them, and He loved them. Jesus was not interested in the disciples for what He could get from them. The Savior was interested in giving them what He had for them.

Following Christ’s example, we should be driven by our love for God and our love for His people. It is easy to get sucked into a systems-driven ministry in which we see people only for what they can provide in making our church grow. We can cover it over by pointing out that the more leaders we develop, the more people we can draw.

However, we need to examine our hearts and consider our motivations. I have personally struggled at times with keeping my desire for a successful organization from overshadowing my pastoral mandate to see God’s best in people’s lives.

Yes, we need strong systems and those who can lead them. Jesus didn’t ignore the disciples’ God-given giftings. He fostered and developed them as He gave himself to them. The Lord prepared them and released them to minister. However, Jesus didn’t tell them to go make more leaders; He told them to make disciples.

Everywhere you look, the question is, “Are you a leader or a follower?” In our churches, the question should be, “Are you a lead follower?”

I first heard the phrase “lead follower” from Scott Wilson, senior pastor of the Oaks Church (Assemblies of God) in Red Oak, Texas. It resonated with me in a way the advice to make leaders never did. I didn’t go into church planting to create leaders. My desire is to follow Jesus and lead others to follow Him.

If we are really making disciples, the byproduct will be to make leaders. Those who follow Jesus will, like Jesus, lead others to follow Jesus.

Successful organizations make leaders; successful churches make disciples who make other disciples.


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