How do you know when you’ve made a disciple?
It’s an important question, after all Jesus’ last words were for us make disciples as we go. It wasn’t a new mission, but rather one that He’d invited his disciples into very early in His ministry (Matthew 4:19). The task of making mature disciples is affirmed in both Colossians 1:29 and 2 Timothy 2:2. As we roll up our sleeves in the lives of others, this question matters because when we’ve made a disciple it affirms what's happened in that discipling relationship and propels us outward to go and make more. So, what’s the reliable litmus test a disciple maker can use to identify when a mature disciple has been made?
A few years ago a pastor said to me, “I’ve had no trouble making disciples, the trouble I have is getting them to go and make disciples.”
I told him, “I have no trouble making chairs, the trouble I have is they always break when someone sits on them.”
Ok, I really didn't say that, but I wish I would have! But what would you think if someone claimed to make chairs that didn’t support anyone?! I heard the pastor saying a similar thing to me. A disciple who doesn’t go out to make other disciples is not a mature disciple. So why do so many American Christians believe they can follow Jesus without making other disciples?
Second, many disciples lose their vision for disciple making. Ok, yes, make disciples, but what exactly is the goal here? Often, even those who start with clarity lose sight of the goal.
Chair makers don’t have that problem. The goal is clear- make something strong enough that someone can sit on. If a chair can’t support a person’s weight we don’t call it a chair, or at least not a finished chair. When referring to that yet-to-be chair, we say, “it’s going to be a chair” not “it is a chair.” More work is required. In other words, the proof of a finished chair is it’s ability to support a person sitting on it. What’s the proof of a finished disciple?
Yes, of course, you're right that a disciple is never finished this side of heaven, but for our purposes a disciple is “finished” when he’s mature. The best way to identify a disciple’s maturity is through reproduction, or the emergence of the third generation.
Spiritual generations are the surest indication that a disciple’s life with Christ is vibrant enough to spread to another. The disciple maker is the first generation; she has the relational skills and intentionality to invite another into a disciple making relationship. The one she disciples is the second generation. That disciple’s maturity is clearly seen in reproduction, in making another disciple. However, we must understand that she hasn’t made a disciple until the one she disciples makes a disciple, so the emergence of the third generation means that a fourth is also emerging.
In the third generation the disciple maker clearly sees what’s been passed on. He may believe that he’s passed on a heart for the lost, but if the third generation is apathetic towards those who don’t know the lost, then clearly it didn’t get passed on. What shows up in the third generation is most often a mix of encouraging and discouraging things. Such a window into our effectiveness should drive us back to the cross and motivate us to grow more and more so that we can be as effective as possible.
Discipling with the third generation in mind means that we aren’t just discipling the person across from us, we’re discipling that person and all those she’ll disciple in the future. This sobering reality should drives us to prayerful dependence, unwavering intentionality, and a sincere relationship.
The third generation test also helps us see the difference between mentoring (direct impact) and disciple making (generational impact). Direct impact is comparatively easy. Consider how you and others have been impacted by a sermon, but never met the speaker, or by a book, but never met the author. On the other hand, consider the way a friend or family member has influenced you simply by sharing their life with you.
Generational impact is apparent in the third and fourth generations. And it’s the type of impact that Jesus expected when He said, “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” If you teach someone that, they will teach another the same thing, and so will they.
So the emergence of the third generation is trustworthy proof of making a disciple. It helps young disciple makers keep the goal in focus. As a disciple maker, you aren’t done if the one you’re discipling isn’t going on to disciple others. It might take longer than you expected, but persevere! Growth is seldom linear or predictable!