Why Talented Disciple Makers Often Fail

If you’ve tried developing disciples who will reproduce, then you already know the degree of difficulty. On the scale of hard things, I place it somewhere between seeing clearly as a teenager and building a rocket.

Initially, most disciple makers learn to focus on the mechanics of disciple making.

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Unfortunately, most disciple makers learn the hard way that these mechanics aren’t enough. No matter how sharp our disciple making skills or how clear our vision, dysfunction emerges in those we disciple.

If you’ve got a mirror or a family it shouldn’t surprise you. No matter how carefully we plan our holiday meal, the day with family is still filled with the same dysfunction as the year before. The problems are rooted in the heart not the meal. Devoting our attention to the mechanics of disciple making is like a family trying to solve their problems by preparing a better meal. It doesn’t work. A better meal may reduce the tension, but it doesn’t solve anything.

Family problems lie inside us. James 4:1-2 says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires within you? You desire but you do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want so you quarrel and fight…” Our problems originate deep inside each of us.

Unfortunately, many people learn growing up that emotions lead to dangerous conflict, disappointment, and hurt. In other words, we believe that the outcomes of our emotions are negative. So we avoid them. But to love as Jesus loved though, we must engage not only our own emotions (Matthew 9:36; John 11:35), but also the emotions of others (Mark 4:40).

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The work of making disciples is the work of bringing others to maturity. In most churches, spiritual maturity is measured by knowledge and service, but it can be more clearly seen in our relationships with others. It’s in our relationships that our emotional health is revealed.

But how do we develop emotional health in those we disciple? Better yet, how do we develop emotional health in ourselves?

1. Respect Emotions

Emotions are part of being designed in God’s image. They aren’t dangerous, bad, or negative. They provide texture to our experiences and our lives. Imagine how dull life would be without emotions such as compassion, excitement, frustration, joy, amazement, anger, etc.

Developing a respect for emotions doesn’t mean that you are ruled by them, but rather that you will seek to identify them. Once identified you are able to move towards understanding them and giving the underlying causes the attention or non-attention they deserve.

2. Model Self & Others Awareness

Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh once observed, “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” Jesus understood this well, which is why He gave us an example of how to love (John 13:34).

When you make disciples your emotional maturity is on display when a disciple stands you up, continually shows up unprepared, or passionately disagrees with you. It’s natural to feel upset or disappointed in these situations, but an emotionally aware person will seek to understand before insisting on being understood.

Some emotions such as fear, humiliation, jealousy, and hatred are difficult to see within ourselves. Even acknowledging such emotions can be a challenge. It can feel more comfortable and sanctified to push them down and pretend they aren’t there. Reacting this way stunts our connection to God, our connection to others, and our own growth.

Developing the ability to discern our own emotions allows us to choose how to manage them, instead of being man-handled by them. The same ability gives those we disciple the opportunity to develop others-awareness by letting them see “behind the curtain”.

3. Be Curious as You Process with God

As respect for and awareness of emotions grows we must choose how to process them with God. Taking the time to pray and journal about how we feel allows us to untangle emotions from thoughts. As we slow down we can curiously ask God, why am I feeling these emotions? What do my feelings reveal about who I am? What do they reveal about what I believe about You?

The Psalms serve as a wonderful guide for us in this. Repeatedly we see the psalmist experiencing emotions, processing them honestly before God, and seeking transformation.

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So where are you in your emotional maturity? To what degree do you allow emotions you’re your conscious experience?

Disciple making will always be more than friendship or spiritual disciplines. The best disciple making is that which leaves no corner of our lives untouched. Instead of avoiding emotions we must lean into how they can inform us about ourselves.

These three practices, respect, awareness, and curiously processing, are so important to growing in maturity. Our emotions can serve as a map to where our hearts most need the transforming touch of God. When we tap into those in ourselves and those we disciple we are able to get to the heart of what matters most.