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The Numbers That Matter

The question of impact is one that never really goes away. Are our churches effective? Are our ministries making a difference? How does one measure such things? Attendance numbers? Offering dollars? While it’s natural to define success in numerical terms, we must also make sure we’re counting the right things.

It’s challenging to observe that when Jesus commissioned His followers into the world, He didn’t prioritize finances or church buildings; He called them to make disciples of all nations. The obedient response of those first disciples would change the face of their communities, cities, region and, ultimately, the world. They actually accomplished the same things we’re praying for, serving for, laying down our lives for today. Knowing the Great Commission is our calling, too, means we need to ask ourselves some questions:

Are we counting what counted most to Jesus: the number of disciple-making disciples engaged in the mission of God?

How many people are we discipling?

How many people in our churches/ministries are making disciples who make disciples?

It’s crucial we understand how Jesus discipled people. As with all the rabbis of the time, discipleship was not a weekly study or didactic class. A disciple didn’t want to just know what the rabbi knew; he wanted to learn how to be like the rabbi. The rabbi had to be open and accessible enough for the disciple to imitate. Discipleship was not a seasonal program; it was a sacrificial, time-consuming, incarnational process.

Jesus discipled people using an appropriate combination of invitation and challenge. He invited people into a close relationship with Him. They ate, traveled and adventured together; He affirmed and encouraged them, and reassured them in tough times. Alongside this, Jesus didn’t hesitate to challenge people to accept the responsibilities of discipleship, to take responsibility for their character, for their attitudes, their actions, to embrace their calling. Using invitation and challenge, Jesus created a discipling culture where people could learn to imitate His priorities: a close relationship with the Father, authentic relationships with believers and a relationship with the world around Him. They’d also learn to imitate His life: to speak as He spoke, to heal the sick, cast out demons, touch the broken, forgive the persecutor and even carry their cross. This discipleship transformed lives, producing missional disciples who in turn would make disciples. Soon an entire community were sharing and living the Good News, healing the sick and casting out demons, whether you were an apostle like Peter, or an administrator distributing resources like Stephen. In time this discipling culture produced the Church (when you set out to build the church first, you don’t always get disciples).

A church planting pastor once said to me, “We don’t have a missional problem in the United States—we have a discipleship problem.”

The Body of Christ today is innovative and creative, overflowing with talent, gifts, vision and missional strategies to impact our communities. Yet what my friend was driving at was that for all our resources, events and ideas, we struggle to produce (or, if we’re honest, to be) disciples with the kind of transformed lives and missional lifestyle we see in the men and women of the early church. 

What could it mean to get intentional with discipleship again? Perhaps, imitating the pattern of Jesus it would mean seeking God about discipling a group of people who want to live like Him. It would mean inviting them into a closer relationship with you, but also challenging them at times to take responsibility. We’d learn how to offer both invitation and challenge appropriately like Jesus did. It would include transparency and openness. The kind of transparency that offers an opportunity to practically learn how to follow Jesus through imitating the example of an ordinary life—your ordinary life, just as Paul encouraged the Corinthians to do (1 Corinthians 11:1). 

People would see and learn how we spent our time, our money, how we handled our appetites, our stress. They would see and learn how we relate to our friends, spouses, children, enemies. It would mean less privacy, but it would produce transformed hearts and lives. It would produce disciples who are in turn transforming their homes, workplaces, communities. Disciples who are being the Church. Now that is worth counting.

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I first experienced this about 15 years ago, when I was on staff at St. Thomas Church, in Sheffield, England. Mike Breen, the senior leader at the time, developed “huddles”—groups of leaders who met together regularly for intentional discipleship and leadership development. In time they, too, would prayerfully gather and make disciples, who in turn would go on and do the same. The impact of intentional discipleship was incredible. There were generations of disciples—men and women, staff and lay leaders, young and not so young, every color and culture—with transformed lives. 

During the decade Mike led the church, there were more than 600 weddings and zero divorces.* Those are numbers worth counting. Those are numbers that show true transformation and lives changed.

With a healthy discipling culture as its foundation, the missional leaders at St. Thomas continued to grow and the movement spread way beyond England’s shores. Years later it’s interesting to note that when it comes to counting the church now, St Thomas counts the people who are in discipling relationships.

Today’s Western church faces incredible challenges, but also incredible opportunity. We’re passionate about the Gospel. We long to see our churches and our ministries make an impact in our communities. We’ll always need to do the administrative side of church, but let’s remember the numbers that matter the most.

Let’s count disciples.

Jo Saxton is a director of 3DM, a movement/organization helping hundreds of established churches and church planters move into this discipling and missional way of being the Church. WeAre3DM.com. This piece originally appeared in the new issue of Neue, which you can view here.

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