Every once in a while, a conversation happens that reminds you what it’s all about.
That happened recently when a friend I grew to love and appreciate when I served as his pastor sat face-to-face with me for the first time in a long time. He was reminiscing on his growth as a follower of Jesus and particularly on his surprising call to serve as an elder of his fellowship.
His is a winding journey, filled with highs, lows, laughter, and disappointments. I recall seeing something in him that I believed needed to be cultivated, and we had spent a lot of time together. We had shared conversations about politics, church, theology, sexuality, and baseball. He challenged me. I challenged him. Life together was all brought together under the lordship of Jesus.
What was so enlivening and renewing for me in our reunion was the realization that the apostle Paul knew what he was talking about, and that I had been blessed by heeding his direction to Timothy: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1–2).
Three generations of disciples
I am increasingly convinced that the primary test of the fruitfulness of my pastoral ministry is not so much the size of my congregation, but how well the faithful I have been entrusted to lead can teach others to teach others the good news. Paul’s word to Timothy implies a disciple-making leavening that always has in view three generations of disciples beyond the mentor. The disciple-maker (in this case Paul), teaches Timothy, who entrusts to dependable persons, who can then teach others.
Tell somebody to tell somebody to tell somebody!
So, my serendipitous conversation with an old friend reminded me of this once more, but it also spurred me on in new ways. Because of what I and others had invested in his life, he was influencing people in a way I never could. The real test of my disciple-making, however, might very well be what is planted by those he is teaching.
This is telescopic discipleship. It’s the equivalent of measuring your parenting by what your grandchildren will teach to your great-grandchildren. This is Christ-centred mentorship that sees its fruit in what grows out of those with whom we probably have little or no first-hand influence. It is discipleship that essentially gets itself out of the way by getting people on the Way.
Ironically enough, at the same time as this meeting happened, I was reading through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In his memoirs, he reflects on the contingency plan he developed in the early 1950s to make it possible for the African National Congress to survive should it become an illegal entity under the tightening screws of apartheid.
The “Mandela Plan” was centred on small cells of about 10 households led by a cell steward. Mandela confesses that it was that cell steward, often far removed from the influence of ANC leadership, who was the “linchpin of the plan.” In essence, Mandela – who, perhaps not surprisingly, was baptized a Methodist – developed his scheme to ensure the survival of a group that would in time bring down one of the most heinous political systems of recent memory, using the logic of the apostle Paul. Tell somebody to tell somebody to tell somebody!
Looking for long-term fruit
I’m afraid much of our disciple-making is too short-sighted and even self-centred. What might change in the health of our churches and in the telescopic influence of our fellowships if we took Paul’s words seriously? What if we looked for the long-term fruit of our ministries in what three generations of disciples hence are doing with the gospel we’ve nurtured them on?
To be sure, this requires a decentralizing of the way we think about church and even a reorganizing around what demands primary attention, but it may make for greater kingdom impact in our cities and side roads. It may inspire another Mandela. It may lead to another lazy afternoon conversation that warms the heart and inspires the soul.