Trust the Process: Learning to Make Disciples and Develop Leaders like Jesus

fireIf you go to church, I’m sure you’ve experienced the “foghorn announcement.” What’s the foghorn announcement, you say? It’s the long, droning, monotonous, unenthusiastic call for workers in the nursery, volunteers at the picnic, or helpers with an outreach event. It goes something like this:

Hi, the pastor asked me to make an announcement. So, here it goes. I know you are busy—we are all are busy, aren’t we—but we have an event coming up and we need help. We’ve made this announcement for the last three weeks. But we still don’t have enough help. It won’t take too much time and anyone can do it. Just sign up in the back as you head out today. 

Okay, this might be a bit overly dramatic—or underly dramatic. But these announcements are as common in well-meaning churches as foghorns on the coast of Maine. They begin with an apology; they make some non-descript invitation for everyone to do something; they often motivate with guilt, ease, or fear; and they fail to capture the wonder that the God of the universe who is building his church permits us to be a part of his work.

Surely, Jesus didn’t recruit leaders this way, did he? Therefore, the question hangs in the air: How do we recruit people to serve in the church? And how, especially, do we call leaders to follow us as we follow Christ?

Five Principles for Recruiting Leaders

From Matthew 4, the place where Jesus called his first disciples, lets consider five principles for rallying the troops and burying foghorn announcements. Let’s watch as Jesus recruits his disciples and see if we can’t hear how he sounds the trumpet for his kingdom’s army of disciples.

1. Jesus sought disciples (not gap-fillers).

It’s important that Jesus didn’t seek ‘volunteers’ (he actually turned some away, Luke 9:57–62), entice ‘comfort-seekers’ (he actually promised them a cross, Luke 14:25–33), or headhunt ‘leaders’ (he actually pursued unlearned men, Acts 4:13). Rather, Jesus sought disciples—men who were eager to learn, to take his yoke upon their necks and follow him from Galilee to the grave. Indeed, when we come to Matthew 4, Jesus gave the simple command, “Follow me!”

This was the invitation of a teacher to his pupils, and thus the men who heard his call understood what Jesus was saying. He was inviting them to learn from him and to be his disciples. Though our passage (Matthew 4:18–23) does not have the word ‘disciple,’ by the time Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount, he is teaching his “disciples,” with other onlookers listening (5:1).

Thus, the first thing to understand about recruiting leaders is that it is an invitation to teach others. Put bluntly, if you are not interested in teaching them, don’t recruit them. If you are only looking to fill a gap, meet a need, or plug a hole, something is amiss. Just the same, if someone is not interested in learning (i.e., being open to correction and growth in Christlikeness), they shouldn’t follow or be given responsibilities to lead. In the church, discipleship is the predominant context and hence a prerequisite to serving. Thus, every invitation to serve should be an invitation to learn and in time to teach others and a promise from the leader that I will ensure you as a disciple of Christ will succeed—which is to say, I will help you in the ministry I’m inviting you to join.

2. Jesus selected people he knew.

To be more concise, Jesus selected people he knew. He came to James and John, Peter and Andrew because he knew them. As John’s Gospel indicates, they were disciples of John the Baptist, and in the small community around the Sea of Galilee, Jesus would have known them personally. Therefore, his invitation is not some hyper-mystical, “he spoke and they immediately followed.” It is an invitation to follow Jesus who had already been baptized and identified by John the Baptist (cp. Matthew 3:13–17 and John 1:29ff.).

Following Jesus, we too must recruit people we know. It’s not wrong to make an announcement informing people about service opportunities, but woe to the church whose leaders are so disengaged they only make public appeals, amplifying the volume and urgency each time. Like Jesus, we must know the people we call to serve and we must go to the people we hope to recruit.

In fact, with Jesus he had been preaching the gospel of the kingdom (4:17), but his future disciples went back to fishing. It is instructive that he went to them personally and invited them to come and be a part of his kingdom mission. We must learn to do the same and never be satisfied with broad, ambiguous invitations to serve.

3. Jesus knew where to find disciples.

In Matthew 4 we observe how Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom and then pursued kingdom disciples. Importantly, he did not wait for his disciples to come to him and he did not, as far as we know, extend a prolonged altar call to surrender to the ministry. Rather, in the wake of his preaching, he walked to the shoreline and found the men who would follow him.

If you are leading in Christ’s church, you must learn where the disciples are and go them; you can’t sit back and assume the best volunteers will come to you. Some of the best leaders are already engaged in other work. You must go to them and give them a compelling vision to put aside their nets and follow you as you follow Christ. This might include a call to vocational ministry, but that’s not primarily what I’m talking about. I’m talking about leading gifted, godly men (and women) to invest their lives in service to the local church. The best leaders are called, cultivated, and kept by shepherds who pursue them and give them a vision for serving Christ.

4. Jesus cast vision for his disciples with the Word of God.

Is it a clever turn of phrase that Jesus invites fishermen to be fishers of men? Or is it a fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption? A quick cross-reference shows that it is certainly the latter. Read Jeremiah 16 and you will find that the promise of redemption comes with hunters and fishers. Verses 14–16 read,

14 “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ 15 but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers.

16 “Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.

As with so many of Jesus metaphors and parables, Jesus is picking up Old Testament imagery and applying it to the new covenant he will establish with his death and resurrection. So here, we learn that Jesus’ words cast a vision for his disciples. Jesus is restoring the kingdom to Israel and making a way for the nations to come to God. Just like Jeremiah 16 says, Yahweh will call for fishers of men to gather in his redeemed (see also Matthew 13:47–50). Accordingly, we too must learn to keep the vision of Christ and his kingdom in view.

In Church with Jesus as the Hero, David Prince describes announcements as “The Savior of the Sermons between the Sermons.” He writes, “Too often faithful preachers [and churches] fail to realize that every time they open their mouth to speak to the flock, it is proclamation” (103). What he has in mind is the time in worship for announcements. He argues that we must have a “theology of announcements” that extols Christ and connects the administrative life of the church to the greater kingdom purposes of God.

Without this connection between Christ’s eternal kingdom and our weekly church logistics, we will drift dangerously close to foghorn announcements. Instead of leading disciples to see service to Christ as a blessed gift; they will treat it as a necessary duty: “Yep, I’ve served my time in the nursery.” “I don’t have kids that age, so why should I?” “Okay, but I already do so much.” “Sure I’ll do one more thing,” not considering how it robs someone else from serving.

With the threat of burnout always looming, there is the opposite problem—we fail to consider how serving in the church, even with all of its difficulties, is a blessed gift from God. Therefore, we must labor to cultivate leaders by regularly lifting high the grace of God and the merits of Christ’s kingdom.

5. Jesus set the standard for discipleship high and did not motivate with ease or guilt.

Finally, because Jesus was seeking disciples and not gap-fillers, he kept the standards of discipleship as high as the kingdom he was seeking. Just listen to his words in Luke 9:57–62.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is not satisfied with just any volunteerism. He is calling for discipleship. And thus in this passage and its corollary (Luke 14:25–33), he challenges his followers to pick up a cross to follow him. Indeed, if the kingdom of God is any good at all, shouldn’t Jesus followers be willing to suffer a little for it? Don’t misunderstand: I am not saying and Jesus is not saying that suffering secures one’s position in the kingdom. Just the reverse, those who are secured in the kingdom have every reason to suffer so that the good news of the kingdom reaches the ears, hearts, and lives of others. As Paul says, “I fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24), so that the message of the gospel might go to others.

When we guilt people into giving or comfort them into serving, we actually threaten the very nature of cross-centered, Christian discipleship. If making disciples is our aim, then it must carry over to the way we make announcements, recruit leaders, and talk about ministry. Indeed, to see service as a means of helping people on the fringe get plugged in, while well-intended, actually dilutes the culture of discipleship. Better to lift up a gracious gospel and a glorious Christ, so that true disciples lay down their nets to follow him. If we recruit leaders the way Jesus did, we will keep the standards high and trust God to give leaders to the church—just as Ephesians 4:7–11 promises.

Trust the Process

This process of recruiting leaders may grate against modern, consumeristic tendencies. But like so many have come to learn, abiding trust in a good process produces better, long-lasting results. And what do we have with Christ’s process, but God-given wisdom and a Christ-centered model.

Indeed, in the church following Jesus approach to leadership development will require (and create) a thicker disciple-making culture. It will also calls for greater prayer and dependence on the head. But isn’t that exactly what Christ wants?

In fact, in Matthew 9:35–38, which repeats Matthew 4:23–25 and closes the section that Jesus’ disciple-recruiting begins, we hear Jesus famous words,

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (vv. 37–38)

Indeed, we must not only make disciples and recruit leaders well. If we are going to see Christ formed in our churches, we must pray for God to give us laborers. Ultimately, this is how the church is built. While we can refine our processes, we must learn to trust his. And this comes only through prayer and commitment to his gospel. Therefore, let us be unswerving in our fidelity to the gospel and ever-mindful of the way Jesus made disciples. Let us steer clear of the foghorn announcement and passive approaches to leadership development. Instrad, let us look for leaders whom we know and whom we can, by God’s grace, develop into fruitful servants in God’s vineyard.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds