My friend Cruz sent a message asking me to call him - he didn’t have any cell phone credit. After a few minutes of chatting, he posed his question. “I’ve been reading through the gospels,” he said, “and I can’t figure out something. Why is John’s narrative so different than the other gospels?” Wow. We talked about that for a few minutes, I asked how things are with the church he’s been preaching at and then we hung up. Cruz is a motivated young man who is growing in his walk with Christ. Over the past few years he’s memorized multiple sections of scripture (I can’t keep up with him!) and tackled any ‘homework’ I give him - he just eats it up.
And then there’s Albisto. He is a little older than Cruz. He has a beautiful wife and baby girl and serves as the health worker in his village. He cuts and sells boards for a living and the church in Ncororo meets at his house. He is certainly a capable individual, but when I’ve tried encouraging him to grow in certain areas of his life or walk with Christ he isn’t always that interested.
These two young men were baptized on the same day about five years ago, but their stories of growth and what they need to move forward are very different.
One of the hardest parts of disciple-making is discerning the intersection of capacity and craving in the life of a person. It takes months or even years of working with someone before I’ve got a real grasp on these two aspects. And even then, I can get it wrong. I’ve underestimated capacity and been blown away by disciples who’ve done more than I could have imagined. And, on the flip side, I’ve been deeply frustrated when I’ve overestimated their level of craving and accumulated unmet personal expectations for them.
Making disciples and mentoring emerging leaders is a complicated process (especially cross-culturally!) and it is essential to recognize that all disciples have different levels of maturity and different levels of skill and interest. Now while we certainly should do our best to understand these parts of their make-up, we must keep it in mind, though, that the disciple-making project ultimately belongs to God. He’s been known to do surprising things at surprising times in people’s lives. We are not in control of the process.
So how should we think about our role in the disciple-making process?
The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. While clocks are these precise, tidy systems, clouds are irregular and unpredictable. Popper’s point was to show that the error of modern science was to see everything as a clock – where we can dissect things into their building blocks and then re-assemble them again. Instead, he reminded us that we live in a world of clouds where most of what surrounds us is formed by complex systems beyond our ability to predict and certainly beyond our ability to control.
Popper’s theory should remind us that while it’s helpful to assess a disciple’s capacity and craving, we also have to remember that there’s more going on behind the scenes than we can control or account for.
So, should we think that the process of forming disciples more like the making a cloud than making a clock? Yes… But, actually, I think if we asked Jesus for an analogy to describe the process, he would say that making disciples is not really like making clocks or clouds… and certainly not making clones. It isn’t like watching the clouds form and throwing up our hands and saying that we can’t contribute anything to the process. And it’s not like a watchmaker doubled over at his work bench putting precise time pieces together. It’s not even like making copies of some pristine original.
Instead, I think Jesus would say that that it’s more like the process of cultivating a plant – like what he says in John 15 about the vine and the branches.
A gardener makes real contributions to the health of the plant while recognizing that there are related forces (soil, sun and water) that can be outside of his control. It is important to recognize that we’re not in charge of the disciple-making process and that God is leading and loving this person better than we ever could. We are called to play a limited and yet still important role – like a gardener… or to pick a different contemporary metaphor – a coach.
When I think about disciple-making and coaching there are some scenes from the first episodes of the ‘Friday Night Lights’ television series that come to mind. In the pilot episode, the talented High School quarterback has been injured in the first game of the season and will never play football again. A few days later, Coach Taylor comes to visit him in the hospital and expresses some dissatisfaction at how his replacement is doing. The injured quarterback shares his observations on the ways that he and his backup are different. “I needed a map, but he’s more of a free-thinker… he draws pictures and listens to Bob Dylan… if you free him up a little, he’ll do good things for you.” The injured player reminds the Coach not to treat his quarterbacks the same way. Grateful for the generous advice, Coach Taylor tells him, “You’re a good man… You’re what makes guys like me want to coach.”
A little later in the episode, Coach Taylor visits his new quarterback’s house and for the first time realizes that this player has a very challenging home life. Later that evening, at the empty football field, Coach Taylor starts by building the young man up, complementing him on the way he’s holding his difficult life together. Coach Taylor knows that this young man is struggling with confidence; he points to the field and the stands and tells him that all of this is his for the taking if he wants it. Then the stadium speakers are turned on, filling the place with the roar of a game time crowd. The episode ends with the coach helping the new quarterback learn to find his voice above the noise.
Coach Taylor succeeds when he begins to ‘tailor’ his approach to meet the different needs and motivations of his players.
In many ways, coaching disciples is more difficult than coaching players – there is no box score at the end of the day that will give indisputable evidence of how they did. Making disciples is complicated and needs multiple metaphors; it incorporates elements from the formation of clocks and clouds and plants as well. But, when I think about how best to serve both Cruz and Albisto, I like this image of a coach tailoring assistance to them knowing that even though I won’t be able to control their actions on the field, I can still make a significant contribution to helping them win.
May God help us grow in learning to make disciples and mentor those around us in effective ways – encouraging them to find their voice.
Grace and Peace,