Over the last year or so, I have been thinking about what it means for missionaries to be both disciples and disciple-makers. I recognized that we can easily make the mistake of assuming that at some point in our Christian life, we graduate from being disciples to become disciple-makers. But through an in-depth study of the Gospel of Matthew, it became clear to me that we never stop being a disciple of Jesus. We never graduate from his school of discipleship. Just as we need to keep learning how to be better disciple-makers, we also need to continue learning to be better disciples.

Disciples in Disciple-making

In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard said

First of all, it is clear that, if we would make disciples, we should be disciples. … To plan on making disciples, we need to know what one is and how people become disciples. We need to know these things by personal experience, as did the first generation of Jesus’ people. They had been made disciples. And we need to be standing in the position of Jesus’ students and co-workers, so that our efforts in making disciples will be appropriately guided and strengthened by him. They are, after all, to be his disciples, not ours. So we are, then, disciples in disciple making. We learn from Jesus how to make disciples as he did.”

Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (p. 328). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

So what we can do practically to help one another continue to learn from Jesus? How do we help one another be diligent students in Jesus’ discipleship school? Does each disciple just have to figure this out on their own? Or can we learn together in some way?

Learning with others

We have observed in our online courses, that people are much more motivated to learn when they can learn together with others. If a person can go through some new material together with their friends, sharing thoughts and ideas for application, even in the context of online forums, people stay engaged much longer than if they try to do an online course all by themselves. This observation helps us think about how to keep learning to be better disciples and better disciple-makers.

The writer to the Hebrews has a lot to say about learning and training and faults the believers for not maturing in their knowledge and discernment (Heb 5:11-14, 6:1-3). He wants them to “show this same diligence to the very end” and not “to become lazy” (Heb 6:11,12). But the author of the epistle does not expect that they will be able to stay on course all by themselves as individual believers. He makes it the responsibility of each believer to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. – Hebrews 10:24–25

Based on the following verse (vs. 25), it is obvious that this “spurring on toward love and good deeds” was happening in the context of Christian meetings – but not just any kind of meetings. These meetings were to be times of encouragement but the encouragement and the “spurring on” were to be intentional and personalized. The Greek word for “consider” implies that they were to pay attention to one another and give very careful consideration to how they might help one another grow spiritually. For that degree of personal attention to happen, there would need to be transparency and accountability in the group. How do you do this unless you know the opportunities and challenges that the other is facing?

Small groups talking about being disciples and disciple-makers

It seems obvious to me that these meetings would have been relatively small group meetings. Only in the context of a small group where people know one another and are committed to one another’s growth would this level of personal encouragement and accountability be accepted and helpful.

Note that the writer to the Hebrews tells us not to neglect these small group meetings! They were not optional. They are vital if we want to persevere in our faith, love, and good works.

Where do we as missionaries find these small groups of fellow disciples who will carefully think about how to encourage us in our life as a disciple of Jesus and a disciple-maker? Sometimes our mission teams provide that level of support and accountability. Sometimes local believers will become close friends with whom we can share on that level.

But for many of us, we don’t have anyone in our life who is so committed to our spiritual growth and learning that they would intentionally think about how they can spur us on in our life as a disciple and a disciple-maker. Many of us live in places where there are few believers or we live a long distance from fellow missionaries. As a result, we have very few opportunities to interact deeply and personally with others about what Jesus is teaching us.

Learning communities

In SEND U, we are trying to meet this need in the coming year. For the past few months, a few of us have been experimenting with virtual groups that we call “learning communities.” A small group (3 or 4 people, all of the same gender) meet weekly for about an hour online. Our purpose is to talk about what we are learning about becoming disciples and disciple-makers. Our agenda is quite simple:

  1. We talk about what is happening in one another’s lives.
  2. Each person shares what God has been teaching them from the Word
  3. Each one shares how they are seeking to help others (unbelievers and believers) on their journey to/with Jesus
  4. We pray for one another.

We have found these virtual meetings to be very significant times of encouragement and accountability. One person said it was an anchor for them in the ups and downs of partner development. Another comment was that this group spurred them on to be intentional about hearing from God’s Word. I personally have been tremendously encouraged by each time we meet. I have observed how this weekly meeting has helped me to be more intentional and disciplined in my disciple-making ministry.

You can learn more about these learning communities on the SEND U wiki. See https://senduwiki.org/learning_communities.