Dietrich Bonhoeffer memorably wrote on the cost of discipleship, but he’d be the first to insist that the Christian life involves more than simply following Jesus by being His disciple. Better put, Christ’s call to discipleship (Luke 14:26–33) includes His call to disciple-making (Matthew 28:19).
And yet we live in a day in which everything else in life seems to be going in some direction other than life-on-life disciple-making. Let’s be honest, disciple-making isn’t rocket science. The vision is simple enough. Our need isn’t for more information but to do what we already know we should do, and in some ways want to do, but simply haven’t or aren’t yet. Most of us know enough; we’re just not doing it. Because we haven’t yet been willing to embrace the costs. We intuit the costs, but we haven’t embraced them.
Perhaps what might help us over our hurdles is not to hide how costly disciple-making is, but to be utterly honest and explicit about the costs, and hold them out in the light for us to see, and then find whether something in us might just rise to the peculiar glory of it all. God makes foolish the wisdom of the world, with its shortcuts and mass production, through the folly of disciple-making. As He did when His Son took a rag-tag band of uneducated everyday people, invested in them at depth, and launched them out to change the world.
What Is Disciple-Making?
If the Great Commission is the first pillar of disciple-making, likely 2 Timothy 2:2 is the second.
What you have heard from Me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
Disciple-making involves personal attention and guidance from one maturing Christian to another “younger” believer in the faith. It’s essentially spiritual parenting ‒ intentionally and relationally investing oneself in the spiritual growth and maturity of a few disciples ‒ part of which is training those disciples to then disciple others who disciple others.
What Makes It So Hard?
We could list dozens of costs, no doubt, but here let’s limit it to seven ‒ and in particular seven that arise from the immediate context of 2 Timothy 2:2.
For those of us who have heard 2 Timothy 2:2 so often, and may even repeat it from memory, how often have we kept reading and lingered over the next verse? “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).
What is the very next thing the apostle Paul says after he gives his disciple Timothy the charge to make disciples who make disciples in verse 2? Verse 3: “Share in suffering.” Should we be surprised? The master disciple-maker Himself was put to death on a cross. And Paul is writing this letter from prison to his disciple. Paul wasn’t locked up just for being a disciple of Jesus. If he would have just loved Jesus and kept it to himself, no one would have gone to all the trouble to put him away. No, he was in prison because he was fruitful to multiply his life by making disciples.
One of the costs of disciple-making we should weigh ‒ and it may become increasingly more pressing in the years to come ‒ is opposition, even persecution. Enemies of Jesus don’t usually bother Christians who love Jesus privately. It’s not worth the hassle. But when followers of Jesus are fruitful in making disciples, they become strategic targets for resistance. Very few today oppose simply holding the Christian faith; it’s proselytizing ‒ or disciple-making ‒ that will get you into trouble.
“No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:4). We live in the age of distraction. And not only will disciple-making be sidelined if we smartphone and entertain ourselves to death, but Satan has a thousand ready-made, event-oriented distractions to divert us from pleasing Jesus in the grunt work of Gospel advance called disciple-making. We are bombarded not just by obvious time-wasters, but good initiatives that, if we’re not careful, will not supplement disciple-making, but supplant it.
The cost of not getting “entangled in civilian pursuits” includes staying on mission, but not only that. Attention is required in our scheduling, and attention is required in the moment, at the dinner table, or over coffee, or in whatever context in which we give our undivided attention to the one(s) in whom we’re investing.
3. Pleasing Others
This is a great cost for some of us (and too little for others). Our aim is “to please the one who enlisted” us (2 Timothy 2:4), not anyone who walks through the door, or joins the church, or deems themselves worthy of our regular investment. One of the hardest aspects of the disciple-making process is “selection.” Jesus chose twelve, and in doing so left out hundreds, even thousands, who would have benefited from His time and energy.
In disciple-making, we need to remember our aim is to please Jesus, and this will cost us favor with certain persons, especially when we have to say no to our involvement in their program or event or even to discipling them personally, because we’re protecting the space to invest in others.
Paul continues, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). Disciple-making often feels like a long lap around a big stadium. It would be so much easier to take a shortcut across the field. We’re tempted to cut corners by constructing programs and systems that will mass-produce disciples without the very personal costs involved. But disciples who make disciples can’t be mass-produced. I’ve seen it again and again when Christians made by event after event, but not coupled with intentional, relational, Gospel-centered disciple-making, go haywire at the strangest times.
Defaulting to the easier, often more single-event, hype-oriented methods simply does not produce the same depth of gospel transformation ‒ and then gospel transmission and multiplication ‒ as life-on-life disciple-making.
Another cost the athlete image in verse 5 calls to mind is the energy it involves to disciple. This is one of the greatest, and most underrated, costs. Early-morning and late-night intense conversations drain our emotional tank. It’s much easier to avoid them and just watch television. Disciple-making costs us energy. But when you have a one-on-one meeting scheduled after a long day, or an early morning appointment after a short night, the discipler says with Paul, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15).
When we think we can’t do any more, we keep pushing to the finish line, like an athlete, as we learn the invaluable dynamic of serving in another’s strength (1 Peter 4:11) by leaning on God, and walking in faith, for energy we don’t think we have.
6. Taking the Initiative
“It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops” (2 Timothy 2:6). Perhaps simply stepping out and taking the initiative is where more of us get caught up than anywhere else. We have a vision. We see a select few who seem to be strategic for our investment for a season, but we’re paralyzed by simply taking the initiative to have the potentially awkward conversation about getting together regularly to read the Bible and pray.
Initiative is so huge today. So much of leadership is simply initiative. You don’t need to have all the answers; you don’t need to have everything figured out. People often simply need someone to risk the awkwardness, and risk being misunderstood, and take the initiative to get the process going. And with it, of course, comes the need for some basic planning: how often will we meet, where will we meet, what if anything will we study together, how long will the commitment be, in what areas does this person need to learn and grow?
Of all the costs, time may be the greatest. Disciple-making, like a farmer raising crops, is time-consuming. Big time. It takes time to plow the field, time to plant, time to water, time to fertilize, then time to harvest. So it will be with disciple-making. It’s not one meeting, but often a year’s worth of regular meetings. It’s not one conversation, but sometimes difficult conversation after conversation. Which requires patience.
As with farming, we don’t see the progress all at once. And yet, over the course of months, it’s amazing what kind of harvest can happen.
More Blessed to Give
In the end, disciple-making is costly because it demands continuously giving ‒ giving time, giving energy, giving attention, taking initiative, making sacrifices, facing opposition, losing privacy, embracing obscurity, even shedding tears. Disciple-making means not just sharing the Gospel, but sharing our own selves (1 Thessalonians 2:8), gladly spending and being spent for the souls of others (2 Corinthians 12:15). It means giving, giving, giving.
But did not the great discipler Himself say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35)? And so the hearts of His disciples, in our labors to disciple others, are learning to say, “It makes me happier for you to have my time, my energy, my attention, my initiative than for me to keep them to myself.”