Leaders Lead, Disciples Disciple

kinnon —  January 4, 2011 — 30 Comments

As I've reread my More Disciples posts along with the recent Leadership posts of Dave Fitch, Geoff Holsclaw and Bob Hyatt as well as Ben Sternke's Volunteers or Bondservants, I've been struck by the rather simplistic thought in the title of this post – Leaders Lead, Disciples Disciple.

The question I want to ask is how many leaders in what we call the church have truly been discipled? And when I say discipled I mean in the manner in which Jesus lived in the midst of, and in intimacy with his disciples.

I know I haven't been discipled like that. Have you?

How can we expect to raise up disciples when few of us have actually experienced being discipled?

What has been modelled is that leaders lead. I'm bold (or stupid) enough to suggest that that happens whether the church claims to be missional or attractional.

But I'm convinced what the Body of Christ needs are disciples who disciple rather than leaders who lead.




A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

30 responses to Leaders Lead, Disciples Disciple

  1. But, don’t you know, discipleship takes time. Which tends to involve real Christ-centered community as well as long term vision, not a long term hope for personal legacy.
    And frankly, do you think we Western Christians are willing to go there?
    (Btw, I totally agree with you!)

  2. BB,
    Yep, discipleship does take time and few of us are really willing to invest the time necessary to both disciple and be discipled. We have a retail approach to the practice of our faith.

  3. Hmmm … makes sense. But actually, I kinda like the term I used a few years ago in blogging profiles of “Everyday DiscipLeaders” — meaning disciples who demonstrate leadership simply by living out their faith, especially in ways that are organic to their God-ordained design and spiritual giftings and providential passions.

    Such men and women have shaped my life more than conventional leaders. I think the reason for their influence goes back to their underlying paradigm, simply stated by Brother Maynard as “Live your faith, share your life” (the holistic-missional perspective) instead of “Live your life. Share your faith.” (the pragmatic-traditional perspective). Those who interweave living/sharing their faith/life SHOW how to live well, and can usually TELL principles and wisdom for living well as a follower of Christ.

    This kind of discipleader really functions as a co-mentor and fellow lifelong learner along the Way of Jesus. I rarely had these kinds of discipling relationships in my college years as a new Christian, which is why I made a commitment to – as best I could – become for 20-somethings later what I could not find for myself in my 20s.

    I suspect things will move more in the direction of mentor-based discipleship as the surrounding culture becomes more relational. Hope that is true …

  4. Great post, Bill. There’s another issue in there I can’t quite put my finger on. Disciples disciple others to share their gifts with the body of Christ. Leaders – it seems to me – often use their gift of leadership to manage or control the body of Christ, often assuming a superior, top-down position. Disciples recognize equality of gifts, serving and leading the same, directing the Body to follow only Christ.

  5. Well said, J a n. And much appreciated.

  6. I think it’s important to note that something is missing in our own spiritual formation until we engage in the activity of discipling others. That is: sharing life, intimate relationships, and purposeful one-to-one guidance is also critical for our growth as well. Not to mention that we cannot be fully obedient to Jesus until we disciple others.

  7. Exactly, Ray. Thanks.

  8. Gday Bill

    And one of the great challenges I believe, is that our people have been conditioned to follow leaders rather than walk with disciplers. As I have modified my own approach to leadership in church I have seen people get uneasy. Many just want a ‘king’.

  9. That is the 1 Sam 8 truth, ain't it. Great to hear from you, Hamo and hope you heal up quickly. (I read all your blog posts.)

  10. Boy, I’m the contrarian on this.
    Discipleship should not be a program. It is a relationship that takes place by doing the work of the church.

    One of the modern maladies of the contemporary church is that we’ve programmed everything, and in so doing, have essentially deconstructed the work and mission of the church, so that isn’t real life, but a scheduled activity.

    For me it comes down to the failure of churches to be able to define clearly what difference their life as the Body of Christ should make in the here and now. What is the impact that congregations of believers should be having. What change should happen today because of a congregation’s faith in Christ? If we are clear on that, then we know what we are do.

    I’m not saying we don’t mentor, don’t meet for prayer and study, and don’t have a structure for the work we are doing, but when those are treated as individual programmatic functions of the church, we lose the mission impact context for involvement.

    Let me give an example.

    A group of people in my church in downtown Asheville, two years ago discovered that the homeless shelters were closed on Saturday afternoons. Their concern our downtown neighbors having no place to go during on cold winter Saturday afternoons led to the Session of our church deciding to let them open up the church for three hours on Saturday afternoons during the winter months. At first, we were in a room with an outside entrance for our neighbors to come in for coffee, fellowship and warmth. As numbers grew, we moved into the fellowship hall. We are in our third season of offering this ministry. We now have other churches participating. Approximately 50-70 people show up each Saturday afternoon, and we have about an equal number of “volunteer” at least one Saturday a month. We call it Saturday Sanctuary.

    What’s remarkable about this experience is that it has provided an open environment for people to give freely and on their own initiative. At first, we offered coffee, popcorn, cookies and occasionally some fruit. Without any prompting or promotion, someone is showing up every week with a hot meal. It may be soup, or a grilled sandwich or some Buffalo hot wings. On Christmas day, a Saturday this year, in the midst of a blizzard, we served over 150 people a turkey and ham dinner.

    My point is that from this endeavor, people are growing in Christ. They see in tangible ways the truth that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 12.
    “18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

    The contemporary church’s approach to discipleship is too linear. It suggests that you must earn the right to be viewed as a leader or have responsibility. From what I see, there is no earning, there is only grace, and the grace we have is to serve, and to serve gratefully, and through that, to grow in faith as disciples.

  11. Do you mind if I ask where you’re at, Ed? I live in Asheville and this sounds really interesting to me.

  12. Hi, Nate.
    Our church is First Presbyterian on Church Street downtown.
    Email me at [email protected], and I’ll send you some info.

  13. Ed,
    I’m not sure how you read me or any of the other folk here suggesting discipleship should be a program. My point is that it’s about us living in community – both discipling and being discipled. And in my previous post, I quote from my original A Better Word than Volunteer post where I use the same verse.

    But I do appreciate the story and your passion, as always, my friend.

  14. Brad,
    Thanks for the reminder of BroMayn’s “Live your faith, share your life.” And I appreciate the “co-mentor/life long learner” desire for us as we grow – both discipling and being discipled.

  15. Your Virtual-Abbess-who-used-to-be-Assimilation-Pastor is taken back to her chapter in Wikiklesia Volume One, where she shared about Reverse Mentoring (Much like Brad), which is about trying to mentor/disciple others after not being mentored/discipled … led, yes — discipled, NO. And. Actually. Having to NOT act like those who could have discipled, but they didn’t know how, either. Sigh….

    And, Ed … disciple making is the ANTI-program/system. I see glimpses of the real deal from time to time … and they make me yearn for it myself.

    I am entering a Year-Of-Discipling-My-Children (or, more truthfully, a Decade, since that is how I long I have until my youngest graduates high school), and it is not about programming them, but living out the love of God in front of them — God’s love for me and for them. Too many pastor’s children never see God’s love in their home … too busy serving programs at church.

    The core drive of humans, I’ve been told, is to belong. That requires TIME invested in being together and doing together and accepting and treasuring those to whom we belong and who belong to us.

    Our Triune God shows us what this looks like (images of Papa, Sarayu and Jesus flood my mind), and invites us to become part of them as the Bride of Christ, the Body, the called-out ones who form the church.

    Still awaiting the fullness of time for CovenantClusters to be born … as I approach the fifth anniversary of that vision of disciple-making community tomorrow, Epiphany.

  16. Bill, thanks for bringing and bringing and bringing this (enormous) issue to the fore. I think the point you brought up about most leaders don’t make disciples because they’ve never been discipled is a huge reason for the malaise. Jesus didn’t say “Come and listen to me”, he said “Come and FOLLOW me”. When he left an all night prayer to choose the 12 the scripture says be “with him” (Mark 3:14). Until we take our cues/clues/models straight from the Master Discipler we will continue to build churches (his job) and ignore his command to us to do our job–make disciples.

  17. Thanks Lance and thanks for a comment that adds to the discussion.

  18. Bill – and everyone else,

    How do you propose we go about living in this kind of intimate community in this day and age? And can you give me an example of where it is happening? I am trying to figure this discipleship stuff out right now.

    I am a little surprised that this thread has moved to what appears to be an either/or between leadership and discipleship. The latter is the task of the church, the former is a gift of the Spirit to help the church do the latter. I don’t see their antagonism. And frankly, having been in a ton of badly led churches, I have the same allergy to badly led churches that most of you do to poor discipleship.

    Frankly BIll, you had a bad experience with narcissistic, tyrannical, unbiblical leadership. I mourn with you. But your last line – “disciples who disciple rather than leaders who lead”- is ridiculous. Simply, ridiculous.

    Because I know you. I have sat with you over coffee for hours. You want leaders who lead well BY discipling. You have told me so many times. You have bemoaned the lack of missional leadership in the church today many times to me personally. Stop saying you don’t want leaders; you do, or you have been lying to me ever since I knew you.

    You want Jesus-following, Spirit-led, humble, gospel centered leaders as much or more than almost anyone I know. So stop, STOP ranting about not wanting leaders, or leaders are bad for the church. They aren’t. Only the wrong KIND are.

    The current obsession with the leadership ‘gift’ is unhealthy – sure. The current definition of pastor as ‘leader’ (ie CEO- type leader) is toxic to the church – right. But leaders are given to the church, to help the church disciple properly. Show me a church where discipleship is happening well, as a pervasive culture of the church, and I guarantee you that I will find that this same church is well led.

  19. My reply got too long…so I just put it up as its own post on my blog. I think this is a great conversation. Thanks! link to bit.ly

  20. Interestingly enough, I think the linguistic center of your comment, Dan, holds a key to the terminology problem here: “You want leaders who lead well BY discipling.”

    The reason this leading versus discipling has turned into an either/or dialog (and not just on Bill’s blog) is because of the same central problem we have found in the past few years with the terms “emerging” and “missional.” Same central problem with the word “grace” that divides Christianity from some knock-offs. There are a whole lotta people using the exact same words, but at the paradigm level of assumptions underneath the word, they mean something completely opposite thereby.

    To some, their glossary for “leader” comes out of old business models, not the New Testament’s timeless message. When they say “leader,” their modern-era add-ons include things like pyramid (not peers), like edict (not example), like control (not collaborate). And – worst for the churches – dictate (not disciple). It is severely unfortunate that a biblical word like “leader” has been so corrupted in its concept that it’s reached the point where it is nearly devoid of discipleship DNA — and from what I know of the genetics of XX and XY and replication, when there a X or Y gene that is double, broken, or missing, the offspring (if it even lives) is almost always sterile.

    It seems to me that Bill’s heart is — yes and amen — “to have leaders who lead well BY discipling” as you’ve stated. As I see it, it is also his gift to provoke, to prod, and perhaps push the limits a bit too much — but it seems to me that it’s in order to try to help unglue the series of unfortunate worldly concepts that our Christendom cultures have superglued onto biblical words and thus created a — dare I say? — “near-heretical syncretism”? This genetically broken form of “leadership” certainly seems to be leading to systems with a lot of sterile offspring, so how can it claim to have substantially biblical roots?

    Okay, so Bill is sometimes a bull in a china shop. He admits to it … or at least to the Canadian version thereof. But how many times have we seen him take responsibility if he goes too far on his blog? And Dan, have you ever seen him take ownership of his mistakes and do something to set things right in your own relationship with him? As with this battle over the word and concept of “leader,” it ain’t what’s on the surface that is the full and real story, but what’s underneath and how that centrality of heart plays out over time. If Bill weren’t concerned for real leaders who lead by discipling, whyever would he spend such a huge amount of time providing the constructive print and video resources he does for missional ministry? Understood — he has suffered wounding from “leaders” who were bleeders. But, I believe, Bill also demonstrates hope for a more positive future and he works to help it along.

    It’s sad that we (the Western churches) have to grapple at this point with figuring out discipleship more from what it is NOT than by what it is, because we just don’t seem to have enough people (Leaders? Disciples?) demonstrating the slow process of persevering to mentored maturity and mentoring maturity. I’ve seeng that search go on since at least the 1970s, and seems to be gaining momentum the past decade. Maybe the rather jolting dialogues and diatribes of late indicate birth about to happen. Given the past few decades of “obsession with the leadership ‘gift'” as you said, and the results we’ve seen from that, maybe that stirring of the pot is a really good thing.

    And yes, “DiscipLeaders” do exist. If you do a search for that word on my *futuristguy* blog, you’ll find at least a few intriguing case studies from ministry and church settings. Hope those are of help, Dan.

  21. I am not sure I understand your response to Bill’s last line. After all, he doesn’t reject leaders who lead, but rather says what the church needs more than that is disciples who disciple (which I suspect would ultimately be leaders who lead). Just not sure how you landed on “ridiculous”.

  22. I have two cents to give:

    It requires tremendous courage to abdicate control while at the same time accepting responsibility. This, by my understanding, is exactly the act of faith/faithfulness. It’s what good parents, good gardeners, and good beer brewers understand: you are responsible for curating the conditions that foster life, but in reality you can never control life (HT: Ian Malcomb) and attempts to do so, however fruitful and profitable they may initially seem, will prove destructive to everyone involved sooner or later.

    Now, too often (I think most often), the word “leader” connotes the exact opposite: a shirking of responsibility but a seizing of control, and despite all the aggressive blustering that typifies this style of leadership, it’s root is cowardice, not courage.

    But I think we should be honest and admit that the same is true for the word “discipler.”

    Likewise, it would be helpful to recognize that, for many of us, words like leader, discipler, parent, teacher, coach, pastor, priest, president, (guru, imam), connote the very best of those in our lives who have lovingly and courageously stewarded our souls. For others, sadly, not so much. For the former – and for those who do believe good leadership requires the control of outcomes for the good (by their definition of “good”) – this is a bewildering conversation.

    So the discussion of terms can be helpful for that very reason, but unless we define the terms, I fear we can have bitter arguments in actual agreement or friendly alliances in actual discord – and never know until the damage is done.

    (And Bill, we all know you LIKE being ridiculous x 2)

  23. eeek, i almost hate the thot, but is it time for a synchroblog or something on the biblical meaning(s) of *disciple* (both verb and noun)? [please, not yet another new organization or webbiewiki. just some resource posts…]

    is there anyone out there who can help by tracking the historical changes in the Christendom and post-Christendom definitions of *discipling* over the past 50 years especially (e.g., Lyman Coleman, Navigators) and how things have morphed? and how certain versions of “discipling” fuel part of the church planting movement that relies on a replication model?

    just wond’rin’ aloud here …

  24. It seems to me that the point here is not whether “leadership” is a spiritual gifting or not, rather, it is who is and how are we discipling people into their various spiritual giftings, so that the body of Christ can function as a whole.

  25. Does the incarnation not reveal some significant things to us about how we lead and how we disciple? It seems to me that the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is a game changer. The presence of God among the people was always their unique claim and the presence of God among the people in the form of Jesus makes all the difference. The Word enfleshed is the full revelation, the exposition of the word written, grace and truth, is life.

    Life lived among, shared life, seems to me that answer. I can’t disciple every person in my parish and my leadership is important to raise up disciples who themselves are discipling others. It is important for me as the senior pastor to set the direction of the parish and if I am not involved in both being discipled and discipling others then how can I lead a church to be a discipling church in obedience to the Great Commission?

    I chose to take the risk of some getting their feelings hurt by not being directly discipled by me and that there would be jealousy on that count. Jesus chose twelve men to be close to Him and kept three even closer it seems and He didn’t worry about talk a great deal but spoke into the talk about who would be the greatest when it arose.

    I believe that the 23rd Psalm has much to say to us about both discipleship and leadership in the church. Do we lead like God or do we lead like the world?

  26. Kaili,

    Agreed and Amen. Wish your dad had said it so well, though I know he agrees with it.

  27. John,

    Beautifully said, and led. That is leadership, and disciple-making.

  28. Jamie,

    I know that he doesn’t, and I know what he believes. But his last statement provocatively distorted, in my mind, his actual thinking
    AND the biblical synchronicity betwixt leading and discipleship. And if Bill wants to provoke, he should be ready to get provocative responses back, even from people who love and adore him, as I do:)

  29. Bill,

    I need to apologize and ask for your forgiveness. In this comment thread I was irritable, unfair and wrong to you. I did not treat you as you deserved to be treated. I did not love you, did not think the best of you, did not esteem you as I should have. What I did was unfair, and wrong, and sinful, and horrible. To you, your friends and family, your readers, I repent and ask that you would grant me grace and forgive me. I am so, so sorry.


  30. Dan,
    I admit that I was taken aback at the tone and level of frustration in your response. But of course I forgive you. You are a good friend.

    I, of all people, can certainly sympathize with writing irritable responses – there are many examples on my part here at this small corner of the interwebs.

    Forgive my lack of response, as Imbi and I took advantage of a cheap last minute deal and headed off to some time in the sunny south.


What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.