The other day I asked my father-in-law if he knew who Bill Walsh is. He looked at me confused. “Yeah. Of course.” In his defense, it was a silly question on my part. Aside from Jesus, his wife, and his daughters, football is his passion. He’s one of those guys that can answer those ESPN trivia questions they put up during commercial breaks. But, I didn’t know Bill Walsh. I knew some other guys: Mike Tomlin, Tony Dungy, Gary Kubiak, John Harbaugh (and his brother Jim), Mike McCarthy, John Gruden, etc. What I didn’t know until I asked that question was that all of those football coaches I knew had been mentored in some way by Bill Walsh.
Not long ago someone posted this “tree” of Bill Walsh. Directly or indirectly, Walsh is responsible for training and developing these thirty-two men into great coaches. The significance of Walsh’s example is not in the sheer number of head coaches he has produced, but the skill of these men. Many of these men have won Super Bowls. Some of them will go down as some of the greatest football coaches in history. This is just an example of the power of discipleship.
Jesus’ Model of Discipleship
Discipleship can be an elusive concept. Especially when we recognize that Jesus’ discipleship method began with evangelism. Jesus began calling the twelve to follow him in Mark 1:16-20 with Peter, James, and John. Levi comes next in 2:14. The final list is found in 3:13-19. But, the first profession of faith does not come until 8:27-30 and culminates thematically in Jesus’ transfiguration (9:2-13). Additionally, while he was closely involved with the twelve he also taught the crowds. Beyond this two-fold large-group/small-group pattern, Jesus also shows us a few other key elements.
First, and easily overlooked, is that Jesus’ discipleship strategy was lead by the Spirit. It is easily overlooked because the beginning of Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism, which is the same time the Spirit descended. If Jesus himself would not begin to disciple without the Holy Spirit, then what hope do we have without him? Mark’s fast-paced narrative makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the catalyst for his ministry. The Spirit descends in 1:10 and then “immediately [drives] him out into the wilderness” in 1:12. In 1:16 Jesus calls the three. And from 1:21-45 Jesus delivers a demonized man, heals a multitude, preaches, casts out more demons, and cleanses a leper. This pattern continues in Mark 2 as Jesus continues to heal the sick, call disciples, and teach.
Teaching is a primary component of Jesus’ ministry. Later, Paul will tell Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). But this command is given for two reasons: because the word is from God and effective to rebuke, correct, and train (3:16-17); because people increasing only want to hear what they want to hear (4:3-5). Notice what Jesus does in 2:1-12 when he heals the paralyzed man. More than a simple healing account, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to challenge his audience. Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, knew where his people’s hang ups were. This prompted his question: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?” (2:9). He wanted to challenge their assumptions. Jesus wasn’t being provocative for the sake of it, but in order to expose their blind spots.
Call to Action
Early on Jesus expects his disciples to act. The command, “follow me”, is itself a call to action. Discipleship is active. Without action can we really call it discipleship? The twelve are present with him during all that Jesus taught and did. Then in 6:7-13, the activity shifts from following to doing. Jesus starts sending out the twelve in pairs. He gives them directives to proclaim the kingdom, authority over demons, and the ability to heal the sick. In other words, he sent them to do what Jesus himself was doing. They are not autonomous yet. Within the same chapter when the thousands gather around Jesus and Andrew suggests sending them away Jesus tells him, “You give them something to eat” (6:37). Though sent-out and empowered, Jesus is still vital to their ministry.
At regular intervals throughout Mark’s gospel we are told that Jesus pulled away to pray (1:35, 6:45-46). As with the Holy Spirit, if prayer was essential to Jesus’ ministry, then so should our own.
Different Strategies, Same Goal
It is safe to say that all our varied discipleship strategies have the same goal: reach the lost, grow the saved. But, the best method seems to vary by context, history, ministry philosophy, and leadership. The website smallgroups.com has a
that lists ten prevailing models of small groups along with strengths, weaknesses, and prominent proponents. This is where our discipleship strategies must begin with prayer and being led by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise we are left choosing a strategy based on what’s popular, assumed, or pragmatic.
In any of the models listed - be they closed and small, open and large, neighborhood groups, cell groups, or any other combination - there still must be the same elements Jesus modeled for us. Why? Because what Jesus’ model of discipleship began with twelve and spread across the known world in only a couple generations. If we began to insist on Jesus' model of discipleship then what could we see in our city? Bill Walsh raised up some of Football’s greatest coaches in the course of one generation. What could God’s people accomplish with discipleship strategies built on prayer, teaching, action, and the Holy Spirit?
What strategy have you found most effective in your context? Let us know in the comments.