Oct 16, 2017
Narrow Your Student Focus
Mike Filicicchia shares how you can maximize your disciple making impact by narrowing his focus on fewer students.
Lately, I’ve been meditating upon the long-term impact of our disciple-making methods. Having done campus ministry full-time for eight years now, I’ve stepped back and asked, “Which ministry activities really produce fruit that lasts? What of my work on campus up to this point is continuing to make a Kingdom impact today, and what was just fun while it lasted?” Like many wise people before me, I’ve concluded that my time spent investing deeply in a just a few people has borne far more fruit in the long term than any of my “ministry to the masses.” Jesus’ disciple-making strategy of extended togetherness with just a few people still works. It ought to shatter any illusion that a bigger ministry now means more impact later.
Here’s another question that I’ve been considering: If I could spend my 10 weekly training hours with just one person for all 10 hours or two different people for 5 hours each in godly character and competencies, which should I choose? I decided to crunch the numbers to consider the long-term fruit between these two hypothetical plans:
Plan A: Spend all my training time focused on one person
Plan B: Split my training time and efforts between two people equally
Let’s assume for now that both candidates are equally faithful, available, and teachable, and will multiply all that they’ve learned (including their training method—either Plan A or Plan B) after the same amount of training (for simplicity we will call it a “year,” but any unit of time works). In short, Plan A is “make one disciple every year” and Plan B is “make two disciples every two years”. Sounds pretty comparable, right? After all, both methods average one disciple-maker made per year, so intuitively, their long-term impact might feel about equal. This isn’t just a theoretical exercise either; the question of “How many students should I disciple at once?” comes up at least once a month as I train campus missionaries for ministry.
Though it doesn’t look like much to start, after just 5 years, Plan A is already 80% more effective at multiplying disciple-makers than Plan B. After 10 years, Plan B yields enough disciple-makers to start a handful of churches while Plan A is poised to launch an entire extended network of churches. After 34 years, Plan B has reached the state of California while Plan A has reached the whole human population.
In case you missed it, the transition from Year 1 to Year 3 tells the entire story of why Plan A is orders of magnitude more effective than Plan B. Under both plans, I make two disciples between Year 1 and Year 3. The difference is that Plan A ensures that I have a co-worker in disciple-making for the second year, whereas I remain a disciple-making bottleneck for both years under Plan B. Plan A results in two 1st generation disciple-makers and one 2nd generation disciple-maker after two years, whereas Plan B yields only 1st generation fruit.
Now, I’m the first to admit that this thought experiment is not a perfect picture of how disciple-making plays out in the real world. The strict “split time” scenario is a false dichotomy because discipleship does not have to happen strictly one-on-one, it doesn’t account for availability logistics, and I doubt any of us can claim 100% yield for those we disciple becoming disciple-makers themselves (after all, Jesus was only 11-for-12). It’s a simplified model, but don’t miss its profound lesson on account of its shortcomings.
Over a lifetime of ministry, narrowing your focus by just half can result in 200 times more disciple-making impact. Let that sink in.
If you’ve found yourself feeling strapped for capable leaders in your ministry, thinking that everything depends on you, or feeling alone in your leadership, there’s a good chance a “Plan B” mode of ministry is partially to blame. After all, Plan B condemns us to twice as many lonely years as Plan A. More often than we’d like to admit, taking on one more disciple this year means having one less disciple-maker next year. Have you been honest with yourself about this reality, or have you allowed yourself to be seduced by the short-term gains of a “Plan B” approach?
Long-term Kingdom impact requires that we treat the Kingdom of God like the seed that it is: small to begin with, and requiring long initial labor resulting in very little visible growth. But over time, it becomes a sprawling, fruit-bearing plant carrying enough potential in its seeds to produce an entire garden. The social and financial pressures on church plants and other startup ministries to hit high numerical objectives in their first few years are pernicious enemies to long-term fruitfulness. Our own internal expectations of the kinds of numbers we ought to maintain can be even more deadly, as they compel us to sacrifice deep relational discipleship that multiplies in exchange for various forms of crowd-pleasing.
For the sake of our own health and the future generations we impact, we must diligently guard our discipline of a narrow focus in discipleship against every internal and external pressure to spread ourselves just a little bit thinner. Do your future self and ministry a favor: next time you feel drawn to take on just one more student in a discipling relationship, ask yourself if it’s worth the long-term consequences.