Disciples don’t make disciples; apostles do. In the so-called Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Jesus instructs his disciples to go make disciples. Rightly, much is made of having discipleship systems so that we can live out the Great Commission. But I want to suggest something radical: We can’t effectively carry out the Great Commission until we get serious about making apostles. In fact, we can’t have vibrant, flourishing churches without an apostle-making culture.
Sometimes we think only church planters can be apostles. Or that it requires a special call. I disagree. If we follow Jesus’ model, apostleship is a natural next step in discipleship. It’s how followers become leaders. It’s how Jesus’ ministry gets carried out.
Consider the disciples whom Jesus commissioned; they had an alternate identity. They were not only followers of Jesus, they were highly trained and equipped emissaries, agents, stand-ins for Jesus. We have this sense of them being hapless students who sometimes stumbled into truth, but who mostly stumbled over each other. But it’s not true. A closer reading of the text shows something different. Right from the very beginning, Jesus called the 12 to be apostles. “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed 12—designating them apostles.” (See Mark 3:13-19 and Matthew 10:1-4). He then empowered them to do the very things he did: cast out demons, heal the sick, proclaim the kingdom. He granted them agency.
I have often wondered if the church grants enough agency to its people. According to Wikipedia, “In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.” Does the church limit the very freedoms and authority that Jesus granted us?
Here’s what I mean: Jesus constantly authorized his followers to be not only hearers of his word, but doers also. Peter is encouraged to walk on water. All 12 are encouraged to feed the thousands that have gathered to hear the Master Teacher. First the 12, then 70, are sent out to do signs and wonders to pave the way for Jesus. They’re granted the agency to heal the sick. When they fail, Jesus teaches them how to do better the next time. Jesus raised up disciples who are also apostles. In other words, he regularly duplicated himself. He wanted us to have power, his power.
Does your church have an empowered, apostle-making culture? Here are 4 ways to tell:
- SHARED POWER Jesus shared power with his apostles. He wasn’t afraid of being shown up, overshadowed, or undermined. Apostle-making church cultures intentionally share power. Leaders of the congregation—lay and ordained—set out to duplicate themselves. They delegate authority, share tasks, ask for help, and empower others to carry out the work of ministry. They create more leaders and not simply more followers. Declining church cultures concentrate power so that followership is required.
- ABUNDANCE OF MIRACLES The apostles were miracle-makers. In their wake, people were healed, jail cells burst open, thousands became disciples, and effective structures for growth were put into place. Apostle-making church cultures expect and plan for miracles. Their ministries are visionary, and expand assumptions about what is possible. They respond to the needs around them, even when doing so seems impossible. Declining church cultures focus only on what seems possible—which is less and less. When the impossible is considered, it’s from a place of sentimentality or loss.
- SPIRITUAL GROWTH Jesus constantly challenged the apostles to growth in faith. When they failed in miracle-making, Jesus re-directed them to expand their capacity for trust and double-down on unwavering belief. Apostle-making church cultures not only focus on spiritual growth, they insist on it. They make tools available that will expand, deepen, heighten and maximize your ability to connect with the Divine and live the spiritual life. Declining church cultures equate tradition with spiritual growth.
- NIMBLE STRUCTURES The Apostles oversaw the radical expansion of the church. When necessary, they changed how they did things to make their work more effective. Apostle-making church cultures are not bogged down in excessive structure. They maintain nimble forms of governance, which allow for quick decision-making. Declining church cultures have traded out vision for structure. They’re afraid to make significant changes lest it challenge the identity of the church.
Is your church culture set up for apostle-making? If so, congratulations! You are setting yourself up for effective disciple-making. If not, choose one of the above qualities to begin to focus on. Re-read the Gospel of Mark or Acts from the perspective of apostleship and see what you can learn.
Next week, we’ll explore key differences between discipleship and apostleship and how you can take your next step of growth.