Backward discipleship

Disciple-making includes balancing three key tasks

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Just what does a follower of Jesus do? How do we become effective disciples of Jesus? To answer these questions, I hang my hat on Jesus’ words to Peter and Andrew, two of his first disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17 ESV). Months later, Mark 3:14 tells us that Jesus “appointed 12 (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him, and he might send them out to preach.”

I find in these texts three overarching tasks for every disciple who is sincere about following Jesus after conversion. We follow Jesus by:

  • being with Jesus—learning to live in his presence for the purpose of obeying him in all matters;
  • becoming like Jesus—thinking, speaking and living like him; and
  • proclaiming Jesus—evangelizing and making disciples.

This three-fold mission is for every member of a local congregation and is as vital as the mission of those who are missionaries and/or church planters. My mission today as a member of a local church remains the same as when I was a missionary and pastor.

For most of my life, I have not focused on a proper balance of these three tasks. I have not prioritized remaining in Jesus (John 15:4-5), which is key to producing fruit in and through our lives.

Let me explain how I have done discipleship backward, what has happened since I have a more balanced understanding of the three tasks God calls us to and the role of the local church in discipleship.

 Studying and sharing

After coming back to Jesus as a young adult in the early 1970s, I focused on studying the Bible and sharing the good news. My later Bible school and seminary training helped me further develop these two important practices. But sadly, I received little training in spending time with Jesus and developing healthy spiritual disciplines.

Likewise, I wasn’t taught the importance of becoming more like Jesus (Romans 8:29), something so necessary for effective living and disciple-making (Acts 1:8). I wasn’t given the tools to help me deal with my “hurts, hang-ups and habits” to better reflect Jesus. And off to Spain we went in 1979 as missionaries where I evangelized and taught the Bible, just as I was taught.

Looking back, I see how I lacked much emotional health in my life. I was oftentimes anxious, angry and resentful. Such was my emotional imbalance that I almost suffered a nervous breakdown. I also experienced a plethora of relational problems in Spain. But as to evangelism and teaching the Bible, I was doing well—at least on the surface.

In the early 1990s, it dawned on me that I was not always practicing what I was teaching about Christian living and experiencing victory over destructive habits. There were many telling and shameful areas in my life. I lived with much guilt and feelings of hypocrisy. Later as a pastor in California, my witness still lacked emotional and relational health. Yes, I was healthier in these areas than when living in Spain, but much inner work still needed to be done.

My journey backward

I began my journey backward in the 1990s by focusing on behavioral changes and becoming like Jesus. Much healing has happened since then. God’s cleansing work has gone deep into my heart and soul. I have also become more transparent with others about my struggles. But more work still lies ahead!

I have also experienced the restoration of many broken relationships. I have learned to forgive others and ask others to forgive me. Doing life together with my wife, Mary, has been an increasing reality and joy. This has been liberating.

But while I was experiencing this new work of salvation, I continued to live with anxiety and those unwelcomed globs-in-the-gut feelings called frustration and discouragement. Often, I found myself paralyzed and stuck in my walk with Jesus. My life lacked healthy rhythms. My doing for Jesus hardly blossomed from a life of being with Jesus as he teaches in the Mark texts.

In recent years have I continued my journey backward by slowing down to spend more time with Jesus, learning to be more aware of his presence in me and practicing a biblical Sabbath.

Now into my 72nd year of life, I feel as though I am beginning to produce much fruit, as Jesus says in John 15:5. There are new roads to travel, but I am enjoying my present journey more.

Being part of a church family

I have also seen the importance of being part of a church family that equips you to live out the three tasks of a fruitful disciple. A local church can equip its members through Sunday teaching and mid-week gatherings to be with Jesus, become like Jesus and proclaim Jesus. I refer to these local churches as being mission-focused (as opposed to attraction-focused) because they equip their members to be on a mission to the hurting unbelievers around them.

The members of a mission-focused church have a “go” mentality because their priority is loving service throughout the week to both their families at home and people at their workplace, school and in the neighborhood. They understand they have a divine calling to be the healing voice and hands of Jesus to others. And then they seek to live out that calling wherever they might be.

Mission-focused local churches and house churches provide spaces during the week for small group gatherings to better equip their members to spend time with Jesus and become more like him. They provide focused teaching and proven materials to help their members grow in these areas. They know that ministry and service to the world will happen naturally and spontaneously when there is personal growth among all its members in the areas of being with and becoming like Jesus. We have the Jerusalem church (Acts 2:42-47) and the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-24; 13:1-3) as examples of this upward, inward and outward movement.

Balanced discipleship

Sadly, too many believers start their discipleship walk by learning to know more about God and the Bible than learning to know God personally. Many even serve in their church and evangelize after conversion but soon face an unwanted crisis and get stuck at a wall. Pete Scazzero, creator of the Emotionally Healthy Discipleship series, states this happens to 85 percent of Christians. In time they drop out of church, become unhappy church hoppers or church-goers who no longer seek to be with, become like and proclaim Jesus.

In many ways, they are not living the promised abundant life. Ultimately, they bear minimal fruit in being with, becoming like and proclaiming Jesus. Might these “religious folk” be the useless branches Jesus refer to in John 15:6? Are these the branches that are gathered and burned?

Other believers have become more like Jesus and dutifully proclaim him, but they live such hurried lives that there is little intimacy with Jesus during the day. They tend to live with angst and guilt. Spending time with Jesus is more than having a once-a-day connection with God through morning devotions. Rather, Jesus invites us to create spaces throughout the day where we stop to be with him and become mindful of his presence in us.

Unlike the disciples in Jesus’ time who were in the physical presence of Jesus, we spend time with Jesus via the Holy Spirit. We learn to weave contemplative practices into the rhythm of each day and Sabbath-keeping into the rhythm of each week. It is in these times with Jesus that we celebrate his presence, seek to discern his will regarding a particular concern or discover the details about how to become more like him and proclaim him more fruitfully. All of this takes time, something we often say we don’t have enough of.

Not every believer has an unbalanced life of discipleship. Many, with my wife as a good example, have successfully followed the three-fold plan taught by Jesus. Yes, there have been ups and downs along the way, but they are producing much fruit today and showing “themselves to be his disciples” (John 15:8). This is the preferred pathway.

I know I cannot change the past or the way I was schooled in discipleship. While I am thankful for the good things I learned in my earlier years—and there are many—I am equally grateful for how God has graciously corrected my discipleship pathway. I now seek to better align my life with his three-fold plan for discipleship and encourage and teach others to do the same. I am thankful for where I am going in life today. The increasing seasons of peace and joy and healthier relationships in my life are the hallmark of this pursuit (Galatians 5:22-23).


These resources are intended to help you grow in being with Jesus and becoming like him.

  • Celebrate Recovery by John Baker, Harper Christian Resources
  • Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to Be Spiritually Mature, While Remaining Emotionally Immature by Pete Scazzero, Zondervan, updated edition 2017.
  • Freedom in Christ by Neil T. Anderson, Bethany House Publishers, 2017.
  • Life’s Healing Choices by John Baker, Howard Books, 2008.
  • The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, Jossey-Bass, 2008.
  • re:generation – a 12-step discipleship ministry,



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