Did Jesus tell us to go and plant churches? No. Jesus told us to go and make disciples. There is a difference. Making disciples starts with relational, face-to-face teaching and life example and stays there. It’s what Jesus did. It’s what Jesus does now. It’s what Paul did. Planting churches, however, begins with strategic planning, a structural, organizational, having-authority-over approach—and stays there. To be transparent, neither one of these methods is without problems. Jesus had difficulties as He discipled others. However, the most troublesome issue with the structural, organizational, having-authority-over approach is when it encounters Scripture and Jesus Himself. The first and most obvious one is with Jesus’s command to go and make disciples. That’s what Jesus did—face-to-face, relational ministry. I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “Go and make leaders.” Or, “Go and become leaders.” As I look around the contemporary church landscape today, it seems that that is how we have interpreted Jesus’s words.

When Jesus gave the command to the Eleven to go and make disciples, they had been with Him three years. They knew what He meant when He said, “Go and make disciples.” Jesus didn’t expect those men to invent something out of nothing, out of the air, on their own. The disciples had seen what Jesus did. They had heard Jesus teach. They had been with Him as He lived His life before the Father. These men took with them what Jesus had given them, both in teaching and by example. Jesus wasn’t obliviously random in how He chose to disciple His followers. There was a reason for how He discipled those men. If He had wanted to train up disciples whose requirements for discipleship were to wear funny hats and walk backwards, that’s what He would have taught them and how He would have lived. If He had wanted to disciple the Twelve in a structured, having-authority-over-others way, that’s what He would have taught them and the example He would have presented to them.

We know, of course, that He didn’t do that. But what DID He do?

Jesus’s way of making disciples included:

Teaching. Jesus taught the disciples in close, relational settings, and He taught in public settings.

The miraculous. Jesus healed people. He set people free from demons.

His sovereignty and glory. He demonstrated His power over nature and spiritual powers and revealed His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.

Loving confrontation. Jesus confronted His disciples and the religious leaders.

Forgiveness. Jesus forgave people.

Prayer. Jesus prayed with His disciples and alone.

Sacrifice. Jesus lived and taught about a life of sacrifice.

Jesus sacrificially gave up His right to be the all-powerful God, in the sense that He didn’t, like a king, take authority over and control things the way He could have. As Jesus discipled others, He lived by example and taught that we should be:

Like insignificant children.

Like the least.

Like the youngest.

Like servants.

Living this way, obviously, would be sacrificial for God to do. Jesus referred to Himself as a servant. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28 emphasis added)

Becoming like children, like servants, like the least, like the youngest implies that we give up control and having authority over others. Children or those who are youngest in the family don’t exercise authority over their fathers and mothers. A servant doesn’t tell other servants what to do—the master does.

This idea of not being in control and not exercising authority over others is so revolutionary, so counter-church culture, that we have great difficulty comprehending it. It’s very challenging for church leaders to imagine how they could be leaders without exercising authority over others. We read the words of Jesus about being like the youngest, like children, like the least, like servants, and we think we know what Jesus meant. We read them and say “Amen.” We even teach them. Nevertheless, this is not how we do church and discipleship. No, leaders are taught they should, contrary to Jesus’s teaching, exercise authority and maintain control. There are a multitude of illustrations from the corporate and sports worlds that will teach us how to do this. However, doing leadership the way the world does should trouble us. The leadership/discipleship structure we have created actually keeps us from discipling others in the way that Jesus told us.

Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5–8, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Jesus didn’t think that equality with God was something to be grasped. He became nothing, even to the point of dying. Think about this with me for a moment. Don’t you think that it makes more sense that Jesus should have, as God’s son, as a king, appropriated the power and position that were rightly His, that He should have grasped equality with God, taken control and just simply—fixed things? Corrected things? Made them better by the exercise of His authority over others? He certainly had the power to do that. If Jesus had taken the position and control that were rightly His, grasped equality with God, He could have used the power and authority as God Himself to “make everything all right.” If He was truly in charge, He could make everything the way it was supposed to be. If anyone knew how to fix things, He did. However, exercising authority and taking charge in order to make things work is how the world does things. That’s how you and I think. If you want to get things done, you take charge. You run things. It’s not because you desire power or position, necessarily; it’s because if you’re running things, you’ll do what is necessary to achieve successful results. Of course. Why else would you do them? What other way is there? We don’t know of any other way, even though Jesus plainly taught—and lived—that there is another way.

So how in the world do you get things done in the Church without taking charge and exercising authority over people? Great question. Instead of exercising authority over people and running things as a commander or king, Jesus became as powerless and weak as one can possibly be. He became a servant. He became as nothing. His plan to change the world included having disciples who became as weak and has powerless as He was.

So, on one side we have people strategically planning and exercising authority and on the other side a Man saying, “Go ahead and kill me. Trust Me. Really. This will bring successful results.” What in the world was He thinking? This is no way to get things done. This is no way to lead anything. We do not think like Jesus. We have not followed Paul’s admonition to have the mind of Jesus who didn’t grasp at the power and the accompanying control but instead became nothing and a servant. We do not think that by becoming nothing, by not taking control, by becoming a servant, even dying, that we are actually going to accomplish something.

No, we don’t think that way. It doesn’t make sense. So, we simply ignore the Word of God, disregard the example of Jesus and keep on doing things the way we do them.

So, you may say, “Jim! Please tell me. How can I make practical sense of this? How can I implement what you’re telling me the Bible says to do?”

Practically, no—I can’t help you. Biblically, yes. But whatever you do, the discipleship process will be characterized by Jesus’s examples that have been outlined above. The thing you should not do is exercise authority over others, since Jesus told us not to do this.

Consider this verse with me: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). God thinks one way, and we think another. He thinks, “I am going to accomplish my goals of salvation, redemption, sanctification, victory and discipling by means of a way that is absolutely, totally foolish and weak by man’s way of thinking—so much so that it’s almost impossible for him to comprehend.” We think, “We are going to bring God’s plan of redemption, salvation, sanctification, victory and discipling to the world by doing something strong and wise by man’s way of thinking.” We have traded the radical truth of God for the efficient, seemingly common sense way of running things where we exercise authority over people.

This frightens me. The Jewish people of Jesus’s time simply could not grasp that God’s plan of salvation, of bringing God’s kingdom back to earth would mean that He would use the weakest means possible. They just couldn’t comprehend it. It wouldn’t work. It just couldn’t be done. In the same way, we cannot comprehend how the Church could possibly bring God’s plan of salvation and discipleship by using the weakest means possible. It just won’t work. It can’t be done. There’s no control. There’s no running of things. It should bother us that we are in exactly the same position as the Jews and religious people were of Jesus’s day.

Have you ever scratched your head in amazement as you wonder why the people of Jesus’s time could not even recognize that God incarnate was in their midst? They had the prophecies. He was doing miracles in their midst. They just didn’t get it, and we wonder how in the world they didn’t get it.

Scratch your head in amazement no longer. Wonder no longer. We are just like them.

If we had chosen to obey the teachings of Jesus, we would be operating in God’s wisdom and power, because His foolishness is wiser than men and His weakness is stronger than men. Instead, we have chosen to do things that are wise and strong in the world’s way of thinking so we can accomplish our goals and be successful. We have chosen to ignore the way that the Lord gets things done and brings success. His foolish way. His weak way.

His redemptive way.

Instead of discipling people the way Jesus did, we keep tinkering with the existing take-control, exercising-authority-over-others structure. However, tinkering with the old plans or coming up with new plans isn’t the central problem. We’ve built upon the wrong truth. Everywhere we look, we see men exercising authority over others in order to get things done. Very impressive. However, we have not made disciples as Jesus taught and did. Please pray with me that we will prayerfully endeavor to be obedient to His Word and example.