Multiplying is Easy, Making Disciples is Not

“If you don’t know your multiplication tables, you’ll have problems all your life.”

I saw this graphic posted on a wall in a rural Ecuadorian elementary school.  It struck me because of the extent of its claim.  The inability to multiply would negatively impact all of life.  

I suppose the opposite would hold true as well.  The ability to multiply would positively impact all of life.  The church is hung up on multiplication.  Especially when it comes to Making Disciples.  Why?  Because multiplication is easy.  The church can wrap it’s head around mathematics.  In spite of the church’s ability to grasp math, mathēteusate remains elusive.  We’re good at making math, but not so good at making Mathetes (Disciples) 

What are mathēteusate & mathetes?  

Mathēteusate (μαθητεύσατε) is the greek verb Jesus used in the Great Commission for “Make Disciples.”  Mathetes (μαθητησ) is the greek word for “disciple.”  

How many times have you seen mathematical presentations where if a limited set of of people were to “make disciples who make disciples” and so on, the entire earth’s population would be reached in a very short time?  (one disciple makes two, who make four, who make sixteen, and so on) These sorts of presentations have been going on for a very long time.  For Christendom, the results contradict the equations.  Regarding this idea, Bill Hull had this to say:

The principle behind discipleship does involve one person influencing another, which does result in a change in heart and mind. The success of discipleship doesn’t depend on soldiering forward in a mechanical strategy of reproduction and multiplication. And discipleship doesn’t involve developing a well-trained, elite sales force. Rather discipleship occurs when a transformed person radiates Christ to those around her. It happens when people so deeply experience God’s love that they can do nothing other than affect those around them. The heart of being a disciple involves living in intimate union and daily contact with Christ. Discipleship – the effort both to be a disciple and to make other disciples-is about the immense value of God at work in one individual’s life and the resulting impact on other lives.*

Making Math is easy, making Mathetes is not.  I have been, at times, caught up in the math.  It makes sense.  But I also know that the actual making of disciples makes a mess of the math.  Just one question for today:

Are you making Math or Mathetes? 

*Bill Hull. The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ (Kindle Locations 216-220). Kindle Edition.

0 thoughts on “Multiplying is Easy, Making Disciples is Not

  1. Jonathan says:

    I tend to like Hull but I’m not sure I could disagree more. What Hull is describing is an organic process by which discipleship will happen by…oh wait, he doesn’t really walk through a process because like other writers of discipleship books (at least those who wish to actually sell books) he is essentially opposed to a defined process and program. I believe the reason for this is that such a definition would invite real and objective evaluation of results.

    Of course, most of the pastors who advocate such a shying away from plans that can be evaluated (aside from worship attendance and financial giving) are clearly in favor of a rigorously administered seminary track for pastors.

    It’s my assertion that the multiplication concept is opposed by men like Hull because it requires actual work sustained over long periods. Why spend resources on that when lower levels of expectation reap so much better (albeit short term and often fleeting) results.

    We live in an era where the most successful churches are defined by weekly attendance rather than the production of disciples who are engaged in discipling others. How many pastors conferences have we multiplied in the past 30 years where the focus is almost solely on what happens during a single weekly church event?

    Without intentionality, there is no discipleship.

    • Miguel says:


      Thanks for the comment. I’m curious to know what constitutes “actual work” in your view?

      You said that “Without intentionality, there is no discipleship.” What are we to be intentional about, and in what order? What’s first? Intentional Christianity, Intentional community, or Intentional Discipleship?

      • Jonathan says:


        Our command is to make disciples. Since it is a command, we must be intentional rather than to just let it happen (think the parable of the talents and how the one who used the default mode was treated). The Scripture provide numerous examples of what a disciple looks like (the fruit of the Spirit) and what a disciple does (what is often referred to as the spiritual disciplines). To take someone who has never read the Scriptures or prayed or engaged in church (community) and then make them into a disciple is going to take significant work.

        Military examples work well in Scriptures and work especially well with this topic. Godliness (Christlikeness) comes through training and discipline (1 Timothy 4:7). Being transformed from one degree to the next (1 Corinthians 3:18) comes from being in the presence of Christ and beholding him (we become like that we behold…we model what we’re entranced by).

        In my small group (spiritual discipline based), we’ve had as many as 12 men involved…and as few as 3. The 3 are well on their way in several disciplines and are seeing the impact of that focus in their lives. A number of the others have dropped out because they didn’t really want to do all of that work (rich young ruler syndrome) and would prefer to talk the same type of game that they hear from so many pulpiteers.

    • Miguel says:

      If there is a dichotomy assumed here, I think it’s without warrant. In a single set of quotes from a mammoth treatment on discipleship, it’s easy to go astray. Bill Hull, in the same book, says:


      Although Timothy’s confidence was low, Paul affirmed him and exhorted him to action: “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:5-6). Paul wanted Timothy to fan into flame the remaining embers of his recognized call to leadership. Paul called on him to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1). He wanted Timothy to take effective action that would ensure the continuation and health of the gospel in his own life, in the life of the church at Ephesus, and in the larger kingdom. Then Paul issued the best-known statement on reproduction found in Scripture: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2:2)

      Paul let Timothy know that the task isn’t easy. To make it work requires the discipline of a soldier, the vision of an athlete, and the patience of a farmer (see 2 Timothy 2:3-7). Paul knew Timothy would encounter the temptations of laziness, boredom, and impulsiveness.”*

      The issue at hand is not choosing one over the other, or even intentionality vs. Passivity. The issue is placing our conceived multiplications notions about making disciples OVER the making of disciples.

      *Bill Hull. The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ (Kindle Locations 2667-2673). Kindle Edition.

  2. Allan says:

    Johnathon, what specific recommendations do you have for a more directed approach? Thanks, Allan

  3. I had just written a long dissertation about making disciples and church multiplication, then deleted it.

    Instead let me say this: The process of making disciples is a long, tiresome, painful and loving process about the heart. Sure we can make presentations about multiplying so fast that the world is completely within the fold of Christianity. Yet, it hasn’t happened and we never see it happen. Why? Because we continue to leave it to the “professionals” and those pros continue to believe they are the only ones who can “equip the saints.” When that paradigm of leadership and authority shifts and changes we’ll see a renewed world. While I love missional conferences, there is not one conference good enough to refocus and renew us to the ways of Christ in making disciples. That is the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God by way of community and communitas. This is a grassroots issue that must be engaged at that level. In the end, it comes down to our obedience of Christ and His charge to the Church. At some point we trust and obey even with faith the size of a mustard seed to go and make disciples of all cultures. We may need to start in our own context…our local community.

    • Miguel says:


      Thanks for the comment. This is another quote from Bill Hull from the same book that relates to your comment:

      “Some pastors still maintain a spiritual aura that makes average nonprofessionals feel left out. Usually this elitism is unintentional. Many lay people simply feel inferior spiritually to the “real” disciples -those who have chosen full-time church service as a vocation or profession. Sure, pastors know more about religious matters than most lay people, but this doesn’t mean they’re more spiritual.”

      You’re right, Making Disciples is painful. Especially when so much emotion is “invested,” and some seem to fall away. Personally, my heart breaks when I see it. Sometimes I question whether I’m “doing it right,” and then I have to remind myself that the math doesn’t always work out.

      • My heart has sank to my feet at times when guys say, “Gibby, I love Jesus and all that, but this discipleship thing is not what I bargained for when I became a Christian. I want to do what’s right, but I also want to live my life. When I became a Christian, my pastor told me God had a plan for me so I’m going to find out what that plan is and how it fits into my life goals.”

        I love the honesty, but the interesting thing is that “never” do I tell anyone to give up their dreams, desires or goals. I challenge them to follow Jesus with complete abandon believing that the Holy Spirit will give them direction and wisdom for their journey. My role is to offer accountability, discernment and grace. I too question whether I’m “doing it right,” only to see that each person has to make their own decision on a daily basis whether they will follow Christ, or their own desires.

        My brother, thank you for the challenging posts. Keep making disciples that make disciples who follow Jesus Christ.

  4. Leah Randall says:

    This is such a good post for moving beyond talking about the “increase” of the Kingdom to talking about “substance”–the richness and depth of LIFE IN the Kingdom. It’s fair to talk about multiplication as an ideal concept to “increase” the Kingdom….far preferable to addition, simply adding a few new members to a local body. (As in “Well, our church council has set the goal of 100 commitments for Christ this year…rededicating one’s life can count too.”–picture that grin and hear the amens, please). “The Rabbit and Elephant” comparison works great as an illustration, and yes, it would be exciting if all the multiplication resulted in disciple-making disciples until the whole world is filled with the Kingdom. Jesus Himself talked about that kind of multiplication…one mustard seed! But when we move to talking about Kingdom Life and discipleship we leave “numbers” and look for that “transformation” Hull mentions. He will build His Church with Increase AND substance. Our desire to be part of that building process requires a willingness to take a risk and adjust our ideas and methods to what God is doing.. Instead of “come to our church” we need a “come on, let’s go” attitude. I could say a lot more about that, but I think you know what I mean. I would rather make one real, totally committed disciple (praying always that she surpasses me in both discipleship and disciple-making) by sharing the nitty-gritty every day path of followership than multiply nominal Christians by the dozen. That said, I’m all for the increase of the Kingdom. He wants us to “be fruitful and multiply”. Perhaps what we need to do is be obedient: abide in the Vine, even as we work in the harvest.. Let Him take care of the math and bring forth the fruit in our lives. Surely our fruit will include “offspring”. Meanwhile, it’s okay to talk about “multiplication vs. addition” and multiplication until the Kingdom fills the earth as “a” goal. But it’s not okay for that to be our only goal. It’s not really about “our goals”, anyway. It’s all about Him and what He has done and will do.

    • Miguel says:

      So many good thoughts Leah. Thanks

      I agree that it’s ok to talk about the math. As a whole I think the church still has a propensity for division, a predilection for addition, and only a fascination with multiplication.

      • Leah Randall says:

        We are so much on the same page here it’s almost “scary”, Mike. One thing that helps me is the Holy Spirit’s daily reminder that followership is more important than “doer-ship”. What one does IS important, but not as important as “doing” the “following of Christ”. With our eyes fixed on Him, rather than our analyses of paradigms, models, programs and methods, we can be confident that the Kingdom will multiply the way He has purposed it to. I’ll be thinking prayerfully of you and my sis Claudia as we observe “Thanksgiving” tomorrow. I would say, “wish you were here”, but the truth is “I wish I were there!” Love to both of you from North Carolina!

  5. Dennis Hesselbarth says:

    I’m not sure this is an either or proposition. I’m reflecting on Wesley, who both insisted on heart transformation – requiring honest confession of sin in their class meetings, for example – and yet was highly intentional in “multiplying” through a variety of means, primarily “lay” leaders. There’s a Methodist church in nearly every tiny village in Kansas, harkening back to the pioneer days where lay circuit riders visited every settlement and established what today we’d call small groups. Talk about intentionality. They put most of us to shame.

    Perhaps the danger is to elevate the visionary multiplication process such that true heart transformation is given short shrift in the drive to multiply. As several noted, heart transformation is messy. We humans can pack in a ton of junk, which can erupt at the most inopportune times and derail our tidy multiplication process. I have to be prepared to walk along side through the ups and downs, which won’t fit any prescribed plan very well. And in our setting, where nearly everyone comes from deep dysfunction and abuse, that’s our reality.

    But I’ve also nearly abandoned the multiplication vision at times, when the struggles of folks made it seem like multiplication was far off – no leaders capable of multiplying out. My belief in God’s power to transform was weak, and I stopped seeing people for what they could become. That didn’t help them or me. God’s method is to take the weak and foolish to confound the wise and strong. We must help people to believe that they are people of great significance in His Kingdom.

    So I pray that the Lord would both give me a patient heart of grace and encouragement for those whose lives are troubled, while at the same time a vision and energy to stretch myself and others forward.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Allen, where I start is 1 Timothy 4:7 which points to the Spiritual Disciplines. There are several supporting texts available that list (some texts have greater detail than others)…I would recommend Whitney, Willard, and Foster.

    Start with the disciplines that Whitney categorizes as “Bible Intake” (Daily bible reading, Weekly hearing the Scriptures preached, Bible memorization, Meditating on memorized verses, techniques of bible study, etc…). Disciples in training can be instructed and mentored in each of these. And the mentor (discipler) can hold each disciple accountable for each one. Prayer, stewardship, evangelism, fasting, and so on…

    The disciple needs both a mentor and a community (a community of fellow disciples in training, holding one another accountable, celebrating milestones).

    This requires an ongoing focus, both by the disciplers and disciples within each small group, but a church leadership willing to support such high levels of expectation. At least within my own denominational context, this will require a culture change within our seminaries.

  7. Laurie Norris says:

    There are two processes involved in building structures on earth. First, is the plan which should be developed from the top down.
    We need a clear idea of the nature and purpose of whatever it is we would build. There would be artist sketches and detail drawings. A site would be chosen, politics addressed and permits obtained.
    Before a shovel went in the ground, questions would have to be answered, conflicts between plumbing, electrical and air conditioning need to be resolved before they show up in a “real” building.
    Money, and manpower, availability of skills and potential weather problems during construction need to be considered. Stability and safety during the construction phase need to be taken into account.
    Temporary scaffolds for use and later removal, machinery, tools and materials need to be sourced. Environmental considerations have to be taken into account and hard decisions have to be made. Once that is done the second process begins (Generally with a ceremony and a cornerstone.
    After all that, having faith that the plan is in place, we show up on the jobsite with our various tools.

  8. Connie says:

    Again Miguel, right on time. This is so interesting in light of the newest book recently released by Francis Chan, Multiply that speaks to the matter that each of us, followers of Christ, ,make disciples adn teach others to do the same. I always know when I hear a word or subject more than one time from more than one source I had better pay attention. Making disciples is hard ongoing work that requires everything you have and then some if it is to be done the way Christ intended. The Holy Spirit must surely guide us and give us courage, wisdom and direction as we examine our own lives while assisting others to do the same. Be encouraged body of Christ!

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