Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
Some years ago, a seminar speaker asked a group of pastors what the fruit of an orange tree was. I thought it was a trick question. The answer was obvious. Someone said it. “An orange is the fruit of an orange tree.” We all thought the speaker was either up to something or a bit oblivious. “No,” he said. “The fruit of an orange tree is,” and here he had a dramatic pause for effect, “another orange tree.” He went on to explain how the fruit of a Christian is not a mission work or program or worship service, but rather another Christian.
When I heard his analogy, I felt he touched on every frustrating effort to help people grow in faith, every anemic Christian education program, and every reason why spiritual shallowness pervades the American Church. Even if we spend time and energy pouring into people to teach them truth, spiritual practices, and Christian character, most programs don’t equip people to then pour those same things into others. Jesus said we are to, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). But we are not doing a great job of going and making.
Next week’s post will unpack more about what it means to be a disciple. I will look at whether “Christian” and “disciple” are synonymous or whether there is a two-tiered class system within Christianity. For now, a disciple is simply someone who has begun following Jesus in life.
People of faith are called to do what Jesus said and “make disciples.” I am convinced that if we get this right, if we take this seriously, if we equip people to pour into others, we will fulfill our core mission as a people of faith. Doing this means taking discipleship seriously. And that raises the question of what does that even mean?
I’ve had more than one person object when I used the words “make disciples.” They don’t like it as a command. They hear in those words coercion, manipulation, or heavy-handed use of power. Yet, Jesus says it to his followers as a command. Go. Make disciples. Does Jesus intend coercion, manipulation, or heavy-handed use of power? No. Instead, he intends that each believer make it an active intention to be a person who is committed to discipling others. Making disciples means being committed to discipling. And that then raises another question.
What is Discipling?
“Discipling is an intentional relationship in which we walk alongside other disciples in order to encourage, equip, and challenge one another in love to grow toward maturity in Christ. This includes equipping the disciple to make disciples who make disciples.”
Those words come from one of my seminary professors in his course on disciple-making. This is the core truth of what discipling means. It is the very practice we see in the life of Jesus with his first followers, as well as in the teachings of the early church leader Paul who wrote much of the New Testament. To see this with Jesus and Paul, as well as in action today, we notice two elements are part of discipling others: internalization and multiplication.
Internalizing the Faith
Jesus chose 12 people who would “be with him” (Mark 3:14). With those 12 people, he would change the world. That was his plan. His concentration was not on the masses. His plan was to reach the world by pouring into 12 people so they would internalize the faith in order to be fully equipped to share it with others. He had a big enough vision to think small. It was this smaller group of core, committed people that became the “superstructure of his future kingdom,” as my professor put it.
Here is both the genius of God and one of the most neglected elements of modern disciple-making efforts. Reaching the many by going deep with the few is the genius of God. It tells us disciples cannot be mass-produced. We cannot rely on programs. We must personally pour into others over time. There are no shortcuts to maturity in faith. The strongest, deepest, and most committed followers of Jesus I know have had someone care enough to pour into their lives. This is not done in big groups, but in small groups, like the band of 12 around Jesus or the inner three of Peter, James, and John. Maybe this is even done in one-to-one mentoring. Paul did this same thing with Timothy, Titus, Silas, Priscilla, and others.
The key to it all is to come alongside another person and help them work through their questions or struggles about the truth of the faith. Built into this kind of mentoring is the “iron sharpening iron” of Proverbs 27:17. It is a relationship in which all agree to help and challenge each other to know truth and live faithfully.
New Orange Trees
The first element of making disciples is internalization. The second is multiplication. This is the orange tree analogy. Jesus may have thought small by pouring into a few, but he had the entire world in view. His focus on a few people was in service to all who would ever live on this planet.
If internalization is one of the most missing components of making disciples, multiplication is virtually non-existent as an intentional effort. Whether from not prioritizing this, trying to disciple through programs, not being willing to call people to discipleship, or simply not knowing how to help people actually disciple, the church has struggled to create an environment of orange trees constantly making new orange trees. Or disciples making disciples who make disciples.
What To Do
What do you do with this? What do you do if you are interested in “an intentional relationship” in which you would walk alongside others “in order to encourage, equip, and challenge one another in love to grow toward maturity in Christ?”
First, catch the vision. Rediscover how Jesus made disciples. Look at how Paul made disciples. Notice that they went deep with a few in order to reach the many.
Second, commit to being in a relational discipleship journey with a few other people. Begin pouring into others. It may be that you seek to be discipled at first where others pour into you. Eventually, let that commitment shift to being the one driving the discipleship journey with others. If you are not sure where to begin, ask others who are doing this for help. If you are part of this church, see me or other staff leaders. We will help you get started.
Finally, there is a pathway to maturity that I am leading and invite you to consider. It is done with small groups of three to four people. Each group has homework to do before meeting contained in a book called Discipleship Essentials: A Guide to Building Your Life in Christ. As the title suggests, the book is about maturing as a Christian. Each chapter of the book has a theme of what maturing disciples believe, do, or are.
I have a big vision for growing mature disciples, and to achieve that I am thinking small. I currently have two Discipleship Essentials groups going. We currently have about ten groups at church right now. My hope at the church is to have 50 of these groups going at all times. That would be 150-200 people in an “intentional relationship in which we walk alongside other disciples in order to encourage, equip, and challenge one another in love to grow toward maturity in Christ.” And within a few months, those 150-200 people would then start new groups so they would be disciples who “make disciples who make disciples.”
Jesus changed the world with 12 people this way. I am committed to being a part of that world-changing work. Pouring into people. One small group at a time.
Catch the vision and invest yourself.
Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.