75 Years as a Disciple-Maker
An Interview with Jim Downing
MF: What are your thoughts about the Great Commission?
- First, according to Matthew 24:14, God’s timetable awaits our obedience to the Great Commission. What Christ meant by His words, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations” is a matter for continuing study. One gathering of Christian statesmen concluded that it will be accomplished when 30 percent of every nation has been evangelized and there is a growing church movement among them.
- Second, through acting as a special consultant for Dr. Ralph Winter for several years, I concluded that his people group approach made the Great Commission definable, measurable, and accomplishable. By this I mean the Great Commission is definable as establishing a witness in every people group (nation), measurable as to how far along we are in establishing this witness, and accomplishable as we prioritize obedience to this command. In the 100-year period beginning about 600 BC, God made the world aware of His Presence three times as the result of the uncompromising testimony and heroism of six persons by way of a fiery furnace, a lion’s den, and a reversed decree intended to slaughter the ancestors of Jesus to prevent His ever being born. With the approaching tidal wave of evangelism and disciplemaking by Story Telling for reaching Oral Learners (estimated to be 70 % of the world’s population), and the growing availability of recorded and broadcast messages of Bible fact and truth, a giant leap is in progress.
- Third, since Christ commanded it, it is possible to accomplish.
- Fourth, any ministry not intentionally in support of Mt 28:18–20 may lack God’s full blessing.
Acts 1:8 mandates us to provide a witness of Himself to the entire population of the earth. Matthew 28:18–20 reveals discipleship as the method by which this is accomplished. God’s strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission requires reproducing disciples.
MF: What is a disciple, and what does he do?
Some Bible scholars give special attention to the etymology and popular usage of the Greek mathts (disciple). This puts more emphasis on the idea of learner/follower than Christ’s two-minute sermon in Luke 14:26-35, in which He lists these requirements of a disciple:
- love Him more than family (I believe Christ was referring to an adult child choosing to follow Him even if family opposes),
- love Him more than career,
- love Him more than material things, and
- identify with Him daily.
The Bible also tells us what a disciple does:
- continues in the Word (Jn 8:31),
- loves other disciples as Christ has loved His own (Jn 13:34–35), and
- bears much fruit (Jn 15:8).
MF: How did Christ make disciples?
In Luke’s Gospel we find recorded 11,000 of the words Jesus spoke while on earth. At an average speaking rate of 200 words per minute, these words of Christ in Luke can be repeated in 55 minutes.
If we allow reasonable time for all of Christ’s recorded activities, plus 12 hours off per day, we can only account for about three percent of His time during His last 3 1/2 years on earth. From John 17 and elsewhere, I would suggest that Jesus majored in three activities:
- He imparted knowledge by teaching.
- He imparted skill by guided experience.
- He imparted character by example/modeling.
Different levels of information depend on an appropriate context to be effectively received:
- General information can be delivered to large groups orally or in writing.
- More complicated information requires an interactive setting, such as a small group.
- Intimate life-changing information requires one-on-one interaction in an atmosphere of mutual trust, transparency and confidentiality.
Learning and subsequent growth occurs as we receive answers and solutions to the questions and problems that most intensely concern and interest us. One-on-one is best suited to meet these needs.
Barred from the synagogue and public meetings, one of Paul’s greatest successes was in Thessalonica, where he provided spiritual parenting to individuals. “As you well know, we dealt with you one by one, as a father deals with his children…” (I Thess 2:11 NEB).
MF: How does a disciple bear fruit?
Genesis chapter one strongly emphasizes that everything God created, “contained the seed to reproduce after its kind” (Gen 1:11-12). This must be true spiritually also. The process is not complicated. The potential disciplemaker recalls the steps in the process by which he or she became a disciple and repeats the process with others. They are familiar with the process and know it has been successful in their own lives. This is done using their own particular gifts in imparting knowledge and skill. Early in the process, those becoming disciples are guided into passing on to others that which has been imparted to them, including participation in active evangelism and exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). If those being discipled have questions and problems not encountered by their mentor, they may need to consult the one who originally discipled their mentor or some other resource.
MF: What is spiritual parenting?
Just as a newborn child needs a parent to survive and mature, every new Christian and every Christian whose growth has stalled can be helped by a parent’s nurturing.
Maturity must be our goal. In the physical world, maturity occurs when a plant, tree, or animal reproduces. Those brought to maturity will reproduce, continuing the chain of spiritual generations which is the key to fulfilling the Great Commission.
MF: After attending a Real Life Ministries1 Immersion, you declared it the best church model you have seen for making reproducing disciples. What is distinctive about RLM?
Real Life Ministries has identified the stages of Christian growth, from infancy to maturity, and has innovated a plan and resource to meet the need at each stage of growth. They have mastered spiritual parenting.
MF: In your essay “How to Know God” you distinguish between knowing God and knowing about God. Explain this difference.
In Matthew 7:22–23 Jesus tells those who claimed to have served Him that He never knew them. How well we know a person is relative to the number and depth of our shared experiences. Your parents, spouse or a friend know you best because of your shared experiences.
Our first shared experience with God is when we exchange our sinful past for His forgiveness and gift of eternal life. He responded. Then He shares a spiritual task He wants us to do such as witnessing to someone or helping someone in their spiritual journey. We obey and He shares His joy.
Of my acquaintances, those who seem to know Him best are those who trust Him to meet their needs on a day-by-day basis. A few years ago a friend drove me to the airport. I felt led to give him $60. The next day he sent me a letter saying his gas tank had been empty, he had needed to pay for a prescription for his wife and for some groceries, and the $60 was the exact amount he had needed. Such was a daily experience with him and his family. They knew Him well from the daily mutual sharing.
As with a human friend, intimacy seems to fade when we are not sharing experiences regularly.
MF: What else do you feel strongly about?
As previously stated, Christ’s method for raising up men to change the world was to impart knowledge by teaching, skill by guided experience, and character by modeling and example. We have become far too knowledge centered, as though every problem can be solved by more knowledge: read a book, attend a class, etc.
Our great spiritual teaching institutions would do well to supplement knowledge with guided experience as a medical school and other skill imparting institutions do. When a pastor or Christian leader asks what suggestions I have for strengthening their ministry, I reply with a question: “Do you have a department of guided experience for taking potential disciples from the knowledge stage to the reproducing stage?”
The making of disciples is not an end in itself. The end result is evangelism, and disciples are the means.
MF: Can spiritual reproduction really complete the Great Commission?
If Adam’s listed descendants each produced only 10 offspring during his lifetime, Adam would have had more than 10,000,000 descendants when he died at age 930. In The Key to the Missionary Problem2 Andrew Murray quotes the appendix of the 1900 Student Missionary Conference:
IF there were only one Christian in the world, and he worked and prayed a year to win one friend to Christ, and IF these two then continued each year to win one more, and IF every person thus led into the kingdom led another to Christ every year, in thirty-one years every person in the world would be won for Christ.
This information gives credence to Dawson Trotman’s theoretical belief that the world can only be reached for Christ when human population growth is matched by spiritual reproduction.
An expanded video/audio interview with Jim Downing
An mp3 file is available for download (right click, save) or streaming (click to play in your browser): jim-downing.mp3.
Jim Downing recounts Meeting Dawson Trotman