What’s the Difference between Making Leaders and Making Disciples?

Is There Really a Difference Between Making Leaders and Making Disciples?

Imagine you’re making a sandwich. As you gather the ingredients you notice that you’re out of peanut butter’s spouse. Not only that, but because of the pandemic, stores are out of that wonderful strawberry stuff. So, you need to make more. What will you make, jelly or jam?

My kids have taught me that jam and jelly aren’t the same. I grew up on jelly, so I always say peanut butter and jelly, but I’m repeatedly reminded that in our house it’s jam, not jelly! It’s important because if you don’t know exactly what you’re trying to make then you’re likely to end up with the wrong thing.

The difference between jam and jelly is that jam has crushed fruit in it, while jelly has fruit juice. No wonder my kids prefer it!

Now that we have that straightened out, what’s the difference between making a spiritual leader and making a disciple maker?

This is the latest in our “What’s the Difference?” series that helps develop clarity in disciple making. In the past we have looked at the difference between a Christian and a disciple, discipleship and disciple making, mentoring and disciple making, accountability and disciple making, coaching and disciple making, and shepherding and disciple making. In each of these, we’ve learned that words matter and if we are going to make disciples who make disciples then we must be clear on what it is we intend to make.

Like jelly and jam, the difference between a spiritual leader and a disciple maker is significant, even if it’s not obvious. Disciple makers can be really bad at leading large groups, while many spiritual leaders don’t understand or practice Jesus-style disciple making.

So, let’s jump in, what’s the difference between making spiritual leaders and making disciples? Here are four differences:

1. Difference of Intent

Organizations of all sizes want leaders. Leadership books tout the importance of skilled leaders. The intent is clear; the better the leaders the stronger the organization. The stronger the organization, the better it can accomplish its aims. One of the most prominent, a former pastor, even proclaims that “everything rises and falls on leadership.” It may actually be true, but Jesus doesn’t elevate leadership to that level of importance.

Jesus prioritized making disciples. A disciple is a learner, a follower, a person wholly devoted to becoming like the master teacher. Jesus emphasized serving, not leading. The focus for Jesus was to follow and surrender to God’s plan. It was his focus for the disciples as well. The goal was to become the least, a servant of all. It wasn’t to mature now to lead later. Make no mistake, the disciples became leaders, but John 17 reflects Jesus’ primary vision was for them to be surrendered servants, not influential leaders.

2. Difference of Calling

Romans 12:8 makes it clear that leadership is a gift that some are given and some aren’t. Likewise, 1 Timothy 3 shows that some are qualified to lead and others aren’t. In other words, not all believers are specially equipped or even called to lead.

But, all believers are called to grow to maturity and to make disciples. This is abundantly clear throughout Jesus’ teachings and the New Testament as a whole.

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3. Difference of Process

Most churches identify leaders instead of building them. Those that do build leaders typically do so through a systematic, content focused process. There’s certainly nothing wrong with developing beliefs and knowledge, but it’s not relational. Instead of a life-on-life relationship that verifies the fruit of a person’s life, the process elevates education—knowing over being.

Jesus modeled, practiced, and passed on a process that was intensely relational. He knew His disciples inside and out—as individuals. He called out the strength of Peter (Matt. 16:15–20), the doubt of Thomas (John 20:24–28), and the ambition of James and John (Mark 10:35–45). He didn’t simply develop their leadership skills; he developed them in every facet of their being, heart, soul, mind, and strength. He was helping them become. His process was so relational that it was creative, adaptive, and individualized. It had to be. Such characteristics ensure that disciple making cannot become overly standardized and curricularized.

4. Difference of Opportunity

In every church and organization leadership positions are limited. While it’s true most churches have a volunteer and leadership deficit, there are also many capable leaders who feel there’s no place for them to lead. In order to fill the roles, churches recruit with rewards rather than with cost. The opportunity is to lead, to influence, to matter in a visible way.

The opportunity offered to disciples is different. Prior to becoming leaders, Jesus’ disciples were first invited to come and see, then to follow, and finally to come and die. Their opportunity was primarily to see, serve, and sacrifice, not to lead, influence, and impact.

Like jam and jelly, spiritual leaders and disciple makers may look the same on the surface, but the difference is what goes on in the making. As a result, the difference between a leader and a disciple maker is evident in the outcome.

When it comes to making disciples we must be committed to doing it Jesus’ way. I trust that He knew that making a disciple would end up better than making a leader. When He made disciples the primary intent was to make men who were fully surrendered to God. Unlike leadership, there’s no gift of disciple making it’s to be the primary ministry of every disciple. To make disciples of the same quality as Jesus’ they must be made through an intensely relational, creative, and adaptive process. And finally, the must be invited into an opportunity that’s honest about what they are being asked to become. The opportunity is to come see, to come follow, and to come and die in order to multiply.

These are no small differences. What goes in is reflected in the final product. Many disciple makers end up being leaders and many leaders end up being disciple makers, but the two are certainly not the same.

By Justin Gravitt

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