The Lost Art of Discipleship

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I’ve been at the congregation I currently serve for about 1/2 a year. One of the first tasks on my plate when I arrived was to assemble positions for a pastoral team. We knew we needed more manpower, but we didn’t yet know exactly what qualifications and skill sets would best serve the needs of our healthy-sized church and very large school.

As I studied and prayed, I began putting together a detailed grid of pastoral roles that I believed might best serve our needs. And by God’s grace, one of our vacancies has recently been filled. We now have on staff a Dr. and a Prof. and a Skipper/Senior Pastor, which I suppose makes me…that’s right, Mary Ann.

Our hope/prayer is that by early 2017 we’ll be able to add another pastor. One of the questions I’ve been most frequently asked by those who know I’ve been involved in forming the roles grid is “What would that pastor do?” It’s a perfectly legitimate question and one that I myself have considered while in the process of laying out the responsibilities. But within the question lies a problem. The pastoral position is being perceived primarily as a series of tasks to accomplish rather than a relational role to fill.

There’s an important principle that’s been discovered, mostly popularized in the business world, referred to as the Dunbar Rule. In short, the Dunbar rule is named after an Oxford anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, who stated that a human being cannot maintain more than 150 meaningful social relationships. Technically, the range is from 100-250, but the typical number used is 150. Dunbar’s findings have been considered essential to the development of things like social media.

If Dunbar is correct, then this is a hard and fast rule of human capacity. None of us, no matter how talented, can adequately maintain more than a few hundred relationships at most. This has to be seen as the max potential for a human. While anthropology and psychology are often considered soft science, they are still data driven, and human relationships have to be considered somewhat scientifically. So consider relationships like this: Usain Bolt, the fastest human alive and can run at a max speed of approximately 28 mph. You absolutely cannot expect humans to run at 50 mph. Similarly, if the person with the highest relational aptitude possible can manage 250 meaningful relationships (more likely 150), you simply cannot expect a single man to pastor 500 members effectively for a prolonged period of time.

This has massive implications for churches, many of which have been woefully understaffed for ages – partially due to unrealistic congregational expectations and poor stewardship, partially due to ministerial arrogance. This as much as any other factor has led to the insane ministry burnout rate (the average pastorate in the US has dropped to about 4 years, far faster than most other professions).

A lesson on ministerial size dynamics needs to be learned. The common New Testament word used for “church” is the Greek word ecclesia. It is NOT a building (Acts 17:24); it’s a body of believers gathered around Word and Sacraments (Eph. 2:20-22). As a group of people rather than an inanimate structure, a minister’s work must be understood not merely in performing tasks, but in fostering relationships, of which we now know there is a numeric ceiling.

Consider the analogy the Bible offers of pastors as shepherds. Did you know the max number of sheep a shepherd is capable of overseeing himself is recognized to be around 400? In fact, there’s a fairly sophisticated counting system developed long ago by English shepherds, called Yan Yan Tethera, in which they can keep track of their sheep, up to 399, by counting on their fingers. Occasionally a shepherd can handle a few more sheep, but even this number can only be accomplished through an extensive support system of sheep dogs.

Point being, even 400 SHEEP are difficult to account for by one man, let alone humans who have significantly more independent (and rebellious) wills. If overseers are truly called by God to shepherd a flock, a congregation had better be mindful of numbers, and furthermore have a number of other well-trained sheep dogs incorporated into a system of accountability.

What does this all mean? It means churches have to get smarter about human relational dynamics. Since every active member seeks some sort of relationship with a pastor, you cannot reasonably anticipate a pastor to shepherd more than 200 people. If that’s the expectation, you will almost invariably, over time, struggle for survival. So you have to decide whether you’re staffing to expand, maintain, or survive. Similarly, in the same way that every human can only have so many “meaningful relationships”, every human can also only have so many “close” personal relationships as well. Consequently, a larger church’s goal should not be that every single person in the congregation knows everyone else. But everyone should know somebody. In other words, no one in The Body will know everybody, but everyone in The Body should know, serve, and be accountable to somebody.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek outside of Chicago, the massive church American churches were aspiring to be, notoriously admitted in 2007 to Christianity Today that “We made a mistake” by being overly dependent on programs at the expense of “age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and relationships.” The church needs more discipleship.

In a world of fragile egos, driven by numeric likes, views, and hit counts, churches developed consumer-catering, bigger and better programs and lost the art of discipleship. Numbers aren’t evil. They’re necessary and helpful. But there is not a direct correlation to ministry success. The greatest attendance boon in recent U.S. history for American churches were the two Sundays following 9/11. Logically then, by measuring success in terms of numbers, the best “attractional program” for your church would be an Islamic terrorist attack.

Obviously, numbers cannot be the endgame. If healthy discipleship leads to increased numbers, then praise be to God. But inflated numbers that exist apart from actual relationships are a disservice to the Church in the long run.

The ultimate relational inspiration for the Church naturally is Christ himself. To properly minister to us, an infinite God became a man of self-restricting finitude in the person of Christ. Jesus spent the three years of his ministry pouring himself quite intentionally into 12 young men. This is not to say that he didn’t ever minister to others, but counting his twelve disciples, his converted brothers, his female followers, etc., Jesus’ church numbered about 120 members shortly after his resurrection. The Holy Spirit moved these trained leaders to ministry action and then on the day of Pentecost 3000 were converted. By the way, guess what 3000 divided by 12 is? ANSWER: 250. Granted, they were about to scatter throughout the Mediterranean world, but they were still accounted for. The early church continued to add to their numbers daily (Acts 4:4 says there were now 5000) and by Acts 6 we see the number dynamics coming to a head. Some of the widows were being overlooked. So, they decided to add 7 more men as laborers. By the way, guess what 5000 divided by 19 (i.e. 12 +7) is? ANSWER: 263.

Human relational numbers are perhaps soft science, but they’re quantitative and real nonetheless. I’m convinced Jesus and the early Christians understood this long before Robin Dunbar.

Jesus “discipled” and began the Christian Church with a congregation of about 120. If you’re a pastor and you think you can handle considerably more than 150, you may very well have an ego issue. If you’re a church member and think your pastor should be able to handle considerably more than 150, you may have unrealistic expectations – like a “we want our pastor to have more meaningful relationships than Jesus did” level of unrealistic expectations. Jesus poured himself into the lives of a specific group, and the lasting result was that he brought salvation into the world and provided a firm foundation for his Church.

For churches that have had unrealistic expectations, the solution is not merely to learn and try harder, but to repent and become new. Jesus offers both forgiveness and guidance. And by commissioning us to “make disciples” he encourages us to pour ourselves into the lives of a few who are eager to learn and minister themselves, and likewise, place ourselves under the leadership of someone else we can learn from.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)

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6 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Discipleship

  1. Rik says:

    Some really good thoughts. Schools will talk often about the student-teacher ratio; I wonder why it’s so hard to get churches and pastors to think along those same lines.

  2. Steven Springborn says:

    Hey Pastor Hein, thanks for all of your posts. I’m so grateful for the gospel perspective you bring to current hot topics.

  3. John Huebner says:

    Thanks for this insight…perhaps this is something pastoral circuits or conferences might be interested in discussing. I’m not sure, however, that the answer is to continue to call more pastors for every 150 members. Rather, it seems to me that the model of Jesus is more appropriate to follow. I’ve long thought and have said to others that the local pastor might want to focus on some of the most committed and mature believers in his congregation and work to train them to shepherd others…whether it’s in a small group model (Bible study groups, men’s/women’s group leaders, music leaders, etc.) or simply older Christian men and women doing what Paul said to Titus: “teach/disciple the younger ones”. There is much involved in such training, but surely there is already “out there” some kind of plan that could be worked through and adapted. From nursing home/hospital calls to short home visits, to teaching Bible classes and more, mature Christians should certainly be qualified to minister. Paul spent as little as 6 weeks in the cities he visited and left behind functioning and even thriving congregations led by the local members, for the most part. Are we primarily viewing the pastor’s work as keeping the members going to church on Sunday or is it something far bigger than that?

    • Mike Gilbert says:

      John Huebner, you are exactly right. Even though the Navigators might not always have had have their doctrine 100% correct, they do
      understand the principle of spiritual multiplication. And that is what is contained in your message. It does not take four or more years of seminary training to learn how to disciple.

  4. Mike Westendorf says:

    I appreciate this Pastor, well written and thoughtful as always. I have been captured by the concept of “The Family Church”, the idea that the family is the smallest functioning version of the body of Christ and the reality that a child’s first Pastor is his Dad/Mom. In my travels I have noticed that it seems as though the strongest and most effective churches have more strong Family Churches. In that way, exactly what you wrote starts to happen. As a Dad, you aren’t just my Pastor, you’re my mentor. As someone in your congregation, I’m not just a member for you to care for, we are ministry partners, sending me out to Pastor my family and my work place well. You become much more important to me and the story of God’s faithfulness becomes a louder anthem in my life and the life of my family – certainly that’s the prayer that eminates from The Family Church.

  5. Chris Wiesmueller says:

    An odd and interesting question: Based on Dunbar’s rule, are the “best” churches smaller than 250 people?

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