Head, Heart, and Hands

Making disciples involves more than a program

By Marvin Lorenzana

In 2019, I wrote a booklet for Mennonite Mission Network’s Missio Dei series called Not Just Disciples, but Disciple Makers! On page 3 I said

Discipleship becomes institutionalized when it is co-opted by human methodologies. Somehow, we seem to believe that our methods are better than Jesus’ methods of disciple-making. Discipleship cannot and should not be put in an institutional box as it is by nature an organic relational process between human beings with enormous potential for the transformation of all participants and the spiritual renewal of local congregations.

For the last 15 years, I’ve been intrigued by discipleship. I am asking questions like:

  • Who is ultimately responsible for it? 
  • What are the best practices for discipleship that makes more disciples of Jesus, making disciples generation after generation? 
  • Why does the local church, in most cases, miss the mark for this multiplying discipleship described so clearly in the Gospels? 

These are essential questions that we must ask ourselves if we want to move forward as God’s people into God’s mission. 

Jesus did not come to launch just a church. He launched a powerful movement toward the Father that grows when disciples of Jesus make more disciples of Jesus. These disciples multiply the life of Jesus within them into someone else. This is what a spiritual movement looks like! 

Disciples were made, the sick were made whole, the physically and spiritually hungry were fed, the possessed were cured of their afflictions, and sinners were brought back into a life-changing, all-encompassing relationship with God. All barriers were broken: political, economic, social, racial, and gender. This is the discipleship revolution Jesus launched. However, what we often find in our local churches is a domesticated, lame and tame expression of discipleship. A tame discipleship emphasizes knowledge acquisition over total transformation of being, which leads to doing and leading in Kingdom work.

This institutionalization of discipleship seems too common in local congregations today. In most churches in America, discipleship has been reduced either to a set of classes (curriculum) offered to new believers to help them get their spiritual journey started or more advanced study  in Sunday School to aid established believers gain spiritual maturity and better understanding of the Christian faith. 

Discipleship, however, is a more organic, more active, life-on-life experience that involves “head, heart, and hands.” I see this as the approach Jesus used with his disciples as seen in the Gospels. 

Head. The Gospels describe the ministry of Jesus as that of an authoritative teacher. Jesus proclaimed and instructed his disciples regularly just as a Jewish rabbi would have done in Jesus’ era. For Jesus, it was important that his disciples would have the right theological understanding about God, his mission, and even of themselves as God’s people. 

To do this, Jesus made use of literary tools such as parables. This puts him right in the tradition of the ancient wisdom teachers in Israel. Yes, Jesus used parables, similes, and metaphors, and he used them effectively and powerfully. Jesus aimed at the “head” of his disciples because it was of the utmost importance that they knew how to do deep and life-giving theological reflection. Knowing how to reflect theologically is important. However, the “head” alone would never be sufficient to shape the life of a disciple into the likeness of Jesus. For Christlikeness, much more is necessary. Jesus also aimed at the “heart” of his disciples.     

Heart. In the Missio Dei booklet, I described how Jesus also aimed at working intentionally with his disciples’ hearts: 

Because Jesus tested their hearts’ motivations by asking the disciples thought-provoking questions. Jesus knew well that the human heart deceives by nature and he wanted to make sure the disciples’ actions were driven by God’s higher purposes and not by their own selfish desires for glory, fame or power. So, in Mark 8:17, Jesus asks them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” And in John 21:16a, He wants to know of them, and more specifically directed to Peter, “Do you truly love me?” (7f)

From the beginning, Jesus told the disciples that he would make them into something different: “I have an agenda for you, come, follow me … and, when I’m done training you, you will be fishing for people!” (Matthew 4:19, my translation). Their occupation as fishermen morphed into a mission of fishing for people. However, this important shift was not going to be possible unless Jesus first transformed their inner motivations. Jesus was interested in them becoming not just disciples, but disciple makers. To do this, he needed to work intentionally in helping them become spiritually mature leaders. Jesus aimed at their inner motivation because his goal was to move them… 

  • from self-centeredness to putting others at the center;
  • from “this is all about me” to “this is all about God and his grand vision for the cosmos;”
  • from leading in ways that serve their own purposes to leading in ways that bring glory and honor to God.

Mature and effective missional leaders can only work this way when they experience a radical heart change, and Jesus knew that quite well. 

Merle Smucker doing street evangelism in Reading, PA., LMC photo archive

Hands. Having the right thoughts and the right motivations are important. However, those two transformations are still not enough for a spiritual revolution toward God that impacts our immediate world. It is also necessary to impact peoples’ hands. Teaching disciples the right theological content and helping them examine their heart’s motivations must move them to action. As I’ve said before somewhere, “It is not only about being good but about being good for something meaningful.” The Gospels are full of examples where Jesus invited the disciples to get their hands dirty with the work of ministry. We find him directing them in Matthew 14:16 to “give them something to eat” when faced with hungry crowds who had followed Jesus to a deserted area. 

We also learn that Jesus was baptizing even more people than John the Baptist. Upon closer examination, we are told that it wasn’t Jesus who was doing the baptizing. It was his disciples who were doing the baptizing (John 4:1–3). This is the discipleship pattern that Jesus used, and he used it quite effectively. The fact that you and I believe in him today attests to the effectiveness of such a pattern across millennia. Can we imagine that Jesus would want us to follow this pattern also? 

The question is, then, “Why is it so difficult for us in the American church to simply follow Jesus’ pattern? — especially when we see that Jesus’ pattern is simple and reproducible.” But simple and reproducible does not mean easy. It is not easy at all. We assume that preaching, teaching, and the right theological content will be enough for us to develop reproducing disciples. Or we assume that moral, ethical, humble disciples or an activist lifestyle will be enough. Singular focus is much easier. But the inability to embrace all three has created an anemic discipleship of colossal proportions that has the potential to annul the impact of God’s church in the West. 
Jesus clearly said to his disciples, “I’m the way …” These words, I strongly believe, not only mean that he is the way to our Father in heaven. It also means that he is “the way” — the model to follow — in how we are supposed to live in this Kingdom of God that he inaugurated. Jesus aimed at the head, heart, and hands of his own disciples, and we should do likewise.

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Download a copy of Marvin Lorenzana’s booklet, Not Just Disciple but Disciple Makers in English or No solo Discípulos, sino también Discipuladores(MMN, 2019)

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