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Why Making Disciples Requires an Invisible Leader

There is a miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all four Gospels: the feeding of the 5,000.

When we look at all four accounts, we discover some fascinating details:

1) Immediately before the events surrounding the miracle, the disciples of John the Baptist tell Jesus that John is dead.

2) The recently returned disciples, still excited from their many breakthroughs, are exhausted.

3) The crowds have grown so large that they are unmanageable. Even ordinary things—like eating—have become impossible.

Grief and exhaustion make for a powerful cocktail and they appear to prompt Jesus to make a surprising decision. From this point on, he will avoid the crowds as much as possible. He will become an Invisible Leader. Not until the Triumphal Entry will he embrace his public role again, and only then because it is a prelude to the Cross.

With the terrible news of John’s death heavy on his heart and the crowds still clamoring for attention, Jesus takes his disciples away in a boat. But the crowds see them leave and run around the lakeshore and greet them on their arrival!

Graciously, Jesus teaches the crowds for the whole day and then asks Philip and the other disciples how they intended to feed the huge crowd. There were at least 5,000 men present, plus women and children.

You know the rest of the story.

You probably also know that the crowds wanted to make Jesus King by force. Instead, Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him and disperses the crowd himself. He obviously did not want his disciples caught up in the demands of the celebrity cult that was spiraling around him.

Of course eschewing celebrity was not simply about Jesus avoiding the spotlight, it was much more about him using his time and energy for the most important things. From now on his focus would be to spend time with his disciples teaching them and preparing them for what would come.

‘They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’” (Mark 9:30–31. Emphasis mine)

All of this seems very clear from the text and I doubt anyone would deny the celebrity status of Jesus among the crowds that followed him. Perhaps we would also understand why he would need to remove himself from this context to be able to concentrate on the more important task of developing his disciples.

We rarely apply these principals to ourselves.

In my experience, most pastors have celebrity status in the congregations they lead—it doesn’t matter how large the congregation. In fact, anyone who is given or assumes the role of spiritual guide is liable to become a celebrity; someone who is elevated—even exalted—in the eyes of others.

My question is this: If it was not possible for Jesus to disciple others while maintaining a celebrity status, why do we think it will be possible for us?

I know megachurch pastors who have the ‘common touch’ and who downplay their gifts and abilities. But very few people in their congregations believe that they can do what they do. I also know small church pastors whose congregations think exactly the same.

Celebrities by their very nature are people who are seen by others to be extraordinary. But being ‘extraordinary’ means that others can excuse themselves for not being like the celebrities they celebrate. There appears to be an unspoken social contract; the pastor can be a celebrity with all the associated honor, as long as he/she does not require us to do too much!

It’s no good blaming the ‘celebrity’ pastors and leaders, because we all collude with the problem!

Here is the crux: Celebrity and discipling cultures don’t mix.

Most of the Western church is predicated upon recruiting and training leaders who can function as spiritual celebrities—leaders who teach and do things that others can’t. However, fundamental to discipleship is that we believe we are able to do things that our discipling leaders do.

My own experience is that making disciples is very difficult in the context of a ‘public’ or ‘congregational’ ministry. Learning how to ‘become invisible’ is part of the task of Christian leadership. I think we should follow the pattern of Jesus and from time to time embrace the challenge of invisibility so that we are able to fulfill the greater call of making disciples. Its for each of us to work out how best to do that.  

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Mike leads 3DM, the global home for an organic movement of biblical discipleship and missional church. He and his wife, Sally, have three children.