Dann Spader is the Founder of Sonlife Ministries and Concentricglobal.org, which is an alliance of organizations in 130 countries committed to “equipping young leaders for movements of multiplication.” He is also the author of 4 Chair Discipling, Walk Like Jesus, and Live Like Jesus. More important than his impressive resume, Dann “walks the talk” in the truest sense of that old phrase. He’s a strategist who’s deep in the trenches of ministry.
Dann, when you hear the word, “disciple” what does that mean to you?
The term disciples (mathetes) is used over 230 times in the Scriptures and primarily means a “learner or follower”. However, many when speaking of disciples, tend to think of a more committed Christian. This is a mistake.
Surrounding Jesus were disciples of all levels of learning and commitment. To me, a disciple is someone at various stages of growth and development and interested in following Christ. They can be a non-Christian “seeker” who is being drawn by the Holy Spirit, a new “believer” who is still a baby Christian and eager to grow, a committed “worker” overflowing with gratitude, or a sent out “missionary” seeking to make other disciples.
A disciple can be at various stages of growth and development. Likewise, discipling (the verb) is the whole process of winning the lost, growing the believers, equipping the workers, and sending out proven multipliers. It is a term that defines the mission of any believer and any Church—and is the greatest of all causes on earth. (Matt 28:16-20).
It seems that a lot of people are content to attend a church service, maybe even join a small group and serve. While that is good, what can we do as leaders to spur them on to a deeper walk with Christ?
The real joy of the Christian life is found not in receiving but in giving. Jesus was clear on this when He so often spoke in His life and actions that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Philemon verse 6 says this in a unique way, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” It is true that as we share our faith, we gain our faith. We have been blessed to be a blessing. As we give it away, we experience the true depth of our faith.
Leaders must fully understand that we haven’t made a “fully trained” disciple (Luke 6:40) until that disciple makes a disciple. Reproduction is God’s desire and His very best for all of us. Leaders must, through all means possible, exhort our people to become fully trained disciple-makers. This is someone who has spiritual ‘children’ and eventually spiritual ‘grand-children’. They have fully learned to share their faith and give it away to others. This is where the “joy” begins to be experienced. They make disciples who make disciples. This is God’s plan and God’s greatest joy.
You exhibit a genuine fascination with the Jesus of the Bible. How did that begin for you?
Early on, as a new young Christian, I became a part-time youth pastor in a small church. Having never been in a youth group, I had no idea what a youth group did. A professor at my Bible college made a statement that changed my life. In passing, he stated, “some of Christ’s first disciples could have been teenagers”. This was radical for me and life changing. As a twenty-year-old youth pastor, I thought of Jesus and His disciples, as a bunch of “old guys”, since I knew Jesus was about thirty. To a twenty-year-old, thirty is old. (This was probably true of John, he may have been 16-17 years of age, and the rest of the disciples could have been in their late teens or early 20’s).
After class I ran to my professor and asked him if this was really true and if so, what did Jesus do with His youth group?. He chuckled and encourage me to get a harmony of the Gospels, and study what Jesus did—the first year, the second year, the third year, etc. My professor, Stan Gundry, had just helped compile the Thomas and Gundry A Harmony of the Gospels and I think he wanted to sell one.
This began for me a 10-year study journey that led to my doctorate and first ministry (Sonlife) as we analyzed how Jesus made disciples who could make disciples. Over 40 different times Jesus told us to “do what He did” (John 14:12), “walk as He walked” (I John 2:6), “following the example” (I Peter 2:21) that He gave us.
For me, this began an intense passion of getting to know the real Jesus, who had become “fully human” to show us how life was to be lived. As the second Adam, Jesus was “man as God intended man to be”. He commanded us in the Great Commandment and Great Commission to simply do what He did— “to love God, love people, and make disciples”. Simple but not simplistic. Easy to understand but not necessarily easy to live out. This whole process demands a willingness to serve, suffer, and sacrifice like Jesus. Imparting our very lives to others. But in the end, it is the greatest of all life’s adventures and the reason for our existence.
I hope it’s fair to say that much of your ministry is built around 1 John 2:6. How does that verse help bring clarity for the life of a Christian?
I John 2:6 commands us that if “any of us claim to be in Christ” we must “live as Jesus lived”. To me, the key word in this verse is the word “as”. It forced me to ask the tough question, “In his full humanity, how did Jesus do what Jesus did?”
You’re an advocate of reading the Gospels not simply as they appear in the New Testament but arranged more chronologically by harmonizing the four Gospels together. How does a harmony of the Gospels help us better understand Jesus?
The first-century church knew the life of Christ chronologically because they had watched Him develop His ministry and His disciples. They saw how He grew a movement of multiplying disciples.
Most Christian leaders today study the message of Jesus but miss the model of how Jesus grew a movement of multiplying disciples. Both are very critical. Both His message and His model must be studied.
For me, studying a harmony of the Gospels, clearly helped me to rebuild the true life of Christ. By asking questions like, “What did He do the first year, second year, third year? Where did He go? Why did He say what He said?” I began to understand what I like to call the “real Jesus” of the New Testament. I began to learn things like the fact that He only did two recorded miracles in the first 18 months of His ministry. Why? He never chose the Twelve disciples as Apostles until two and one-half years. Why?
I began to see that Jesus had a clearly reproducible plan of both making disciples and building a movement of disciple makers. We often miss this when we just study the content of what He said, His message. He told us to “do what He did” (John 14:12) and “walk as He walked” (I Jn 2:6), not just “say what He said”.
You write, teach, and train using the metaphor of “Four Chairs”— or the four challenges Jesus gives his disciples. Can you break those four down for us?
Jesus was a master at making disciples as well as building a movement of disciple-makers. My book 4 Chair Discipling analyzes how Jesus made disciples by looking at the four challenges Jesus gave chronologically to His disciples.
The first challenge (represented by chair one) is the challenge to “come and see” (John 1:39). It is a low-level challenge and basically means to just “show up”. This challenge is given to “seekers” investigating the faith. The disciples understood this as they repeated this challenge to other seekers (John 1:46, 4:29). This challenge is for those the “spirit is drawing” and are beginning to ask questions and seek answers.
The second challenge (represented by chair two) is to “follow Me” (John 1:43). It literally means to “walk behind me, learn of me, follow in my steps”. It was a challenge given by rabbis for potential disciples. This challenge is especially for new believers to go deeper in imitating the life of Christ. It involves abiding in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Baby Christians (new believers) need to learn five basic truths early on—their identity (whose they are), how to walk (in power of Spirit), how to talk (tell their story and then God’s story), how to feed themselves (study God’s Word), and how to live a cleansed life (potty trained). If new babies learn these five basics, they eventually mature into the third challenge.
The third challenge (chair three) was given to five individuals (James, John, Simon, Andrew, and Matthew) 18 months into Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had watched these five “come and see”, and then “follow Me”. They are now ready for this third challenge, to “follow Me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:16-20, Matt 4:18-22). From this point on, you will see Jesus 17 times with the masses but 46 times with these few. He will deeply pour into these few disciples to teach them how to reproduce their lives (“I will make you fishers of men”). These are the few workers that Jesus now prioritizes. Later on, they will become some of the leaders of His movement.
The fourth challenge of Jesus was given at the end of His ministry in John 15:16, “go and bear fruit” (chair four). They are “fully trained” and now being sent out to reproduce in others what He has produced in them. They are the fruitful disciple-makers.
These four challenges (chairs) become the disciple-making pathway for all disciples. Seekers (“come and see”), believers (“follow Me”), workers (“I will make you fishers of men”), and disciple-makers (“go and bear fruit”).
Recognizing this pathway through the visual of four chairs helps in three very practical ways.
1. Believers can easily identify what chair they are in and what their next steps need to be.
2. Disciplers can quickly identify what chair their disciple is in and what they need to teach and help their disciples experience next.
3. Leaders can develop their church pathway around these four challenges and develop programs to help their people grow through the process.
You see these four challenges in a purposeful sequence. How does each build upon the other?
I John 2:12-14 defines the discipling in a purposeful sequence through God’s creative world. It speaks of the natural process of development in “children” (vs 12,13), “young men” (vs 13, 14), and “fathers” (vs 13,14). When understood developmentally, as Jesus so clearly did, then we can become even more effective in our own discipling. The plant world also reflects this developmental process with a seed germinating (John 12:23), roots going down (Col 2:7), the stalk coming up (Mark 4:28), and fruit matures (John 15:1-8).
The process begins with befriending the lost and helping them find new life in Christ. We then take baby Christians and nurture them into being able to care and feed themselves. The next step is equipping the young men into multiplying spiritually by helping them reproduce, which ultimately results in a movement of new children of God and spiritual grandchildren.
What happens when we mix up “come and see” with “fish for men”?
They are two totally different challenges with two totally different outcomes. The end product of the “come and see” challenge is conversion. The end product of the “fish for men” challenge is reproduction. The “come and see” challenge is primarily given to seekers. The “fish for men” challenge is given intentionally to a few proven workers who have matured in their walk with the Lord. In my free e-book on Disciple Making Metrics, I show how you measure each step of the disciple-making journey.
So often when people talk about growing “deep” in their faith, it’s learning more about God or learning more about the Bible. And while that is good it might just mean we’re stuck in the “second chair” and following more without advancing onward. How is the idea of growing deeper in our faith really interconnected with fishing for people and making disciples?
In Jesus’ day, the goal of discipling was not just to learn all that the rabbi knew, but to become all that the rabbi was.
So often in the American church, we pursue knowledge over obedience. Obedience was and is God’s love language. The Great Commission is to make disciples by teaching them to obey all that He has commanded. The goal of discipling is not transactional, it is transformational. Becoming like the one we follow.
You teach that the pattern of disciple-making we see in the scriptures is relational, intentional, and missional. Can you explain the interplay of those three elements?
Perhaps one of the best definitions of New Testament discipling is found in Jesus’ own words in Mark 1:17, “Come, follow Me and I will send you out to fish for people.” In this statement you find that discipling Jesus’ style is relational (follow Me), intentional (I will make you), and missional (fishers of men).
Relational means it is 90% about the “imparting of our life” (I Thessalonians 2:8), not imparting of a program or curriculum or more content. While I’m not opposed to curriculum or content, it is mostly about the imparting of “our very life”. This is relational in nature and can only be done with a few. Again, it involves becoming like our Rabbi (Jesus) not just knowing all that our Rabbi knows.
Intentional means that it will not happen without the laser focus Jesus modeled. He poured His life into a few men and women who within a few years turned the world “upside down” (Acts 17:6). Jesus knew that the best use of a person’s life was investing in a few with an intentional focus.
Missional simply means that Jesus clearly knew that the job was not done until His disciples were able to reproduce in others what He developed into them. This is why in Luke 10:21, near the end of His ministry, when He sends out the 72 disciples to share their faith and they come back “full of joy”, you find Jesus also “full of joy” by the Holy Spirit. Why? Because His mission was not to reach the world but to make disciples capable of reaching the world. He was about multiplication.
It seems that we tend to elevate one of those three patterns at the expense of another. In recent times, for instance, “relational” crowds out “missional.” Do you see that? Why is that and what can we do about that?
It has been my experience that every generation, to some degree, makes this mistake. Jesus balanced the tension of all three priorities—relational, intentional, and missional.
If we are so relational (friendships only) that we never are intentional, we so quickly become a “people pleaser”. If we are so intentional, that we never build relationships, people see us as task-driven and they really don’t care what we know until they know how much we care.
Missional is the glue that holds these two together—both relational and intentional. Our mission is clearly found in Matthew 28:20, “go and make disciples of all nations”. Like Jesus, we are called to making disciples, not just making friends. Clear missional living helps us intentionally be relational. Relational skills help us intentionally be missional. All three are wrapped in the biblical definition of missional and cannot be separated out if we choose to live “like Jesus”.
Anyone who has spent time with you, Dann, knows your heart beats strong for Christ. I think your friends and colleagues would agree that your passion isn’t for a program, a system, or a curriculum. How can a leader keep their focus on Christ without becoming focused on building a program?
For over 50 years, my passion has been to get to know the “real Jesus” of the Scriptures. That includes the glorified, resurrected Jesus, but also the incarnate fully God and fully human Jesus who walked on this earth and showed us how to live life.
I get very tired of teaching about programming, systems, or good curriculum, but I never tire of teaching about Jesus. Why? Jesus is a very deep well! Every year you can go deeper into Jesus. He is alive and is still the Head of the Church. Every year I learn more about Him. He wants us to grow into a full understanding of His goodness and grace.
We must get back to Jesus, not the latest curriculum, program, or passing fad. Only when we fall in love with Jesus again will we ever have a chance for a true God-breathed revival. I never tire of Jesus.
Dann, if a leader wants to connect with you or learn more about your ministry where should they turn?
Thanks, so much, Dann, for sharing your heart and ministry experience with us.