Making converts is not the same as making disciples. Over the last couple years, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and what it means to make disciples of Jesus. Mostly, I’ve learned from failing forward. Jesus’ discipleship is not easy. It’s very simple (Matthew 11:30, Matthew 22:37-39), but it’s far from easy. It doesn’t happen in a classroom for an hour each week. Real life-on-life discipleship is a painful and exhausting process. It’s full of victories and joys and full of failures and tears. Discipleship happens on the road, in the living room, early in the morning, and late at night. It happens when you pour your life into another person and you watch them do the same thing (Luke 6:40, 2 Timothy 2:2).
Keesha and I are trying our very best to do this with the 12 guys that live with us and with our neighbors. Our home has become a revolving door for the community and we love it. But there’s something else that weighs heavy on my shoulders. What do I do when I can’t pour my life into someone? What about the person I may never see again?
What about the guy next to me on the airplane? What about the girl in the restaurant? At the market? At the park? Do I not share with them? Do I keep the gospel to myself? Do I not make disciples for Jesus? What if they choose to follow Jesus? What do I do then? Do I just tell them, “Good luck and go find a church”?
These questions plagued me last year when we were on the coast outside of Port Au Prince in an area called Titanyen. We were there with some other missionary friends just enjoying a day out. While we were eating our picnic lunch, we met a young fisherman named Wilkins. My friend Troy shared the Gospel with him and it was clear that the Spirit of God was working. Wilkins said that Jesus had recently come to him in a dream and told him that he needed to repent and believe because the time was short. Wilkins said that he wanted to follow Jesus but because he is a poor fisherman who lives on the beach without the proper clothes, no church would accept him. We explained to him, “Jesus wants to save you right now. You can turn and follow Jesus right here on the beach.” He was ready and he gave his life to Jesus that day.
Fast forward one week. We went back to follow up with Wilkins to begin discipleship but we could not find him. We asked some of his fellow fisherman and they told us that he had gone to the market. They asked us why we had come, which opened the door for us to share the gospel with them.
It was a fun teaching moment as we looked at Matthew 4 together. We looked at how Jesus called four fishermen to follow Him and how their response was immediate obedience. After we spent about an hour talking with these men, three of them turned from their sin and believed in Jesus for salvation! That makes four fishermen on this beach! We told them that we wanted to form a new church with them. One of them told us that he has a house about 100 yards away and offered his home as a place for the new church to meet.
I returned again the next week with my friends Jephte and Evens to begin discipleship with these new believers. After baptizing several of them in the ocean, we gathered with them and their families on the front porch of the home. We did a discovery Bible study of Acts 2 and cast vision for how they could be church together. They committed to gathering every week. We committed to coming for a few months to train them, but ultimately we wanted to keep a long-term relationship with one of them to train him to lead the new church.
I returned again the following Friday with my friends Herode and Holson and had another great (but messy) gathering with this new church. We noticed that Wilkins seemed to have the deepest desire to grow in obedience to Jesus. We planned to meet up with him the following week for some one-on-one training and allow him to lead the new gathering with us watching and assisting him. But he didn’t show up. That Friday, we went back to this same little fishing area in Titanyen where we had been for 3 or 4 weeks, but none of the fishermen or their families were there. A neighbor told us that they had a death in the family and had gone to the island of Lagonave for the funeral. They most likely would be gone for weeks or even months.
We waited a few weeks, went back, but found no one. We tried again the following week. Nothing. Because of Port Au Prince traffic, it was an all day event every time we went out there. As disciples were multiplying in other parts of the city, we could no longer take an entire day out of the week to go to Titanyen. We prayerfully made the decision to commit these fishermen to the Lord and move on. It was hard. It weighed heavy on my mind and heart often. I never want to just make converts and then send them on their own. I certainly never want empty baptisms. Baptism should be an invitation into discipleship. And yet here I was with no other choice.
About six months later, this past October, I was returning from a week on the island of Lagonave with my friend Clark. To get back to Port Au Prince, we had to drive straight through Titanyen. We decided to stop in and see if our fishermen friends happened to be there. We didn’t find Wilkins or the other fishermen, but we did find the older man who gave his front porch for the new church six months earlier. We sat down to catch up with him. To be honest, I was expecting the worst. I thought to myself, “These fisherman were ruffians, uneducated men with no pastor to lead them. There’s no way they have persevered in the faith. We only spent three weeks training them.”
As we spoke with the man, we learned that, not only had he and the fishermen continued following Jesus, but that their families had turned to Jesus too and the church was growing! I couldn’t believe it. I was leaving that week to go back to the U.S. and would be gone through Christmas, so we prayed over him and told him we would try to return after the new year.
When we returned for a visit this past February, one year after starting the fishermen church, we found the men, as rough around the edges as they are, following Jesus as King and continuing to gather as church and share their faith in the community. Unfortunately, the old man had lost his land and house due to a new beach development coming in. So they are relocating to an area called Lanmè Frape where their church has decided to merge with another church.
A few lessons I learned from the fishermen church:
- Church (in the harvest) is not as rigid and clean as I like it. What Jesus started in Titanyen was much more fluid and organic.
- At times it felt out of control. That’s because it is out of control – out of my control. But instead, I had to commend them to the King’s control. The King’s reign!
- Jesus promised to build His Kingdom and He is faithful to that promise even when I can’t see it. So I must be faithful to sow the seed of the Gospel everywhere I go. I should do everything I can to follow-up with new believers for discipleship. But even when I cannot, I must always trust the Holy Spirit to be the teacher.
Paul stayed in Thessalonica for three weeks (Acts 17:2) until persecution forced him to leave. He worried for the new churches there and even sent Timothy back to check on them. Paul stayed only three weeks and yet wrote to them in 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.”