Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1
Several years ago I heard Neil Cole speak about the process of discipling people and he used a great image to illustrate what not to do: photocopying. We're all familiar I think with what happens to an image when you make a copy, then a copy of the copy, then a copy of the copy of the copy and so on. Neil was reminding us that when we work directly with others to disciple them, we need to be clear that we are an example to them, but not an example to copy. Rather, we need to be examples of how to copy Jesus.
More recently, I've been in in a weekly phone huddle since October, learning the 3dm approach to discipleship and mission. I would describe it as a hands-on "direct discipleship" process, and the same themes are emerging there. They talk about having a life worth imitating, but again the focus is on picking up the habits of going directly to Jesus as the "master copy" each of us should work from. A key part of the training in the huddle is passing on the skills, mindset and practices that help one be a good Christ-copier. (I just made that term up.)
Ruminating on this, I've been wanting specific language and imagery for this. The language, I think, is the distinction between replication (successive re-copying) vs. recursion (repeating the process of first-generation duplication. Visually, I've been sketching stuff that looks like the two images at left.
This helps me see the key distinction in my role with the next generation (or iteration, perhaps.) I should see myself, not so much as the one discipling you, but as one nurturing the relationship between Jesus and you so that he is the discipler and you are the disciplee. (As a biologist by trade, I recognize this as the role of a catalyst.)
Some nice things fall into place when using this little mental map. For example, I like to think in terms of learning the "tools" of discipleship: key concepts, practices, attitudes etc. The language of tools however can become uncomfortable if it suggests that I am going to "use the tools on you," and teach you to use them on the next person. Rather, the point of the tools is that I learn how to use them on myself, to nurture my own discipleship relationship with Jesus. When I begin to "disciple you," that really means introducing you to the same tools, so that you can use them on yourself for the building up of your own relationship with Jesus. The whole "tools" language has other issues of course. It's a bit "manipulative" as an element in a loving relationship perhaps, and can point you towards what's in your hands vs. whose hands you are in. But the recursion perspective at least steers it away from me getting my own hands under your spiritual hood.
Another thing that falls nicely into place is the requirement for a living Jesus. In the replication model, once you get your first copy you technically don't need the original anymore. Jesus could be out of the picture, or even dead for that matter, and the discipling chain can keep right on going. In recursion though, there is an absolute requirement for a living Jesus to be continually involved, since he is the one that each generation needs to connect to directly so that they can be his disciples.
Personally, I think it's a good thing to have a discipleship model that requires the involvement of a living Jesus.