As I was growing up, I was a competitive swimmer. From the time that I was 10 until 18, I swam as part of several clubs and school teams.
At Eastern High School, the school that I went to from my earliest days, there was a poster that hung on the wall. It was a picture of Greg Louganis, a competitive diver who was making a name for himself for several reasons around that time. His greatest platform was that he was simply a great diver, winning gold medals at two Olympics, in 1984 and 1988, in multiple events.
The poster on the wall, while I can’t remember exactly what it said, essentially talked about Greg’s “Overnight Success”. It went something like:
After 20 years, they called him an overnight success.
The point of the poster was that, if you think that you will have success quickly, in whatever you do, think again. If you want to have the kind of success that Greg has had, it will take long-term commitment. It will take work to improve yourself and your techniques. Work that must be sustained for years and decades. And then success may come your way.
I thought of that poster this week when I read this article by Elliot Clark on the Gospel Coalition’s website. The article is actually a critique of the type of work that we do. He speaks of some who are placing expectations on others to grow rapidly in their discipleship work, creating “overnight success” in their missional work. In response, I had three thoughts I wanted to share.
First, I wanted to say that I generally agree. As you hopefully see from my thoughts above, I don’t really believe much in overnight success. Not because it is terrible if it would happen, but instead that it just typically doesn’t work that way. Like the example of Greg Louganis, the norm is that you work for a long time, doing the right things over a sustained period, and then you might see success. There are no guarantees in life, but generally speaking, if your goals are worth working for, they are worth working a long time to achieve.
Second, I do believe that quick, exponential growth is certainly possible in our line of work, but it would come as a result of having multiple people doing the work. In disciple-making, a multiplying effect would come if there are people who are multiplying the work. It only makes sense that if you have 1 person who makes another disciple, you now only have 2 disciples. Even though you’ve grown by 100%, it still doesn’t look like much to others looking in from the outside.
But after that, you have 2 that will make 4, and 4 that make 8, and 8 that make 16, and so on. And after some time, you see the multiplying effect that you’re looking for. If you were to just start to know these people after they hit this stride of the multiplying effect, and if you weren’t careful to think deeply about the history of how the group arrived at this place where you have now found them, you might start telling a story of an “overnight success” with rapid growth, one who should be formulaically copied because of the speed of their success, meanwhile having forgotten all of the time and effort required from the beginning.
Third, I think it would be much more helpful if Elliot were to speak more specifically. Instead of throwing a blanket over an entire group of people and their work, thus making it sound like everyone who does this kind of work thinks this way, I believe it would be better to call people out directly. Anyone can write a criticism that sweeps across multiple people, but it takes someone who actually cares more deeply to dive into the issue with individuals and effect change.
In my opinion, throwing blanket criticisms can have some pretty divisive effects. Even if it is not Elliot’s intention, the results can be – and I can experientially confirm this to be the case – that people will believe that anyone who is working to do disciple-making work and using similar terminology to what he is criticizing, believe just as he suggests.
So, because I have personally heard these types of criticisms before where it has been suggested that I advocate speed of evangelism and conversion with a superficial layer of learning instead of a depth of discipleship, I’d like to be clarify how I see this issue:
- We must sow the Gospel broadly across multiple people.
- Those that respond, we must teach to follow Christ. This takes study, experience, time, correction, repentance, and many other steps.
- Part of following Christ is teaching these followers to teach others. I see no need to wait a long time for someone to share and teach others what they have learned, but instead, as a disciple receives something from God, they should pass it along to another.
- This will likely go on in small numbers for quite some time. However, after a while, you will have multiple people who are doing this together – walking in Christ together, making disciples together – and this will begin to produce a multiplying effect.
- As a result, you will likely initially go slow, working closely with smaller numbers of people at first, but after a while, looking at the group as a whole, you will see that a group will become much larger and it will appear to be growing quickly. This will be due to the fact that there are multiple people going through this discipleship process at the same time, not because the process itself necessarily suggests that you must move quickly.