Discipleship is Not Replication, Development is Not Cloning

Discipleship is often associated with the words “replication” or “reproduction.” These are some of the most common metaphors for disciple-making, and for good reason: the Apostle Paul tells his disciples to “imitate” him as he “imitates” Christ.

But I wonder sometimes if they might not be helpful words to use when it comes to discipleship, at least not without some caveats on what they actually mean. For example, is the goal of discipleship to clone someone into your image? Is that what we mean when we talk about “replication” in discipleship?

I started thinking about this when I saw a quote about parenting on Austin Kleon’s blog.

There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production… In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own.

– Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree (emphasis mine)

Oof! Embedded into the word “reproduction” is the idea of replication, of copying or cloning something that has already been “produced.” The idea that gets conjured in our minds when we talk about replicating ourselves is copying or cloning ourselves, and that’s not what discipleship is.

Just like parents are sometimes sub-consciously trying to “live forever” through their children, I wonder if many times we as leaders are wanting to use “discipleship” as a way to narcissistically extend ourselves into the world and into the future.

Just as conceiving and raising a child means producing a completely new human life (not a copy of someone or even a “combination” of two people), perhaps it would be better to think of discipleship as developing a completely new truly human life in God’s kingdom.

If the process of coming into God’s kingdom can be characterized as being “born from above” (John 3:3), then discipleship is the the process of developing that new life that comes from God.

This feels a LOT different to me than just “replicating myself.”

I wonder if using “re-” metaphors (replication, reproduction) has inadvertently contributed to “discipleship” processes that are more concerned with quickly “scaling up” than really developing people and sending them out.

Implications for discipleship

I can think of 3 specific implications of this for our disciple-making practices:

1. Don’t just disciple people who are like you

All of us tend to attract people who are similar to us. While there is nothing wrong with this, what tends to happen is that we begin to see these people as extensions of ourselves. It’s easy to do because they are so similar to us!

That’s why it’s important to be intentional about seeking to train and develop disciples who have personalities that are different from your own.

Jesus had a wildly diverse group of disciples, from angry zealots and passionate rebels to calculating compromisers and care-too-much softies.

He trained and developed each one of them while honoring their differing personalities. Peter’s letters and the Gospel he likely inspired (Mark) are vastly different in tone and tempo than John’s.

This is a good thing, and it can be a good thing in your disciple-making efforts as well. Find people who aren’t like you and develop them!

2. Help disciples go beyond imitation to innovation and incarnation

Paul encouraged the churches he planted to imitate him as he imitated Christ.

Imitation is often a great first step in learning, but it can never be the final destination. For true development to happen, we must always encourage people to move on into innovation and incarnation.

When my kids are first learning something from me, they usually start with imitation. They do it just like I do. But my heart for them is that they learn to innovate and do things in new ways, in their own way. And when it comes to their life of faith, I pray they don’t just learn to imitate me, but that the life of God really takes root in their everyday life: incarnation!

Give those who follow you an example to imitate, but also encourage them to innovate and seek to discover how the life of Christ is incarnated within them in new ways. This means you’ll need to give them freedom to fail as they try new things.

3. Remember the goal of discipleship is “apostleship”

Sometimes I think we can end up with the idea that the point of disciple-making is just to have a bunch of “helpers” around for our ministry.

We end up feeling frustrated when those we’ve developed and trained want flexibility to invest in new projects, and other people they are training and discipling.

But the goal of discipleship is that eventually people will be sent out to bring others into the life of God, which means they will make more disciples, which sometimes means they won’t be a direct part of your ministry any more.

Jesus trained and developed his disciples for three years, but the goal was always to send them, to make them into apostles (which just means “sent ones”).

Sending and releasing those we train and develop ought to be the end-game of our discipleship process. They won’t necessarily leave our ministries, per se, but we should be encouraging them to follow Jesus wherever he seems to be leading them.

If we can can rejoice and bless and send those who are going out from us, we are truly making disciples. If we constantly feel frustrated about letting go of our “best people,” we’re not really making disciples, we may just be seeking to amplify ourselves.

I want to see generations

I heard an interview with Seth Godin where he talked about how he measures success, and his answer struck me as very discipleship-oriented.

People offer me jobs all the time, and if my goal was to make an income, of course I would take the jobs. But my goal isn’t to make an income. My goal is to make a difference. Success for me is watching people I’ve taught teach others. I want to see generations happen as quickly as possible.

As we think about what “success” looks like in our discipleship efforts, I pray our answer is the same as Seth’s!

As we seek to make disciples of Jesus, let’s avoid the shortcut of “replication” and instead honor people by laying down our lives to see them develop as unique and beloved new creations in Christ who can produce and develop more disciples of Jesus!

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Lis Kjær Sørensen on October 2, 2018 at 9:22 am

    Imitation means to follow after and there is a huge difference in following and cloning or reproducing

  2. Ben Sternke on October 2, 2018 at 9:36 am


  3. Andee Marks on March 11, 2019 at 10:49 am

    What really struck me as I read this is that, in the process of discipling that you advocate here, the discipler is also invited to be discipled! As we value the unique perspectives of those we lead, we may find opportunities for our own growth and development…”as iron sharpens iron” mindset. Discipleship is a life-long adventure!

  4. Ben Sternke on March 11, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Yes, absolutely, Andee! The discipling relationship needs a certain “mutuality” to it (even if one party is clearly the “disciple-maker”), and openly growing in our own discipleship sets an embodied example of the posture of a disciple: constantly, humbly growing through all circumstances. We never “arrive” and we can’t disciple from the posture of being “experts.”

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