The days are getting longer, and in a few short weeks spring will be here. Last year our family was visited by a mother duck who decided to make a nest by the side of our home near the dryer vent. A month later we saw her waddling through the yard with her baby ducklings following close behind.
It was cute to watch as they stumbled, tripped, and meandered toward the pond. The second duckling followed the first, the third followed the second, and the fourth followed the third.
The requirements of a duckling seem to be twofold. 1) Follow the mother duck and 2) help the ducklings behind you follow the mother duck.
This is duckling discipleship.
I first learned this principle from Curtis Sergeant, a missionary to Asia who once said, “You don’t have to be a mature duck to lead a duckling. You just have to be one step ahead.”
Curtis and his family arrived on an island in the early 1990’s with a population of about 7 million people and fewer than one-hundred known Christians worshipping in unregistered churches. By 2008, there were more than 500,000 followers of Christ. Duckling discipleship trains all followers of Jesus to make disciples.
The first principle of duckling discipleship is to follow the mother duck.
The mother duck is not a prominent author, a celebrity pastor, an influential professor, a missionary, a friend, or a role model. The mother duck is Jesus, and following him is the first principle of disciple making. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, the Apostle Paul writes,
“Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.”
We are all following Jesus together.
“Come, follow me” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people”. Keeping our focus on Jesus is the first principle of disciple making.
The second is to help the ducklings behind you follow the mother duck. Disciple making shouldn’t create dependency on a person or curriculum. Instead, the goal is to help others learn how to follow Jesus with us!
This all sounds so simple, but the process of duckling discipleship hinges on a key question.
“How do you know if someone is a follower of Jesus?”
In the 1970’s a missiologist and cultural anthropologist named Paul Hiebert asked this question while wondering how much of the gospel message an illiterate and impoverished person in a non-western context must understand to be a Christian.
What if a person can’t read the Bible?
What if a person understands the gospel but has no further direction?
What if someone has a miraculous encounter or vision of Jesus but nothing more?
This same set of questions could be asked when it comes to disciple making.
When is a person qualified?
How does one know if they are truly following Jesus?
Is it possible for someone who has not professed faith in Jesus to be following Jesus?
Are certain beliefs and behaviors required to make disciples of others?
Hiebert concluded that the answers to these questions depend on whether a person subscribes to “bounded set” or “centered set” thinking.
To understand these two ideas, consider the analogy of a farmer.
Some farmers build fences to prevent their animals from wandering off their land. This is bounded-set thinking. Bounded-set thinking creates fixed boundaries to determine who is “in” and who is “out”.
Centered-set thinking is illustrated by the same farmer who decides to dig a well to keep the animals near. There are no fences, but the well serves as a magnet. As long as the animals remain thirsty, they will continually orient themselves around the well.
Who Should We Look For?
There are hundreds and thousands of potential disciple makers sitting in our congregations, living in our neighborhoods, and working in the marketplace.
For years, I’ve been wired to look for disciple makers and followers of Jesus using bounded-set thinking.
In bounded-set thinking, the definition of a “follower” is defined by certain boundaries. Followers must affirm certain beliefs and practice certain behaviors.
These boundaries determine who is qualified or not qualified to make disciples. To be a “follower” you may need to go through a confirmation process, a membership class, make a public declaration, be baptized, attend a specific training, tithe, serve, or volunteer at the church.
The problem with bounded-set thinking is that people can do all of those things and NOT be moving toward Jesus. The story of the rich, young ruler in Mark 10 is a case in point. He certainly checked off the right beliefs and behaviors but he “walked away sad because he had great wealth”.
In centered-set thinking, the definition of a “follower” is defined by the direction they are moving regardless of their current beliefs or behaviors.
This is more subjective and require more discernment. It means looking less for people who have checked all the right boxes and more for people who are hungry for God, moving toward Jesus, and walking in obedience.
Of course, the closer one gets to Jesus, the more those people ought to affirm right beliefs and more Christlike behavior.
However (and this is a key point), in centered-set thinking, those beliefs and behaviors aren’t required to help other ducklings follow the mother duck.
The only pre-requisite is to be moving toward Jesus and helping others do the same.
We see examples of this centered-set way of thinking in the shepherds, the woman at the well, the demoniac, Zacchaeus, Lydia, the centurion, and many other examples in Scripture. The Samaritan woman was following Jesus and helping others follow Jesus when she exclaimed in John 4:29,
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”
Did she have the right beliefs?
Did she check off the right behavioral boxes?
Probably not, but she was following Jesus. In fact, John 4:39 tells us,
“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony”.
A Final Thought
Moving toward Jesus or the gospel means defining “which Jesus” and “what gospel” and as soon as we start defining terms, I suppose we are building boundaries in our construction.
But the principles of duckling discipleship and centered-set thinking are needed.
Perhaps we spend too much time nit-picking certain beliefs, behaviors, characteristics, and qualities before mobilizing people to help the ducklings behind them follow the mother duck. Perhaps we have constructed fences and barriers that are unnecessary in mobilization.
Duckling discipleship is a simple concept.
Who is following the mother duck? Who is seeking Jesus? Who is hungry for more of him? How can we challenge them to help others do the same? How can we help them open their eyes to the ducklings behind them? How can we encourage them to help others follow Jesus? Let’s stop fixating on the rich, young rulers and start mobilizing more Samaritan women who may not have it all figured out, but are hungry for Jesus.
Disciple making might be as simple as one duckling helping another duckling follow the mother duck…together.
Our mission at Groundswell is to come alongside pastors, churches, and network leaders to help mobilize more disciple makers and pioneers. Visit us at www.groundswellmovement.net to learn more!