The Discipleship Flywheel

If you've ever read Jim Collins' famous book, Good to Great, you're probably familiar with his "flywheel" concept.  In order to become a truly great company, you have to identify your momentum-builder and make it the center of your efforts.

In order to move forward in the new evangelization, I believe that the Church needs to embrace its own flywheel: discipleship.

The Flywheel - Your Momentum-Builder

Have you ever pushed others on a merry-go-round?  Think about what it's like when you first start pushing.  That first shove takes a great deal of effort and seems to make hardly any progress in getting it spinning.  The next few shoves are similar as you fight inertia, but you are slowly able to pick up steam.  As the merry-go-round begins to spin slowly, then faster, and then faster still, you eventually reach a point where the momentum of the merry-go-round starts working in your favor.  Suddenly you can maintain the greater speed with relatively little effort.  You can even take a step back and let it take a few turns on its own before giving it an extra nudge.

This is Collins' flywheel concept. The basic idea is this: find your niche, your bread and butter, your moneymaker, and then focus repeated effort in the same direction consistently over time to build momentum.

Discipleship - Spiritual Mentorship

I believe that we need to begin envisioning discipleship as our flywheel for evangelization. 

"Discipleship" is quickly becoming a buzz word for evangelization but it is not always used to mean the same thing, so let me start by giving a definition of the specific way that I use this word.  In brief, discipleship is spiritual mentorship.  It differs from other forms of evangelization in the following ways:

  • Going Small: The ideal context for discipleship is one-on-one, a discipler with a disciple.  Some discipleship can take place within a small group setting, but smaller is better, and one-on-one is ideal.
  • Getting Personal: The goal of discipleship conversations is not our faith in the abstract, but the specific faith-walk of the disciple.  How is prayer?  What blessings has God given you this week?  Where are you struggling?  How are your other relationships (spouse, parents, friends, etc.)?
  • Being Intentional: The discipler is looking to help the disciple take the next step.  This means the one discipling needs to have a decent working knowledge of the process of conversion, understanding the difference between what is foundational to the spiritual life and what is part of the edifice of Christian maturity
  • Fostering Conversion: In a particular way, discipleship emphasizes interior conversion over exterior conformity.  This ought to be the aim of all evangelization, but there are certain contexts that make this more difficult.  For instance, a priest's preaching cannot address each person in the congregation in the particularities of their situation.  Any message is bound to strike a chord in some and to be perceived as "more rules" by others.  The one-on-one context allows the flexibility to focus on what is important to this specific individual in their journey of conversion.

The Discipleship Flywheel in Action

Now that we have defined the flywheel and discipleship, let's put the two concepts together.  What would it take to make mature Christian disciples out of every Catholic registered in our parishes?  Setting this up as our goal can feel like staring up at that 30-foot tall, stationary metal disc (Collins's image for the flywheel).  It is a daunting task, and it is difficult to imagine even getting started.  But it is important to remember the law of momentum.  Only disciples can make disciples, but by investing in a single individual, you suddenly have two people pushing that flywheel.  Two disciples become four, and the process continues.  Supposing that it takes one year for each new disciple to be made, you can reach an entire parish of 8000 adults in 13 years!

Can a parish afford to invest resources in just a few individuals through discipleship?  There are, after all, many good and worthy programs and initiatives in any given parish, and a great number of people to serve.  But this is where the power of the flywheel really shines, for discipleship becomes the engine supporting ALL the other activity in the parish.  Those who have met the Lord, who have experienced a profound interior conversion naturally (or more precisely, supernaturally!) desire to serve, to give back, to reach out to others.  Too often, we focus on the programs and hope for discipleship to emerge.  We may see some slight progress in this way, but we'll ultimately miss out on the momentum-generation that focused discipleship has the power to supply.

Discipleship is scary because it is a major investment of time in a single individual, but the life-changing potential is too great to ignore and the numbers pay off in the long run.  As a fellow church-worker once told me, we need to think big enough to go small!

Share your story!  Did someone take the time to disciple you?  What impact did that have on your faith and your life?