There’s a tree I used to walk past frequently when my family and I took walks and it always caught my attention. There was definitely something wrong with it. The tree looked like any other tree up to a height of about three feet. Then, instead of branching out gracefully into several larger branches, it had a sudden burst of about 100 tiny branches that each shot out about a couple feet. While the trees around it were soaring high into the sky, this tree became stunted and stood no taller than me.

Through this tree, God was teaching me something. As Christians, we desire to make an impact in God’s Kingdom. For some, this means we try to win as many souls for Jesus as we can. Our focus ends up being placed on our present impact based on numbers. How many people can I reach? How can I increase church attendance? How do I format my book/sermon/ministry so that I have a broader audience?

While we are called to go into all the world and preach the good news (this is a very important part of our lives as Christians), this can tend to have shallow results as far as lasting effects. For example, if you have a church of about 100 people and they all view themselves as the disciples of the single pastor, how much can that pastor invest into each one of them? It’s a shallow relationship where all that is required of them is that they listen to the words of the pastor.

Jesus had something much different in mind when He began discipling twelve men. While He spoke to and influenced thousands while He was on earth, Jesus shared life with these twelve men. These were the men He walked and talked with on a daily basis. He literally imparted His life into them. Then, at the end of His ministry, Jesus commissioned His disciples to go out and make disciples.

Can you see now how the healthy tree is starting to take shape? As we become rooted in Christ Jesus and we submit to personal discipleship (with Jesus and with a more experienced mother or father figure), a strong tree is developing. The deeper these relational connections are, the stronger our branches become and the more of ourselves we are able to pour out to others.

The awesome thing about discipleship in my experience is that God is the one that guides us and connects us to the right people. When I realized my own need for a mentor, I prayed and God provided almost immediately. For the past few years, He’s also been directing me to invite women into my life to pour into and share life with them. And the great thing is that I don’t have to worry about the results because that’s God’s responsibility. We can plant the seeds and water, but God causes people to grow.

I also don’t have to worry about what I’m going to do or say. I can only replicate in my sphere the things that I have cultivated in my heart. When something is true in my heart, it appears naturally in the fruit of my life and in my words. I don’t have to force it or worry about how something is going to come across. Or I could try to fill my mind with a lot of knowledge and facts, then just regurgitate them, but that does not have lasting effects. That is not heart transformation. I may gain followers, but I will not make disciples.

If I want to be able to disciple effectively, I need to begin with myself. It starts with my full surrender to Jesus and His work in my heart. It cannot merely be knowledge of what Jesus has done; it has to be real in my life. It cannot be a general understanding of how Jesus died for me; I have to share in the experience of His death and resurrection. As Christians, our lives are marked by a death of our old lives and a raising to life with Jesus. This is not just a theological idea; it’s an experience that God takes us through (John 12:24).

Then, just as we are placed into families when we are newborns, God places us into spiritual families when we are born again. Through deep-rooted connections, we are being loved and discipled into maturity. If this process is skipped, we will be stunted and will remain in a constant struggle to prove ourselves.

Now picture that healthy tree again. Look at those healthy connections where one strong branch becomes multiple branches and then smaller ones sprout from those branches. Our vision needs to go beyond just getting a huge following. It needs to go beyond reaching huge masses of people. While Christians are called to reach many, our greatest legacy happens in our discipleship based on strong relational connections where we share our lives with a just a few people. We need to get over this idea that we are only effective if we are pastoring a church of hundreds of people. We need to look beyond our lives and see the generations that are coming up behind us. We cannot waste our time building flimsy platforms that don’t survive after we move on.

This idea of legacy is one of the biggest reasons God has called me and my family to Redding. While I don’t know all the plans He has for us yet, I’m already seeing the fruit of our decision. My most important disciples are my children, and my desire is to create a platform for them to surpass their dad and me. That has required a lot of heart-healing for me and Josh to ensure we are passing on to our children love and freedom instead of bondage and shame. Just as the efforts of the lower, stronger branches provide a higher starting point for the smaller branches that succeed them, Josh and I are allowing God to do the work in us to position our children to a higher place than we could have ever reached.

In all of this, the message is simple: It’s all about relationship. The health and strength of a tree depends upon the depth of the roots within the soil (our relationship with the Father) and the healthy connections of the limbs (our relationship with others). Maintain the constant flow of receiving from God and pouring out into others. Pray that God gives you vision to see past your current circumstances and into the coming generations.

“Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.’” (Luke 13:18-19)