Spirit-driven Discipleship

“God, give me some pastors. Give me some ministers,” prayed Ralph Hiatt, an Assemblies of God missionary to Argentina, one evening after an evangelistic crusade. In answer to Hiatt’s prayer, God called seven young men into the ministry from that 30-day evangelistic crusade.

One of the seven young men planted a church that has grown to more than 12,000 members. Another planted a church that has grown to more than 30,000 members.

After interviewing Hiatt, I flew to Buenos Aires to meet with those two pastors and Jose Manuel Carlos, the pastor who had discipled them.

During my two trips to Argentina, I felt consumed by these pastors’ hunger and desperation for the Holy Spirit. During several prolonged periods of prayer, the Holy Spirit began revealing to me how, by following Jesus’ model of discipleship, these Argentine pastors were successfully discipling their congregations and neighborhoods.

Jesus, Our Model, Was Yielded and Obedient to the Spirit

Luke 5:16 says Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray. Jesus always sought the Father’s will, and He was effective because He only did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19).

My favorite examples of Jesus’ yielding to and obeying the Spirit come from John 3 and 4. In John 3, Jesus refers to the Talmud when talking with Nicodemus. But in John 4:16–19, He gives a word of knowledge to the woman at the well. Jesus did not base His evangelism on a script, but on yielding to and obeying the Holy Spirit’s promptings.

Acts 5:32 says God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey Him. For 10 years I have interviewed men and women of God about the secret to successful discipleship. Their answers have been the same: spending time in God’s presence, yielding ourselves to Him, and being obedient to the Holy Spirit.

It took those same 10 years for the Holy Spirit to reveal this truth to me. Many years ago I dedicated myself to praying, fasting, and living a holy life. But it was not until the last 3 years, during an extended season of praying as I hungered and thirsted for His presence, that I began to cultivate a deep intimacy with God.

In Argentina, many of the AG pastors I interviewed have followed Jesus’ model of yielding to and obeying to the Holy Spirit. These pastors have relinquished all control over their lives and ministries to the Holy Spirit. The results have been almost unfathomable. In Carlos’ case, God used him to disciple young leaders whose churches would grow 10 to 50 times larger than his. Rather than feeling insecure or inferior, Carlos seems humble and grateful. Today, he still gives his time, treasure, and life to God’s people and kingdom.

Jesus Also Had a Kingdom Mindset

The NIV uses the word church twice in the Gospels (Matthew 16:18; 18:17). The word kingdom, however, is used 116 times in the Gospels — and many of those uses refer to God’s kingdom.

God entrusts disciples to those who have a Kingdom mindset. Jesus often talked about God’s kingdom rule and how it is now being established here on the earth. The local church is part of that Kingdom. We must remain committed to the church because the church is a living organism — a microcosm of the Kingdom and a part of the Church, which is Christ’s bride.

Having a Kingdom mindset means we share God’s heart and mission for people and places beyond the influence of our church. Jesus was so committed to His Father’s mission for the world that He felt secure in training competent leaders who could open up churches in the future.

Hiatt has this kind of kingdom perspective. In 1995, revival broke out at Brownsville Assembly of God in Brownsville, Florida, one Sunday morning after visiting evangelist Steve Hill spoke. According to Brownsville AG church statistics, God has drawn more than 1 million people to visit this church since 1995. But many years before revival broke out in Brownsville, Hill had arrived in Argentina awaiting his missionary appointment with the AG. Ralph and Frances Hiatt say that Steve could hardly sit still on their couch because he so desperately wanted to go and tell people about Jesus. Shortly after Hill received his missionary appointment, Ralph helped him purchase a Teen Challenge farm so Steve could begin his ministry.

Hiatt also helped many other Argentine pastors purchase buildings and get their first congregations started. The most famous person Hiatt helped is world-renowned pastor, Claudio Freidzon, whose church now has more than 25,000 members. Several years into Freidzon’s ministry, Hiatt helped him secure property so his church could grow. I am inspired because Hiatt did not try to keep those pastors under his wing. Hiatt partnered with other ministers, helping younger ministers get started, and then releasing them into God’s harvest fields.

Love Is Jesus’ Secret Weapon

Sinners felt comfortable in Jesus’ presence because He loved them and had compassion for them. Love and compassion dominated Jesus’ discipleship. Rather than running a program, Jesus’ discipleship was organic and relational. His discipleship stemmed from love — the core of God’s nature.

Jesus’ discipleship had fluidity because Jesus yielded moment by moment to the Holy Spirit, and His discipleship revolved around love and spending quality time with His followers.

When I first met with Carlos, the pastor who mentored so many great Argentine pastors, I was amazed at the time he spent every week mentoring young leaders. He met with them every day at 7 a.m. at the church for prayer. On Saturdays, leaders went to his house to learn how to preach and pastor. Like Jesus, Carlos is not intimidated or insecure about having trained many pastors whose congregations are significantly larger than his own.

On many occasions when I would visit a church in Argentina, the pastor would ask me to speak to his congregation. The pastors were pleased to involve me in their services. They allowed me to pray for their people and teach them. Feeling the Argentine pastors’ love and encouragement, my participation in ministry renewed my sense of purpose and reminded me of how vital my role is in the body of Christ.

After reflecting on this, I realized that the most successful disciple makers are parents who genuinely love and nurture their children. I feel overwhelmed when I consider how much my mom served me, and how she laid down her own ambitions to see me succeed. In Argentina, many successful pastors treat their disciples the way my parents treated me.

Contrary to some church growth literature, I believe my being makes better disciples than my doing. Being is who we are; doing is what we do. Someone’s being is who he is at the core. He may be confident or insecure, or proud or humble. Someone can be in leadership and still not be a leader. On the other hand, someone may not be in leadership; yet, everyone looks to him for leadership.

For example, I remember the first time I met Tommy Barnett, pastor of the 15,000-member Phoenix First Assembly of God Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Barnett’s being was magnetic to me. I sensed love and encouragement from him. He had such confidence and holiness that I sensed I was in the presence of a man of God. It did not matter how he did his ministry. What mattered was who he was. His being permeates everything he does.

In my opinion, Barnett’s being, more than all the outreach programs, helped him reach his community for Christ. A church can have good outreach programs, but without God’s presence and leaders who love, no one will follow.

Jesus’ Discipleship Involved Holistic Transformation

The chapel theme for the entire first year I studied at Fuller was, “What Is the Gospel?” After hearing every speaker preach on this topic, I began reflecting and asking the Holy Spirit what the good news of Jesus is.

Later, I noticed that the Greek New Testament translates the word sozo as salvation, but sometimes sozo also refers to physical healing, wholeness, or completeness. For Jesus, sozo seemed to imply a restoration of the whole person.

The most successful disciple makers have experienced sozo in its entirety. They have experienced spiritual salvation, but they also have experienced emotional and psychological wholeness as well. In the New Testament Jesus helped people become right socially and psychologically. The most successful disciple makers are blessed with spiritual, emotional, psychological, relational, and physical wholeness. This prepares them to become full of the Holy Spirit and full of God’s love and forgiveness.

Carlos Annacondia, the famous Argentine evangelist, says the North American church does a great job of leading people to accept Christ, but fails in getting them delivered or in helping them progress in sanctification and transformation.

In my spiritual journey, it took me 2 decades to realize that Jesus probably meant more than just spiritual salvation when He used the word sozo. Personal, spiritual salvation is important, but Jesus’ kingdom rule also extends to every area of one’s life, and every part of society.

For example, when I started hearing God’s voice, it came as a whisper. In my desperation for more of Him, I carefully obeyed all He said. Then, one night last year, I awoke from a prophetic dream and heard the audible voice of God. It came from inside of me and filled my being. It seemed God used a megaphone to speak to me from inside my chest.


Healthy disciple makers produce healthy disciples. No matter what program God has us use, we need to always follow Jesus’ example of relational discipleship. Relational discipleship involves means both the disciple maker and the disciple simultaneously interfacing with one another and God. There is an organic nature in which people yield to and obey the Holy Spirit through the process. The opposite approach would involve gathering disciples in a room and having an instructor inundate them with doctrine and theology to memorize.

George Otis, Jr. gives an interesting example of this. He visited a church in Columbia that had 1,000 new converts per month for 40 consecutive months. He kept asking about the church’s outreach strategies, but the pastors did not understand what George was asking. They kept pointing to the prayer room and saying, “We pray 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.”

At first, George thought his translator was not communicating correctly. But the Holy Spirit helped George see that the problem was not with the translator or the pastors, but with him. He was asking a question embedded with North American assumptions. So, George changed the question. He asked how often the pastors went to tell people about Jesus. The puzzled associate pastor responded, “We never leave the church. Every day, so many unsaved people come to the church asking how to become followers of Jesus that we do not have time to leave the church.”

This church has no evangelism or discipleship strategy. Their only strategy is to pray, worship, seek Jesus 24 hours per day, and encourage new converts to do the same. Discipleship for these new believers is to model their lives after their pastors and other church leaders.

The Secret

People become great disciples when the disciple maker is fully yielded and obedient to the Holy Spirit. Like Barnett, great disciple makers do not strive to copy someone else. They become the person God wants them to be. Every day they grow more sanctified, transformed, and conformed to God’s image. They have relinquished control and have chosen to yield to and obey the Holy Spirit.

In the Old Testament, Samuel anointed David king more than one decade before David succeeded Saul on the throne. During this time, God stripped David of his pride and self-reliance. David learned to depend on God while faithfully tending the sheep. When it was God’s timing for David to lead, God brought David to the throne.

We do not need to strive. We do not need to manipulate people to follow us. We only need to faithfully follow Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s guidance so we disciple the people God sends us the way He wants them discipled.

Tommy Tenney once spoke on the Hebrew word chabod. We translate this word glory, but the word means weightiness. Tenney told a story about an extremely overweight person who was afraid to sit because the chairs sometimes break. God’s presence can be so heavy in many leaders’ lives that there is no place to sit. God longs to dwell among us, but He ends up visiting and leaving because many leaders do not fully yield to the Holy Spirit. Their character does not create a solid enough foundation where the Holy Spirit can sit and dwell with them.

During Tenney’s message, God spoke to me. He asked if I would die to myself and become a person like King David described in Psalm 27:4 — a person who longs for His presence more than anything else.

This is the essence of disciple making. Unlike other gods, Jesus died so we could have intimacy with Him. God entrusts leaders who passionately pursue intimacy with Christ God entrusts to disciple others. In Argentina, many leaders are desperate for God’s presence. God responds and not only meets them, but also entrusts them to lead others into His presence.

In Argentina, my life changed because I learned the essence of discipleship — to desperately want more of God and selflessly teach others to do the same. The definition of disciple is a follower. As we follow the King of kings, we become qualified to instruct others — not by teaching theology or doctrine — but by example. This is why in the New Testament Christians were known as followers of the way. Many Argentine pastors have laid down their selfish ambitions and have given their lives to worshiping God. They are helping others walk into their calling and destiny.

Many Argentine pastors and Bible school students have given up everything to follow Jesus — professional soccer careers, money, time, and notoriety. Their mission is not to build their own kingdoms, but to expand the kingdom of the King of kings and Lord of lords. They are like King David who prayed, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).

Seth Zielicke, Los Angeles, California