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A premier pastor of a former generation was mentoring a group of younger leaders of which I was part. During one of his discussions, he mentioned that in the years since he retired from ministry, he had visited over 250 churches all around the country and never had seen a comprehensive discipling system in any of them. He saw this as one of the great weaknesses of the church of today.

In truth, churches are discipling people, but not in the way that produces great results. Instead of a thought through approach that recognizes what it means to teach new believers to obey everything Jesus taught us, both through the Word and through living it out before them, many churches’ discipling process has a catch-as-catch-can feel to it. With no clear guidelines, each new believer has to figure out for him or herself what they need to know. For many, they just look at the lives of the other church attenders and within six months, they have learned all they think they need to know. I wish this was an exaggeration.

This is a major reason why developing your discipling system is so critical. Many people who are currently populating your church have not been well discipled. This is not just true of young believers. People in major leadership roles often have serious deficiencies in their learning to obey everything Jesus taught. When you realize that the goal of discipling is to lead believers towards ongoing transformation into the image of Jesus, then you will begin to take the need to develop your discipling approach very seriously. It should never be left to chance nor should you believe that the disciple will discover what he or she needs to know without your guidance.

Here are some major questions you have to ask about your discipling process to develop it well:

  • What are the necessary pieces of our discipleship process?
  • Where in our church life do we do the pieces in our discipleship process?
  • How do we do the pieces of our discipleship process?
  • How often do we offer each piece of our discipleship process?
  • Who is responsible for each piece of our discipleship process?

Discipling is the second half of the Great Commission. Clearly, merely guiding someone to believe and be baptized is not the end of the process of making disciples. Like evangelizing, your ultimate goal is to create a discipling culture, where everyone is not only seeking to grow in their knowledge of God and His grace, but are putting it out there for all younger believers as well. Although you may develop group training components for certain parts of your process, people learn to follow Jesus from other followers (and not just the pastor!).

Critical to long-term success of any discipling process is awareness that most—not all—discipleship material starts with four assumptions. These assumptions, if not realized and addressed, will produce weaker disciples who will someday and in some way question their faith. These four assumptions are: 1) New believers understand the process of sanctification, which is the work of the Spirit in their lives, saving them from the power of sin. This is so often assumed that some materials never even mention it. 2) New believers automatically trust God with their lives. Surprisingly, many do not and do not even know why. 3) New believers believe the Bible has complete authority to guide them. Most new believers have precious little biblical knowledge and have been exposed to cultural debates denigrating what the Bible says on numerous subjects. Yet much discipleship material plunges new believers right into looking up biblical passages, expecting them to accept scriptural truth. 4) New believers understand and embrace a biblical worldview—God is creator of all and reigns over His creation, evil in the world is the result of rebellion, humankind and the world itself has been affected by this fall, etc.—after confessing faith. This is wishful thinking. Seek materials that address these issues if you want to develop strong disciples.

And don’t just think in terms of adults. I was personally challenged a number of years ago by a teacher who reminded his class that we often reserve discipling for adult believers. He pointed out that churches had the opportunity to invest years of discipling into children and teens who grow up within the congregation. But often churches fumbled on this, having no comprehensive plan beyond teaching children Bible stories or the teens a lot of the ‘how to’ issues that come up for them. I pass on his challenge to think through a clear discipling pathway for your non-adults or you will see the tragedy that happens in too many churches, kids leaving the faith because it is not their faith. And while they may return years later, they still will lack discipling in their lives.

The task is to develop new believers from the acorn to the oak. I find that this is the hardest system for most leaders to put together because very few of them have ever been through a discipling process themselves. So they have no template to look back on to guide them in putting this system together. I have had this statement confirmed over and over by pastors with whom I work. However, once pastors develop a discipling process, they find it is one of the easiest systems to implement.