While pastoring I developed what I still call the acorn-to-the-oak approach to discipling. I had come to understand that unless I was deliberate about taking people we baptized and leading them through a clear process of disciple making, many would never, on their own, grow up into maturity. I enlisted the help of already maturing believers in my congregation, training them how to do this with me. We saw many people go from babies to co-workers as a result.
Most pastors I know are bombarded regularly with the opportunity to buy into someone’s discipleship program. And some programs are quite good, even extensive, even though they differ from each other. Some are pretty labor intensive with a lot of one to one mentoring. Others are heavy on group training in the classroom. How do you determine which is right for your church? Or should you develop your own process and write your own materials?
Evaluating or creating a discipleship process starts with the realization that there is no one right way to make a discipling system. Whichever way you go on this, however, there are four key steps you need to take to make sure you have the system that will help produce the kind of disciples that are pleasing to God.
First, be intentional. A discipleship system will never be built unless it is developed by someone who is determined to see it established. Do not go at it half-heartedly and settle for what a friend used to refer to as a ‘good enough for government work’ model. This thing called discipleship is such a high priority that Jesus gave it as part of his ‘final’ instructions for his team before he ascended to the right hand of the Father. If it isn’t happening under your leadership, you are not paying it the attention that Jesus meant for you to give it.
Second, do the work to understand what a disciple looks like. I find that many leaders want to shortcut this step and just implement whatever discipleship process they can lay their hands on. But face it, you would never build a house to live in that way. You would want to see the plans to make sure that the house you were going to build was fitting and met the requirements you had for a home. You do not want the builder to get to the final stages and discover that there is no bathroom, that the kitchen is to double for a spare bedroom or that the master bedroom has no closets. Without taking the time to assess the biblical materials about what disciples are to be and do, you are building blind.
I encourage leaders to meet together and go through the Bible together in discussing this issue. How should the lives of believers line up with what Jesus said, as echoed by Paul, John, Peter and the other New Testament writers? One resource that I recommend to help in this process is The Journey Guide by Ralph Neighbors. This short book can give you ideas of the life changes a disciple needs to be exposed to. Make your own list and discuss the ways in which your church will help new believers learn these life lessons. This will prevent gaps in your discipling process and help you avoid producing weak followers.
Third, pay careful attention to what Paul lays out in Ephesians. I contend that Paul wrote Ephesians as a discipling letter for the people who had come to faith since he had concluded his 2 ½ years of ministry there. The letter’s structure is revealing about what matters in discipleship. For the first half of the letter, he concentrates on what God has done through Jesus and the work of the Spirit. It is all about knowing God intimately. It is only after he covers this foundational truth that he proceeds on to speak about how the life is to be lived out—worthy, differently, in love, light and wisdom. Living the life culminates in the place where living the life cannot be faked—in the home. The final section of the letter focuses on how to stand firm in spiritual warfare.
Why I bring this up is that many—too many—discipleship programs start in the middle of Ephesians and never, never address the foundational truths of how the power to live the life and engage in spiritual warfare comes from intimacy with God. Beware of this as you evaluate what your new disciples need. You can teach them to worship, to tithe, to study the Scripture for themselves, to serve out of their giftedness, to gather with others regularly. But if you do not lay the foundation of intimacy with God, you are building their spiritual life in the air. Someday, it will all come crashing down. Think carefully about this so that the disciples that you make come to know God and not just know about Him.
Fourth, avoid making discipleship into merely a classroom experience. People do not learn how to live the life from information alone. It is important that they learn the truths of the Bible and sound doctrine. But the life is caught as much as it is taught. Make sure that discipleship is ‘lifed’ out as well. Don’t just teach them in the class what they need to know to give a witness. Let someone take them out to share their witness. Don’t tell them what the Bible says about generosity. Put those who are generous before the congregation—not to brag, but to testify to the grace of God in their lives. Balance out the need for a new disciple to learn with their mind and to see for themselves that this life really exists.
Go and make disciples.