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I learned how to disciple others out of necessity. I was in my first year as a pastor and realized I knew zilch (technical term for ‘nothing’) about the process because I had never been discipled by another person. I had ‘learned’ how to follow Jesus through reading Christian books, sermons, Sunday School lessons and those famous all night youth lock-ins. I probably absorbed more from watching my parents live out the faith—which is as it should be. But no one ever took me under his or her wing and intentionally invested time in teaching me to walk as Jesus did. As a result, I had no pattern to follow when I started to work with new believers coming to faith as adults. I read everything I could on discipleship, used the most popular materials available at the time and learned both from my mistakes and God’s leading how to guide someone into deeper intimacy with and obedience to Jesus.

Helping people learn to live the life by pursuing God was addictive. I decided when I came to Florida to plant a new church that I would teach others how to do what I had been practicing for the first ten years of ministry. I remember recruiting my first disciplers. I had a core of early 30-something-year-old leaders emerging already in the second year of the church’s existence. Just as I had never been formally discipled myself, none of these leaders had been either. They were game to try, but a little apprehensive. “How are we supposed to do this? How long will it take to raise up a maturing disciple? What if the new believer we are discipling doesn’t prepare?” were their questions during the training. I told them to trust what the Spirit shows them and that they would do fine. And they did. This made all the difference in the growth of our church.

If you want to have a robust discipling system, one to one discipling is an important approach that you will want to develop. It may not be the whole of what you do, but without having people able to guide others, you are handicapping your discipleship process. Why is this so? One reason is that people need to be exposed to both the cognitive and relational aspect of the faith. Hearing the Word without being exposed to someone doing the Word often falls short in its life impact. People need the gospel with skin on it, so to speak. Another reason this matters is that people progress in the faith at different speeds. A one class lecture that fits all does not exist. One to one discipling allows new believers to ask their questions and understand how God’s truths apply to their personal situation at the pace they are ready to hear.

Many churches recognize one to one discipleship as being one of the best approaches for guiding new believers to maturity, but have no idea how to cultivate a team to do this in their congregation. Here are some early steps that can help you if you choose to intentionally start such a team.

Choose people who are going somewhere with God, even if they are not fully mature. Ying Kai and Steve Smith (another one, not me) wrote T4T, which is about a discipleship revolution in a part of Asia where people were not so much discipled as they were trained to be trainers, which is what the book title means (Training 4 Trainers). What Ying discovered as he was being used to start a church planting movement in his country, was to expect people to do what they were being taught—witnessing, devotion to God, prayer, etc., then expect them to immediately begin teaching others to do what they were doing. This led to the rapid multiplication of both disciples and leaders.

While new believers also need sound doctrine to soak into their minds, walking as Jesus walked is transferable at a very early stage of the discipling process. So do not discount how God can use people who are in your congregation as disciplers. If they are showing that they are going somewhere with God, recruit them to guide others. Remember that discipling another person often pushes the discipler further on ahead in his or her own faith.

Choose portable materials. A common mistake that is made in starting discipling is in choosing materials that require a Bible degree to use. If your goal is to train trainers, then you want to put materials in their hands that the learner will be able to lead someone else through when they are asked to be a discipler. Remember that using simple materials does not mean they should lack depth. Instead, use materials that can easily be understood and mastered by a young believer.

What helped me in choosing materials was learning to think like a new believer. I was brought up in church and all my life I had been exposed to biblical truths. I learned to listen to those I was discipling to figure out what I was assuming they knew (which they did not) and what would best help them gain understanding of the faith. If you have never discipled a new believer personally, take the time to chat with several of those who are new to the faith to discover this for yourself.

Make it simple. When I started teaching disciplers how to do it, I emphasized that they were preparing the new believers with whom they were working to become disciplers. So the goal was not for them to teach by lecture, but by questions. I taught them four questions that they were to use each time they met with the person they were discipling.

  1. What did you learn? Assuming that we are raising up disciplers, I want the new believer to tell the discipler what they learned in studying the lesson they are on instead of being told by the discipler its content. This pushes them to prepare more diligently, allows them to retain more and prevents them from coasting. If they are uncertain about the lesson or skipped important issues, the discipler can then fill in the blanks.
  2. What questions did this lesson raise for you? In a healthy discipling relationship, the learner will have questions that the discipler will address. Sometimes the questions did not come from the lesson itself. If the discipler does not know how to answer a particular question, he or she will promise to come the next time with an answer.
  3. How will you apply this to your life? Nothing is really learned until it is lived out. This question pushes the disciple to figure out how the new truth he or she has learned is to be lived out personally. This also becomes the point of follow up. How are they pursuing God in intimacy? Did they share their witness? Did they establish a time of prayer? Etc.
  4. How can I pray for you? This question allows the discipler to close the time together with the right focus. Even though the new disciple is getting maybe an hour a week of the discipler’s time, God is the one who sustains them on their faith journey.

Go and make disciplers!