In the last few weeks I have had no less than ten different people ask me to coffee to offer advice on how to approach disciple making. This post is an attempt to catalogue my thoughts on disciple making in the 21st century so that I can email a link in response to future requests.
(Disclaimer: This is only one man’s opinion and that one man is me, not Jesus. So take this for what it’s worth).
1. Establish high expectations up front. Too often Christians are impulsively driven to make disciples. They read a good book on discipleship or they hear a good sermon that breaks down Matthew 28:18-20, or they read a good biography on a disciple maker. And then, they rush out to find someone who needs discipling and jump in. While I applaud the zeal, I would want to caution the approach Many discipling relationships suffer from a lack of expectation. I think it is a good thing to set the bar high during the initial “get to know you” meeting. I generally will tell the guys I disciple some version of this speech:
I would be honored to disciple you. But here is the thing you should know about me. There are much easier mentoring relationships that you can be a part of. I am demanding. I assign homework. I bring a lot to the table. I want to honor the Lord with my time and resources. I expect a lot out of you. I don’t waste my time with guys who are not serious. So just know:
If it appears that you don’t do your homework from the week before, I walk.
If it appears that you want to remain of the world, I walk.
If you miss or cancel our pre-established meetings, I walk.
If you are afraid to risk it for the Kingdom, I walk.
By way of anecdotal evidence, I usually do not have bad discipling relationships because the guys know where they stand with me at all times and know with great detail what I expect from them. I also have found that guys tend to rise to the occasion when I set the bar high. Many of them exceed expectations and go to a place that neither of us were expecting (But God knows what He can do).
2. Set a definite time period. I try not to disciple anyone for more than a year. Mainly, because I want to free up my schedule to disciple as many people as possible and because more than a year of meeting together can be exhausting for both of us. I actually prefer to meet in chunks of 10-15 weeks. I find that the disciplee can maintain a helpful spiritual focus over that time and that time span is conducive to maximum impact.
3. Lead with your story. Tell them how you got saved. Tell them how you’ve grown. Be honest about your successes and failures, with where you are currently struggling on particular church issues, about the complexity that is your life. Often times, disciple makers try to protect their image as a perfect-ish Christian disciple maker. They think that they can only lead from a position of maturity and do so by appearing aloof, upity, and pretentious. Just keep it real. You are making disciples because you are a mature Christian. But you don’t need to be Jesus to the disciplee, you need to be the Christian who is at least one day ahead in followship of Jesus. Be honest about being only one or two days ahead.
4. Carry the tone of a therapist and the conviction of a drill sergeant. I have seen a lot of damage done in discipling relationships because the disciple maker either plays the role of therapist or drill sergeant without consideration of the other.
The Navigators organization could tell lots of stories about this phenomena, since they are an organization of disciple makers rooted in military service and college campuses. Early on, the Navigators were all drill sergeant disciple makers with strict rules and heavy handedness (See Trotman, Dawson). Towards the latter part of the 20th century, as the Protestant spiritual formation movement picked up speed, the Navs got caught up in the discipleship as therapy approach. The result of this imbalance was that discipleship relationships felt like Oprah interviews.
I advocate having the tone of a therapist but the conviction of a drill sergeant. By tone, I mean the way you approach each conversation. After initially setting high expectations, I recommend that you always begin by asking the disciplee to tell you about the subject material of the day. You want to create an open and inquisitive environment where the disciplee feels the freedom to ask hard questions without fear of judgement, shame, or guilt. Remember – the goal of this relationship is to spur them on, not to reinforce your knowledge of the material. Especially if you are working with someone in the Christian South, there is so much cultural baggage, you will most definitely have a moment where the disciplee says, “I feel so silly that I don’t know much about ________.” If you have a drill sergeant tone in this moment of vulnerability, you will close the disciplee off from any and all future honest discussions. And at that point the relationship is functionally over. So you take an Oprah-like approach to the conversation. You make open ended statements. You attempt to draw conclusions out of the disciplee. You ask leading questions. You guide the disciplee to exhaust himself/herself thinking about the topic at hand.
And then, when the disciplee is at the end of themselves in terms of knowledge/ experience on the subject, you step in like a drill sergeant. Confident. Positioned. Clear. Concise. Absolute. You make statements like this: For what it’s worth, here is my position on this issue. BAM. The Bible actually talks about that issue here. BAM.
Often times, I have found that the disciplee will ask me the golden question, “Doug, what is your position on ______?” It is at that moment that I will switch from Oprah to Major Payne and drop some truth bombs on them. But I generally reserve these preachy moments to the times when direct questions are asked about positions. I don’t lead with these preachy moments in order to spur on spiritual curiosity.
The problem with being Oprah all the time is that you never arrive at positions. All you do is ask questions. That kind of discipling relationship suffers from insignificance. The problem with being Major Payne all the time is that, while you have solid positions, you tend to shut your disciplees down spiritually and end up stifling true growth. As a Jesus-led disciple maker, you have to hold both in tension.
5. Be prepared to cover all areas, but only cover the area of need. I personally believe that any disciple of Jesus Christ needs to know “all things” Jesus teaches (Matt 28:18-20). In addition, because we live in the 21st century, disciples need to be able to place themselves into their respective cultural/intellectual location. Accordingly, I am prepared to cover the following areas:
- Survey of Old and New Testament
- Survey of Church History
- Survey of Basic Christian Doctrine
- Bible Study and Exegesis Methods
- Apologetics and Worldviews
- The Basics of the Gospel and Disciple Making
- Communicating the Faith
- Hearing God and Prayer
- Spiritual Disciplines and Spiritual Gifts
- Volunteer Church Leadership and Relationships
While I could create a year-long training program that covers all of the areas, I generally do not recommend such an extensive program for everyone. Instead, I give this list of areas to someone who comes to me for discipleship and ask them to pick one area that they would like to cover. I then try to custom tailor our time together based on their spiritual goals and personality. When we are done with the area, I conclude our time together.