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Everything I’ve Learned About Discipleship

April 5, 2013

I learned by doing it wrong

Ok maybe everything is a stretch, but the biggest and most helpful lessons I’ve learned have come through my mistakes.

I cannot recall ever coming to the end of my time with a student and thinking, “I would do that exactly the same.”

So what you read here is not the wisdom from a seasoned pro with a polished system. Instead you have a seasoned pro at making mistakes and, by God’s grace, learning from them.

Through this process I hope to pass on a few gems that have really made a difference in my ministry. Hopefully they will be helpful to you too.

Mistake 1: Discipling one-on-one

When I began in full-time ministry almost 17 years ago, I always met students one-on-one.

I can distinctly remember one student I met with weekly.  This is how many of our discipleship appointments began:

Me-  “Alright, you ready to get started talking about our book?”
Student- “Well, I, uh, didn’t really get the reading done this week.”
Me- “It was only 10 pages. Of a Max Lucado book. I don’t know if there is an easier read.”
Student- “Yeah, sorry, it’s been a crazy week. It won’t happen again.”

After discovering we didn’t have much to discuss (I’m bugged, he’s embarrassed) we would just take a walk together around beautiful Fayetteville, Arkansas.  We took a lot of walks that year.

From that point on, most of my discipleship relationships have been a One-on-Two or One-on-Three. With this size, I have found that amazing dynamics take place.

It builds in healthy peer-pressure.

Since I started discipling in groups, it has been very rare that someone would show up without stuff done.

He or she doesn’t want to be the one who slacked off (not the greatest motivation but, hey—how many of our students do the right things for the right reasons all the time?).

Since the other guys in the group are around the same age, in the same stage of life, and they were able to complete it, it provides accountability from the other members of the group.

It makes discussions much easier.

One-on-one discussions sometimes feel like a drive through window conversation.  Someone talks, the other responds, repeat.

In a group, all I need to do is light a spark and the conversation takes off from there.

I also humbly need to realize that as I grow older, it may become more difficult for me to relate to college students. Having other peers in the group brings a comfort level that encourages participation.

They minister to each other.

Because they are at a similar stage of life, they bond easier. As they bond with each other, the amount of ministry to each other increases.

One of the greatest joys in ministry is to see glimpses of your disciples transforming the lives of each other and those outside your group.

Mistake 2: Making it too complicated

I’ve heard some pretty lengthy descriptions about what discipleship is, and what it isn’t.  But when I look at the Scriptures, I don’t see many lengthy descriptions just a few simple ideas:

“A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.”(Luke 6:40, NASB)

“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NASB)

My definition is simple- helping someone become more like Christ.

However, just because it is simple to define, doesn’t mean it is simple to produce or reproduce.

Making disciples must contain obedience to all Jesus taught, a commitment to love God and others unconditionally, a passion for all nations, dedication to personal holiness, boldness in evangelism, and commitment to reproduce reproducers. I could go on but you get the picture. (Mt 22:37, 28:19-20).

We cannot simply teach these things, we must model it for our disciples.

If we want them to look like Christ, then we must look like Christ first. It’s a tall order, but not for God who is working in us.

Mistake 3: Making it high pressure

In discipling others, I often felt as their spiritual leader, that my “followers” were expected to show up whenever I gave them a call.

Sometimes I just wanted to hang out. Other times there was a pressing ministry opportunity and I would get bummed when they could not or would not join me.

These issues have almost completely gone away as I set up levels of expectations for the time we spend together on the front end.

  • Level 1: the discipleship meeting—don’t miss! When I form a discipleship group, everyone comes together and decides on a time that works for them to meet.  Then I stress to them that they better be in the hospital if they are going to miss it!
  • Level 2: serving opportunity.  One of the most important things you can do is serve along side your disciples. I tell my disciples that if I call them with an opportunity, they are expected to be there, unless they already had something planned. In other words, if they are playing XBOX, or don’t feel like serving, that is not an excuse to miss.  But if they did have something already planned for that time, there is no pressure at all to show up.
  • Level 3: hang out.  Everyone I disciple, I consider a friend (John 15:15). There are times I just want to hang out with them, with no agenda, just being together.  Here the disciples are free to decline for any reason whatsoever.

 Mistake 4: Make it about something else

I am shocked at how long it took me to learn this one: the best curriculum is the Bible!

Is there a place for other books? Sure they have their place.  But to put it into a college perspective, it should be like having a major and minor. Always major in the Scriptures, and minor in other books if they have specific interests or struggles.

Teaching them to feed themselves on God’s Word is one of the most important things you will ever do for your disciple.

We have a simple Bible study method that we encourage our students to use.  The basic premise is that you choose a book of the Bible, read the same chapter each day for a week, and each day look for something different. (See chart below)

  • Day 1: write down observations they see in the text.
  • Day 2: write down all the questions they have from the text. I tell my students if they are doing a good job they will have an observation from each verse and almost a question from each verse as well.
  • Day 3: answer all the questions they write down without using outside resources! The reason for this is teaching them to listen to the Holy Spirit to explain the verses to them.
  • Day 4: choose one or two of the questions they feel they cannot answer and then go to commentaries or other resources to find the answers.  The goal of this day is teaching them the vast number of resources that are out there to help them.
  • Day 5: write down practical applications from the text, and choose a verse to memorize.

Here is a PDF version of this quiet time worksheet that you can download.

With this, our meeting time becomes a time of sharing what we have found.

I am blown away by what my students find in the scripture on their own.  After they have learned this simple method, they can easily teach others.

It is also easy to adapt the daily objectives to your own ministry context.

It is rare that they will come with all five days complete each week, but if they have completed two days, it is enough for good conversations.

Mistake 5: Too much direction

In our ministry we raise up and equip adult spiritual leaders to disciple our students.

Over the years I have discovered that less is more.

It is a tricky balance between giving them training and direction and allowing them the freedom to keep it highly personal.

Never do I want to limit the Spirit by saying discipleship always looks the same—my way.  Yet we do have some “pillars” of discipleship they can build on.

We encourage them to be organic, personal, and relational. It comes in the form of an acronym that spells a word that doesn’t exist in the English language (but is easy to remember).

  • W – Word: have some type of study in God’s Word, whether our system or another.
  • R – Reproduction: what you give to them should be reproduced in someone else. Ask them with whom they can share what they are learning. In fact, the greatest form of discipleship is finding people who are not already believers and teaching them about following Christ.
  • E – Encouragement: we ask a lot out of our students, so we want to make sure that there is someone specifically encouraging them in their walk.
  • A – Accountability: who is asking them the difficult questions? Who is holding them accountable to God’s Word?  If it’s not happening in discipleship it is probably not happening at all!
  • P – Prayer: imagine if nothing else happened in discipleship except you had someone praying for you every day for an entire year. Do you believe that would affect your life? Yes! So make it a priority!

Though these are relatively simple principles on discipleship (most learned the hard way), they are impossible apart from God.

Jesus promises us in the Great Commission that He will be with us always.

I believe that in this context He is promising to be with us as we go and make disciples.  So realize that, as you make disciples, Christ is there in the midst of it with you.

Reflection Questions

We’ve all made mistakes with discipleship. What is one you might be making? Who could you discuss the issue with?

Do you agree that discipling one-on-one is a mistake? Why or why not?

What is your definition of discipleship? Are really you living up to it? How can you improve?

Are you reproducing students who are make new disciples? Have you ever tried to “make disciples” among mostly unbelievers? Is this reflected in how you train new disciplers?

Brian Pope is a College Pastor for Fellowship Bible Church.