The Church has been given a risky mission; or rather, Christians have been invited to partner with God to accomplish a divine mission. Jesus summarized that mission in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples.” There are many “how to” articles and books on how to make disciples but very few that explain the great risks. In his infinite wisdom God has entrusted a tremendous responsibility to very flawed beings, beings prone to making mistakes.
The dangers inherent in making disciples are not dissimilar to driving a car or piloting an airplane. Accidents happen due to human error. Just like a young driver learning behind the wheel, a young discipler has to begin somewhere. There are risks; we are prone to making mistakes during the learning process and even after years of experience. My goal here is not to talk about the dangers of our Christian mission itself, but rather to address the human element of the Church’s mission. Discipleship is risky because we are part of the process. In this article I want to describe three errors we are prone to make.
Leading Without Following
I subscribe to magazines and blogs on discipleship, I’m part of multiple Facebook groups on discipleship, I attend conferences on discipleship every year, and I regularly teach a class on discipleship; and still, I hardly ever hear anything about disciplers themselves being followers. Disciples? Yes, of course they are followers. But disciplers? Are they not the leaders?
It is a common falsehood that discipling is all about teaching someone else how to follow Jesus. Don’t get me wrong; leading someone else to follow Jesus is part of discipleship but not everything. Leading someone else is not even the first part. Discipleship begins by following—the discipler being discipled. This is how the Apostle Paul describes himself in 1 Cor. 11:1, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Which took place first: Paul leading the Corinthians or Paul following Christ? It’s obvious. Every discipler must first be a follower. The error to which we are prone is that we will attempt to lead someone else without being followers ourselves. Obviously, followers of Christ is our first priority. Our error occurs most frequently when we fail to allow others—elders, mentors, peers—lead us.
If you are thinking about discipling someone else, the first thing you should do is find someone to disciple you, if someone isn’t already.
The Apostle Paul expresses awareness of this issue. In 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul says that he is first a follower of Christ. But there is more to the story of Paul the Follower than that. In Galatians 2 Paul tells us that after he spent time with Jesus in the wilderness (Gal. 1:12), he went up to Jerusalem and spent time with the other apostles “in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (Gal. 2:2). In other words, Paul spent extended time comparing his understanding of Jesus with that of the other apostles to ensure that they were on the same page. This was an essential step in Paul’s apostleship. In fact, without it, he would not have been able to say to the Corinthians, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
If you are thinking about discipling someone else, the first thing you should do is find someone to disciple you, if someone isn’t already. The reason this is so important is because discipleship isn’t about teaching someone how to follow me, but how to follow Jesus. If I am not consciously and continually aligning myself with the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before me, what makes me think it will be Jesus to whom I am pointing my disciples? If you are a pastor looking for a discipler, you should look either to a more experienced pastor, or to a peer who loves and respects you enough to tell you like it is and not just what you want to hear. In fact, if you think about it, you may already have a friend like that, someone who challenges your understanding of how to follow Jesus. If so, there is some discipleship taking place there. Call it what it is.
Teaching Without Learning
We often think of discipling in terms like teaching, modeling, mentoring, setting an example, and so on. Discipleship certainly includes those things, but it is more than that. In fact, to imagine discipleship as only those activities is to make both the first error described above and the error suggested here. A discipler is as much a learner as a teacher. Every good teacher knows that you must first be a good learner.
Discipleship is not all about the disciple’s growth; it is also about the discipler’s growth. When the Apostle Paul describes various ministry roles in Ephesians 4:11—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—he adds that these roles are for the building up of the body of Christ, the Church. But what he says next is crucial for discipleship: “until we all attain…to maturity” (4:13) and “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head” (4:15) and “when each part is working properly, it makes the body grow” (4:16). I emphasize the pronouns and collective noun here to show that the ministry of the church (i.e., discipleship) is not one-directional. Discipleship is about helping the entire body of Christ to mature and strengthen. Each discipler has as his aim not only his own personal growth but also the growth of his disciple.
Discipleship is not all about the disciple’s growth; it is also about the discipler’s growth. A discipler is as much a learner as a teacher.
Perhaps the most frequent way a discipler makes this error is by failing to listen. In the annual Discipleship Conference held at the church I pastor, I have come to believe that we need a session exclusively on listening every year. One doesn’t learn without listening, observing, reflecting, and emulating. Yet continually I see disciplers doing far more talking than listening and, consequently, far more teaching than learning.
Meeting Without Gathering
What has been your discipleship experience? Perhaps something like this: Meet at a coffee shop, bring your Bible, talk one-on-one for an hour or so, then close with prayer together. If so, well done, but your discipleship experience is lacking and may even be unhealthy. If it’s gone on that way for a long time, the disciple or discipler may have developed a co-dependent discipleship relationship. I’ll talk about that in a different article later. My point here is that discipleship includes one-on-one meetings, but that’s not all discipleship includes. Discipleship is also a gathering. Discipleship is a church effort, by which I mean, discipleship is a community of God effort.
If a disciple’s growth experience is always about one-on-one meetings and never about corporate gatherings, they are not experiencing what God has provided for them—namely, the Church. Even if many of us experience regular one-on-ones, we need community to grow. Limiting our discipleship experience to coffee with a friend is like taking the same medicine for every ailment. One-on-one is a great way to start, but a terrible way to end.
Discipleship is about creating deep relationships with Christ and his Body, the Church. One-on-one is a great way to start, but a terrible way to end.
Admittedly, it is far easier to disciple one-on-one than to join in a community effort. For one, like the old adage says, everyone’s responsibility is nobody’s responsibility. Suggesting that discipleship is a corporate effort is a dangerous idea. It risks new converts and old converts falling through the cracks while everyone expects someone else to do something about it. This is not say that we should dispense with coffee shop discipleship. One-on-ones are a wonderful way to introduce a person to Christ and to his Church. It is a great first-level effort.
It is more difficult to take a disciple to the next level: the gathering level. Reaching this level doesn’t mean abandoning your one-on-one meetings; rather, it means that one is bringing more iron to sharpen iron. Discipleship is about creating deep relationships with Christ and his Body, the Church. It is not all about meeting; it is also about gathering. A disciple will not likely learn how to become a spiritual parent themselves until they have gained an appreciation for the gathering of the Church. If you are discipling someone who doesn’t yet appreciate the gathering of the Church (perhaps their attendance is sporadic), don’t make the error of overlooking the role of the Church in discipleship.
Research in the book Sticky Faith (Kara Powell and Chap Clark, Zondervan, 2011) shows that young people who have developed five meaningful relationships with adults in their local church are far more likely to stay in the church than otherwise. I believe the same is probably true for new converts and old converts as well.
In trusting this great responsibility of discipleship to us, God also gives us mentors to follow and learn from and gatherings that are means of grace for our own soul. After twenty-five years of discipleship ministry I find that I need to be reminded of these common errors. I’ve made them and experienced the consequences. I’ve also found that they tend to occur together. One who is not following is likely not to be learning either. And when we are neither following nor learning from others, our gatherings are impoverished. If you are a new discipler, keep these in mind. If you have been discipling for some time, you have probably experienced all of these and hopefully have recognized them as mistakes. On the flip side, keep in mind that we are merely one part of God’s vast plan to save souls. Our errors won’t cause God’s mission to fail, but avoiding these errors means reaping greater benefit for our own soul.