How do we make disciples or followers of Jesus Christ? For that matter, what is a modern-day disciple? What happens if you are alone when you discover Jesus and don’t know anyone familiar with or willing to disciple you? Are you doomed to linger forever in the entrance to faith?
I loved Jesus from a young age and voraciously consumed my Bible. I was a prime discipling candidate, but the adults in my church believed God would grow a person as naturally as toddlers grew into teens; no special mentoring necessary. In my first year of college, I first heard the term “discipled,” as in, “Who discipled you in the faith?” When I replied that no one had discipled me, I felt that my faith’s authenticity was being questioned.
I had read my Bible from beginning to end many times and loved Jesus with a full heart, but I felt ashamed for not being “discipled.” So I tried to obtain discipling through independent study. (Of course, now I realize shame wasn’t what I should feel for having a strong desire to grow but not knowing about all the growth opportunities).
In the campus bookstore, I found a magazine called Discipleship Journal. That seemed like a good place to begin. Next to it was a magazine called The Wittenburg Door. The Door was a satirical magazine not aimed at discipleship. Still, I believe its humor proved a sound balance to the serious Bible teaching I gained from the Navigator’s Discipleship Journal.
My independent study through faith-based magazines exposed me to many perspectives from many different writers. It also let me independently make biblical and theological connections without peer pressure. However, my approach left gaps in my understanding and little challenge to my opinions (which eventually needed fine-tuning by others).
I would have preferred that a mature Christian take me under her wing to disciple me one-on-one. In my later college years, I became part of a group discipleship class where I thrived. Throughout my life, I’ve engaged in one-on-one discipleship and small groups and been independent in-between. Overall, I have to say that in my experience, God watches over His sheep and uses various methods to provide what each of us needs to grow and mature in faith.
What Is a Disciple?
The Bible mentions disciples as a synonym for followers or students of a teacher. The gospels distinguish the twelve apostles (and later, Paul, as an apostle) as a group set apart from the larger following of disciples by specific apostolic gifts.
These followers of Jesus, or disciples, were comprised of people of various ethnicities, genders, economic and educational backgrounds, and former faiths. Disciples leave their former ways and apply a leader or teacher’s ways to their own lives. This is what many people did after hearing the teaching of Jesus.
Between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus left us what we now call “The Great Commission.” It’s recorded in Matthew 28:18-20:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”
Jesus commanded us to live like Him, tell others about Him, baptize them, and teach them to obey Jesus’ commands. Discipling is the part after someone enters a relationship with Jesus, where we help them learn how to live the way the Bible commands us to live. It’s much harder to make disciples than to explain what they are or describe the process through which it happens.
Discipling: Groups, One-on-One, or Independent?
Many churches or faith-based ministries disciple people in groups. They may use a packaged discipling program or work according to the wisdom and guidance of a mature pastor or lay leader.
Some may present the foundational material in a class format with readings, questions on the reading, and formal group discussions. Others may take a more casual and informal approach, conveying all the teaching and information conversationally.
Usually, these groups involve an orderly progression through specific Bible passages that explain our faith’s basics. There will be time for questions and conversation. Leaders encourage participants to apply what they’ve learned during the days between meetings and discuss the results at the next meeting.
Group participants often pray for one another during the session and throughout the week. There may be specific groups in your area for new believers. Once participants complete the curriculum, they are often encouraged to join small group Bible studies for ongoing growth support.
Discipleship material of any form covers the basics about Jesus, the Bible, sin, evil, heaven, forgiveness, the cross, the resurrection, grace, and day-to-day life in Christ. It may also cover spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, worship, fellowship, giving, Scripture memorization, service, and ordinances like baptism, communion, and foot-washing. Some discipleship programs may cover evangelism or denominational specificities.
One-on-one discipleship occurs when a mature believer meets regularly with a new Christian to study specific Bible passages covering the foundation of life in Christ, answer questions, discuss challenges, and encourage Christ-like behavior. The mature believer may utilize a packaged curriculum or simply follow God’s wisdom and answer the new disciple’s questions. This discipling can happen at the start of faith but also may be useful during times of transition, following repentance from a lapse into sin, or recovering from loss or trial.
Independent discipling happens when an individual doesn’t have access to a small group or a mature believer with time to be a mentor. It’s possible to work through a packaged program alone or do the work through an online course. The Holy Spirit may simply guide us in our understanding of faith. However, God designed us to grow in community, so it’s important to stay connected with a group of believers even while choosing independent discipleship for a specific time.
Which Method of Discipling Should You Choose: Group, One-on-One, or Independent?
Many factors can impact how discipling happens in your life. Be sure to consider the following:
1. Since growing in our faith and learning to be like Jesus are lifelong pursuits, every believer may experience discipling in various formats through the years. Stage of life plays a part in choosing a method of discipling. There are times of life when we’re more naturally in groups (such as high school, college, parenting, or in assisted living). Those times may lend themselves to more group-style discipling.
Conversely, while you’re launching into a new career, overcoming a personal loss or trauma, or transitioning to a new location to follow adult children, you may find having a one-on-one mentor for discipling or doing a program independently more conducive to your situation.
2. Circumstances and geography can impact the availability of certain discipling options. In more populated areas, it’s easier to find larger Bible-teaching churches with various small group discipleship options. It can be harder to form groups of like-minded folk in foreign lands, remote areas, and sometimes in rural areas or small towns.
Your circumstances may dictate that you should work with a one-on-one coach or mentor for discipling. You may have an unusual schedule. Maybe you’re new to the faith but attend a church of long-term believers. You may be overcoming specific struggles from your life before Christ, or you have physical, cognitive, emotional, or privacy challenges that make one-on-one discipleship a more effective choice for you.
3. Mature believers’ personalities and availabilities impact discipling options. If you’re sensitive, shy, or prone to require lots of back-and-forth about your individual questions, finding an individual mentor for discipling can be your best option. If you’re social, enjoy learning from others, and are comfortable opening up to others, a small group option could be ideal.
Of course, there need to be mature believers who:
a) believe in discipling
b) are committed to the time required, where you can access them.
Fortunately, with access to the Internet and virtual meetings, even if we don’t have someone in our local faith community, we may find someone doing discipleship online. This will be particularly valuable to those living in remote regions or in areas of the world where it may be unsafe to reveal your new relationship with Jesus.
How Can We Start Making Disciples Today?
The key to discipleship is transformed lives. The Christian faith isn’t just head knowledge but also a life surrendered to the way of Jesus Christ. The primary way we testify to the truth of Christ to others is by transparently and authentically living lives transformed by the gospel.
We can engage others in conversation about spiritual ideas and needs by expressing genuine, compassionate curiosity about their lives and thoughts about faith. As these conversations lead to questions and more robust discussions, we may invite people to study the Bible with us one-on-one or in a small group.
As individuals make commitments to Jesus, it’s then a great time to invite them into a broader understanding of the foundation of faith, the basics of Bible study, and the various Christian practices.
This is how the kingdom of God grows: through the Holy Spirit’s power and Christ’s work, one person disciples another, who disciples the one who comes after them.
While there is always some mystery to salvation and spiritual growth, as well as Holy Spirit’s work, there are also methods and practices for encouraging transformation. That is discipleship.
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Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits. She’s authored six encouraging, unsettling books, including Running from a Crazy Man, The Art of Hard Conversations, and Graceful Influence: Making a Lasting Impact through Lesson from Women of the Bible. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
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