By Eddie Pipkin

We’ve written a lot (a very lot) about accountable discipleship.  If we are the Chick-fil-A of ministry development and strategy, then discipleship resources are our Original Chicken Sandwich with a side of waffle fries.  We have multiple publications and workshops which detail the philosophical approaches surrounding discipleship, practical strategies for building discipleship ministry, and interactive small group guides for living out discipleship.  We have one of the best (and most affordable) tools in the business for assessing the discipleship health of a congregation.  But this week, using the principles of our newest book, Disciple Like Jesus, I want to lay out a specific plan for what a customizable discipleship process might look like for a medium-sized church, leaning into the coaching and mentoring model.  Chances are very high, your church is not taking this approach, so read on if you’re curious.

Three priorities to start:

A congregation should have a clear plan for discipleship development.

  • That plan should strive for transformative growth (changed behavior, not just imparting information).
  • That plan should provide for accountability (discipleship is designed for partnership, in community with other disciples helping one another grow).

A discipleship development plan should provide for multiple options for engagement, so that a given disciple can select the path that fits him or her best.

  • That plan should offer options that feature different learning styles.
  • That plan should offer options that feature different time commitments, schedule options, and levels of study/work.
  • That plan should include options for disciples at different stages of maturity (from exploring discipleship to beginning steps to steady growth to maturity).

A person’s discipleship journey within an individual congregation should be anchored in conversation with a coach, mentor, or guide.

  • A one-on-one, individualized conversation should be a routine part of the discipleship process for every disciple. This can, of course, happen within the context of many existing church structures.  It can happen with pastoral staff or other designated staff.  It can happen with small group leaders (and can also be a consistent part of small group sharing in which multiple individuals are working with their group partners).  It can happen with specially designated and specially trained coaches and mentors.

A person’s discipleship journey should be a customized course of growth. Such journeys will overlap in exciting and productive ways – you and I will participate in classes (which still have a role) and small groups (which definitely still have a critical role) – you and I will share a foundation of shared worship and service and other kinds of community.  But our individual path will be and should be different, unique to our spiritual wiring, skill set, and Spirit infused passions.

  • Our customized, intentional, accountable discipleship path will be revised, updated, tweaked, and adjusted on a regularly scheduled basis. We will celebrate progress and growth.  We will acknowledge setbacks truthfully and learn as we go.
  • Every disciple will learn the principle of “making disciples who make disciples.” Even as we are helped by those further along the path of discipleship than we are, we will be on the lookout to help those we can help who are figuring out their own journey.

Once you’ve established those priorities, you can move on to the nuts and bolts, the “what does that look like” stage.

The congregation and leadership – or more realistically stated, the leadership and then the wider congregation, because that’s the way these things flow – are clear on the values/goals of the discipleship process, and each of those values/goals is reflected in all versions of every discipleship growth opportunity. If that last sentence reads like some gobbledygook, let me break it down:

  • If your congregation, for instance, accepts Excellence in Ministry Coaching’s definition of discipleship’s components as hospitality as lifestyle, worship as lifestyle, obeying Jesus as lifestyle (Scriptural fluency), opening to Jesus as lifestyle (living a Spirit-directed life through prayer), service as lifestyle, and generosity as lifestyle, then every class, small group, event, and occasion, to the extent possible, feature some aspect of each of those components.
  • This is actually less complicated than it sounds. If you’re a small group focused on Bible study, then you become conscious of adding prayer to your routine and challenging the group to get together for a service project periodically.  If you are having a service event, you anchor the start of the day in a brief Scripture study and close it with prayer that celebrates what happened during the event.

How this all looks will be different for every congregation, because every congregation has a unique history, context, and setting.

Let’s say you’re a 100-200 person congregation, and you’re sensing that discipleship development needs an overhaul.  Let’s implement these principles.

  • Leadership identifies and endorses a discipleship plan that incorporates the principles and priorities listed above. (Our latest book, Disciple Like Jesus, provides a great framework for that conversation, just sayin’.  It even comes with a fully resourced small group package.)
  • Leadership communicates this new focus to the congregation through a sermon series and all communication channels. The congregation is challenged to evaluate their own spiritual development progress and growth. (At this point you should definitely engage a spiritual health evaluation tool like the excellent Real Discipleship Survey, just sayin’.)
  • Congregation members (and curious friends) are encouraged to engage in a one-on-one conversation with a spiritual growth guide who can help them think through their customized spiritual growth plan. Such conversations are the starter conversations.  They may or may not lead to a direct connection to a coach or mentor – that may come later – but they get things rolling.  What is required of the conversation leaders at this stage is an overall knowledge of spiritual growth options and a strong sense of helping an interested person navigate those options.
  • All options are clearly identifiable in church communications, including classes and small groups, as well as independent study resources.
  • A dedicated limited-term discipleship small group is offered. (There are lots of options out there – we have a small group package connected to the Disciple Like Jesus materials – we also have a package called, Foundations, which is designed for those just starting out on their discipleship journey).  This designated discipleship limited-term offering (six weeks, for instance) is also offered in virtual format.
  • A guided, independent course of growth is offered: recommended resources to explore on discipleship overall, as well as focused spiritual growth topics (prayer or Bible study or service or generosity, for instance), hopefully in conversation with a spiritual growth guide, although there is also value in a purely independent journey for the true introvert who needs some time to get connected to larger community.
  • Existing small groups and classes are integrated into the process and part of the options for those interested in spiritual growth.
  • There is constant communication that celebrates the ways in which these offerings are generating discipleship growth. Personal witness from participants, sharing their stories of growth through engaging these options, is a regular part of the life of the local church.
  • Throughout this process, pastoral staff, key leadership, and the most spiritually wise folk of the congregation continue to identify and equip men and women who can act as coaches, mentors, and spiritual guides to those joining the journey. The ultimate goal is that everyone who chooses is paired with a partner for regular encouragement and accountability.  Note that some people will resist the one-on-one model, opting instead for a triad or small group, etc.  Some people will only ever feel comfortable exploring the journey with pastoral staff.

More next week: we’ll break some of these points out in more detail.

Meanwhile, what is your discipleship process for your congregation?  Is it organized, intentional, and accountable or a hodgepodge of sincere efforts tossed together willy-nilly?  Share your questions and what you’d like to see us flesh out more as we are considering these concepts.