Principle Centered Ministry — Guiding Principles for Challenging Times

By Phil Maynard and Eddie Pipkin

The “new normal” of the pandemic has changed things a lot, but it has not changed the central mission of the church.  And the central mission of the church could not be clearer. From the words of Jesus himself we are given the imperative:  “Wherever you go, make disciples of all people groups, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that was taught” (Phil’s paraphrase of Matthew 28:19-20). This time of social distancing, restrictions on gathering, uncertainty about the future, health concerns and sense of isolation is not just an interruption.  It is a disruption, and this disruption invites the church to re-think what it means to fulfill the Great Commission. It is an opportunity, if we are able to grasp it.  This week’s guiding principle: The making of disciples of Jesus Christ is the result of a clear pathway toward maturity that is relational, intentional, and accountable.

To accomplish this Great Commission, three significant features must be present to provide a clear and effective pathway toward maturity. These three features were originally modeled by Jesus in the Gospels. They were true before social distancing and virtual connection, and they remain true in our present circumstance:

  • Relationships: Discipleship is a contact sport in the sense that it does not happen in isolation.  One does not go read a book or complete a study and become a growing, maturing disciple.  Jesus models this for us as he takes on the twelve disciples and even more intentionally the inner circle of three (Peter, James, and John).  There may be some teaching of content, but the true formation happens in the relationship where the disciples watch and learn and practice and eventually disciple others.
  • Intentionality: While everything in life has the potential to be addressed as a discipleship issue, a clear pathway makes sure that the basics are in place for a life well-lived as a disciple.  Jesus modeled and taught about these basics in his journey with the disciples.  He engaged them in spiritual practices, helped them become expressions of the hospitality of God, led them in worship, opened the Word of God for them, showed them how to live as servants, and even helped them grasp God’s generosity.
  • Accountability: Accountability is the glue that holds together the knowledge (content) of what is taught and the application (practice) of that knowledge in real life.  While ultimately we are really only accountable to God and to ourselves, the reality in discipleship is that when we allow a partner (mentor, discipler, spiritual friend, teacher, discipleship coach) to check in with us about our progress we are much more likely to actually make progress.  This very Wesleyan idea (class meetings, band meetings of early Methodism) is beginning to find traction once again.

The current and future challenge (opportunity) is to pivot from the usual structures by which we have historically encouraged relationships, intentionality, and accountability. The “normal” way of approaching these features has been our practice for so long that familiarity has too often bred complacency.

Congregations, for decades, have encouraged the making of disciples by focusing on delivering content through preaching, teaching, and small group studies.  While this approach seems logical and can create a self-satisfying feeling that we are generating real progress, the reality is that transformation (the hallmark of true discipleship) doesn’t happen by just sharing information.  We actually have to act on that information and create new habits: we have to apply what we have learned enough times that those new habits become ingrained as automatic, natural behaviors (think neural pathways).

Our traditional small groups/classes offered some opportunity for this transformation to happen but with limited success – it all depends on the quality of the leadership and the commitment to adding the application and accountability components.  In our current new normal, where the relationship and accountability features have largely disappeared with the switch to virtual classes, this is becoming even more difficult to accomplish.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for our congregations to encourage participants to try something new.  What if, in addition to small group classes, participants were offered the opportunity to be in some form of partnering relationship?  There are a variety of forms this could take:

  • Spiritual Friends: Friend who commit to journey with you as you both seek to become growing disciples.  Spiritual friends might commit to meet (even virtually) a couple of times a month and talk about what they are learning and how they are experiencing God at work in their lives, as they are continually supporting and encouraging one another.
  • Triads: These small groups of three persons follow the same pattern as described for spiritual friends, bringing a broadened set of experiences.
  • Mentors: These spiritually maturing individuals partner with more novice disciples to pour themselves into those persons, helping them find their way forward.
  • Apprenticers: These persons with specific skills help those seeking to develop those same skills (e.g. spiritual practices, Bible studies, etc.).
  • Coaches: These persons, equipped with basic coaching skills and models, partner with disciples to help them discover their individual pathways toward maturity.

Imagine the impact on the level of development for disciples in your congregation.  People learning new skills, strengthening their spiritual practices, serving others, and practicing generosity.  Not to mention the impact on the level of pastoral care provided, the encouragement during difficult times, the sense of belonging established, and the level of engagement in your ministries that could result.

Because everything is upended right now, there is no better time to introduce a new approach to discipleship. People are currently open to fresh ideas. Adaptation has become a way to carry on. Plus, people are hungry for new kinds of connections that can fill the need that has been created with the breakdown of their normal outlets for community. There are also people who have extra time on their hands who can help your congregation formulate a plan for developing the kinds of mentoring and coaching connections we highlighted above. It’s a great time to start something new. It can be as simple as taking two steps:

  • Recruiting people who would be willing to serve as a mentor or coach.
  • Asking people if they would be interested in having a mentor, coach, or group of spiritual friends.

Start from there and build a new network of discipleship connections, anchored in relationships with intentional spiritual growth activities and measured by their commitment to accountability.

If you’d like to learn more, we have plenty of resources to help. Or we’re happy to work with you one-to-one to figure out next steps for your specific, local context.  Just drop us an email at

How are you changing up your discipleship systems in this time of social distancing and virtual gatherings? Share your own stories, your challenges and moments of reveleation  We grow by inspiring and challenging one another.