November 18, 2015

By Eddie Pipkin

Don’t you love going to Ikea?  They have it all.  You tour the showroom, plop on the furniture, hold things in your hands, see a completed vision for what a room is supposed to look like, then follow the maps to pick up everything you need and take it all home for a session of stylish and economical DIY triumph, made possible by those infamous easy-to-follow pictographs.

Developing a successful framework for discipleship is certainly more complicated than that (and begins with a foundational understanding that we don’t actually make disciples anyway—God does).  But we are called as leaders to provide the framework, opportunities, and the educational resources to support what God is doing, and there is much we as the church can and should do to make the pathway to maturity as a disciple as navigable as possible.

It’s a process that leaders of the church have been working to refine for two thousand years, and there is so much material out there, so many good sources of ideas, that it’s hard to keep it all straight.

Since one of the cornerstone principles of the Membership to Discipleship book is that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” approach for individual congregations, I thought it would be a good idea to gather together in one place all of the very best thinking on discipleship.   We offer a historical summary on the best approaches that organized Christianity has had to offer. (These include Jesus’ approach to nurturing disciples—the very place the term discipleship originated, Paul’s approach, the approach of the earliest Christians as the church was being formed, and, of course, John Wesley’s structured and highly successful “method” for nurturing and empowering followers of Christ.)

We mix in the very best current thinking about discipleship and how it can be adapted to the current culture of our congregations, sharing ideas from Ogden, Rees, Barna, Van Yperen, Gumbel, Farr, Kotan, Anderson, McNeal, Bandy, Willard and many more.

We offer tools for getting an honest assessment of where the members of your congregation are at this particular moment in time in their discipleship journey, and we lay out flexible options for building a clear pathway for growth toward maturity (with lots of practical examples, as well as charts and graphics that make the concepts easy to grasp and apply).

I’m fond of Stephen Covey’s famous admonition to “begin with the end in mind.”  Membership to Discipleship—in every chapter, all through the process—keeps the goals (large and small) crystal clear.  Our ultimate goal, of course, is to respond to the Great Commission by producing mature followers of Jesus Christ, and it is helpful to clearly define when a disciple has reached maturity, which we can actually do, because we know that mature disciples can be recognized by how they:

  • Live lives honoring God in the ways they work, play, and engage others.
  • Intentionally build relationships in order to be Christ to someone.
  • Take responsibility for their own spiritual growth.
  • Disciple someone else, helping them move toward maturity.
  • Use their gifts and talents to serve others.
  • Live within margins in order to bless others.

The specific path that these Christ-followers take as they travel the long and amazing discipleship journey is as varied as the individuals who embark upon it.  But to give them the best opportunity for success, we have detailed specific needs that are common at each phase of development:

  • In the searching phase, as individuals seek meaning in their lives, we need to provide relationships of acceptance, engagement, and empathy.
  • In the exploring phase, as individuals actively engage the faith community looking for answers, we need to provide an environment of welcome and honest conversation.  We partner with them in helping them navigate our particular faith community.
  • In the beginning phase, as they make the leap of faith to follow Christ and need help understanding what’s next, we need to provide them with a clear set of expectations.  We need to give them an organized path to understanding and implementing the basics of faithful living.
  • And in the growing and maturing stages, we need to partner them with more experienced travelers on the spiritual journey, connect them more deeply with communities of accountability, and give them fresh challenges to develop their discipleship muscles.

In all these phases we are intentional and strategic (and offer lots of nuts and bolts ideas).  But the Membership to Discipleship book is not a rigidly defined template, featuring only one model for a congregational pathway to discipleship.  Most of the time when we read the latest book about discipleship or attend the featured discipleship seminar, we are getting one person’s exclusive perspective or approach.  One of the epiphanies I had while developing this material in real-life settings and working with church leaders, is that you can’t shoehorn every congregation into a one-size-fits-all approach.  It just doesn’t work.  Congregations are as different as the communities in which they live.  So, what we have set out to do is not give leaders a turnkey solution to the discipleship challenge, but rather the tools for building their own organic process.

Thoughtful questions, honestly and courageously considered, are a big part of that process. For instance:

  • Can the members of your congregation easily identify the options that are available to them for discipling partnerships?  Is there a clear, navigable path for those who want to focus on growth?
  • What systems of accountability are in place within your congregation?  For leadership, to keep them focused on growing disciples?  For the congregation, to remind them that they are called to grow as disciples?
  • What resources do you have available to ‘prime the pump’ for those who are interested in growing as disciples?  Materials?  Reading lists?  Web resources?  Classes or seminars?  Ways to connect directly to explore discipling partnerships?
  • Can you state with confidence—can you show with an easy-to-understand graph or chart—the pathway of discipleship growth for your people?
  • Do you have a plan with clear goals or are you doing what many churches do, just sort of winging it with a hodgepodge of classes and programs?  How does the plan you have reflect the uniqueness of your setting and your people?

If reading—and answering—those questions produces within you a longing to unlock the power of deeper discipleship within your congregation, we have compiled the resources of Membership to Discipleship for you.  We, too, are excited about the potential of God’s people, reinvigorated and repurposed.

Find out how to get your own copy of the book, Membership to Discipleship, and related resources today.

You can add your own stories, challenges, and questions in the Comments section below.