By Eddie Pipkin

Christians identify themselves as followers of Christ.  The term by which we are identified is disciple.  It was used to describe those first literal followers – those who walked from town to town, covered in the dust of the same roads as Jesus walked – and it applies as readily across the generations of believers who have chosen to express their devotion by living lives of adoration and service.  It is a rich and rewarding journey, the journey of discipleship, from the beginnings of belief to the maturity of a fully realized life of faith.  Yet most local churches continue to function without any clearly mapped pathway towards that goal of mature discipleship.  Instead, the spiritual journey continues to be a hodgepodge of disconnected stops.  That’s not how it’s supposed to be, and that’s why the “Discipling Dimension” is key in any plan for congregational development.

[Note: This blog is the fourth in a series outlining the new Excellence in Ministry training, “7 Dimensions: A Coaching Approach to Congregational Development: A transformational coaching approach, partnering with your congregation, to develop healthy, growing, effective ministry in your context.”]

Jesus was very clear that our mission is to “go, make disciples . . . baptizing them and teaching them. . . .”  The United Methodist Church clearly states that its mission is to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

In the Wesleyan (Methodist) tradition, discipleship clearly has three indispensable characteristics.  It is Relational, Intentional, and Accountable.  A strong discipleship pathway in the local church meets people where they are in the journey, points them toward clearly articulated practices for maturity in Christ, and supports their development through appropriate relationships, intentional training, and accountability.

Discussion in the Discipling Dimension invites participants to identify and clearly articulate the steps and commitments made in each phase of development and to provide training and relational support for growth toward the next level as disciples move toward a life fully formed in Christ.

There’s a lot going in on those previous three paragraphs, so let’s break it down:

  • Discipleship is the ongoing exploration of what it means to live a life following Jesus. This is our purpose and our goal.
  • Discipleship is an ongoing process along a spectrum of spiritual maturity. We are called to grow and deepen our sense of discipleship for our entire lives, not to remain static.
  • Not only are we called personally to this journey of discipleship, but we are explicitly called by Jesus to help others along the path of their own discipleship.

There is no bullet-pointed collection of steps for doing these things in a specific chapter of the Bible (although the principle for doing them is founded in Scripture, and the model for doing them is recounted in the biblical narratives of the words and actions of the earliest disciples).  There are two clearly communicated principles from which our discipleship “design” decisions will flow:

  • As individuals, we are personally responsible for taking ownership of our growth as a disciple, as well as for assisting others in their own discipleship quest.
  • As institutions, we bear a sacred responsibility to give those who would follow Jesus the tools and support that are essential to the discipleship journey.

Perhaps it strikes you that I am stating (and re-stating) what appears to be obvious to anyone who has been a Christian or been involved with the organized church for a while.

However, one of the oddities of local church life that stands out most dramatically as we at Excellence in Ministry Coaching travel the country and meet with local congregations is this:

Most local churches still have no clearly communicated pathway for the growth from the first moments of faith to spiritual maturity:

  • There is a paucity of clearly identified and accessible discipleship resources.
  • There is no identified progression of spiritual growth educational opportunities.
  • There is no clear way to connect with accountability partners or spiritual growth guides.
  • There is no narrative reinforcement of the basics of discipleship or the institutional expectations of growth towards maturity (in worship settings, leadership settings, regular communications to the congregation).

Most existing opportunities for spiritual growth in many local congregations continue to be . . .

  • Classes.  This category includes the most classic form of classes: Sunday School.  It also includes small groups in the way they are organized and working in most local congregations, which turn out often to be a version of the old Sunday School classes liberated from the Sunday morning time frame.  Structured curriculum may or may not be the framework that determines spiritual formation (more likely in a Sunday School class than in a small group setting).  Sunday School classes tend to be grouped by age and demographic (in the sense of parents vs. singles, etc.).  Non-Sunday “classes” tend to be identified by specific topic and frequently deal most robustly with spiritual growth topics, including some long-range intensive work such as A Disciple’s Path, etc.  There is rarely, however, an easily identifiable and accessible set of options for steps of growth in spiritual maturity.  It’s an ad-hoc, “get what you can where you can” scenario for most disciples, and churches have particularly struggled to figure out how to offer a clear pathway in a culture in which people are resistant to long-term, immersive studies.
  • Best sellers. Although in classic Sunday School sessions there is still a reliance on standard, old-school Sunday School curriculum (which generally has the benefit of a systematic study of and application of Scripture), the modern relevance test for group topics generally results in selecting from the latest round of Christian publishing best-sellers.  This is often very engaging, thoughtful, and useful material, but it is rare that there is an organization or progression of such material in a way that grows disciples towards maturity in a balanced manner.  One of the things that happens, because materials are often chosen based on leader or group preferences or “hot topics,” is that participants may become experts in one area of discipleship while remaining novices in another.
  • Disjointed small groups. Small groups are often formed as affinity groups, sometimes as demographic groups, sometimes more open-ended and based on the topic (such as a specific book or study); in few cases do local churches feature small groups that do the work of multiplication; if small groups survive, they tend to feature the same long-term core membership.  In very few local settings, is there a clear pathway from one type of group or curriculum to the next on the journey to spiritual maturity.  It is also true that small groups in a local church, even when they are functioning as healthy, independent ecosystems, are often disconnected from one another.  The leadership isn’t coordinated, isn’t plugged into the overall vision of the church (even though they could be a powerful tool if plugged in and part of the plan), and the leaders are not part of a supportive team learning best practices together and supporting one another.
  • Whatever is working for the people who are available. It’s a familiar challenge for any church leaders: the recruitment of people who offer themselves to lead classes or small groups.  Therefore, it’s natural that we tend to defer to the passions of willing teachers and facilitators.  Frankly, they tend to do a better job leading things in which they are already interested – it’s harder work for any of us to lead well on a topic that doesn’t inspire us as much as our pet passions.  This is where training comes in: good training, regular training and reinforcing communication helps group and class leaders succeed in areas essential to discipleship that may otherwise be overlooked.  And yet, such training is largely nonexistent in many local contexts.

For local congregational leadership that wants to address these gaps, here are some useful questions to be honestly considered about the Discipling Dimension:

  • What is the vision for maturity as a disciple in your congregation? How is this articulated and kept fresh as a focus in your ministry?
  • How do the activities and training provided by your congregation align with the stated vision?
  • What types of relational support are provided for discipling relationships? How are persons trained to serve in these roles?
  • What types of small groups (or other classes) does your congregation provide to support intentional discipleship?
  • How do you train and support your small group leaders?
  • How do you help disciples identify opportunities for growth and clear next steps?
  • What expectations are articulated for various levels of development on the discipleship pathway?
  • How are you building a sense of ownership in disciples for their own spiritual growth?
  • How does your congregation support persons exploring the faith?

One of the most tragic moments in the life of any local church is when a new believer is moved by the Holy Spirit to fully engage in the life of discipleship, asks for help, and is left twisting in the wind with half-answers and no clear guidance.

People need a partner or partners at this point in their journey.  Churches need mentors, sponsors, discipleship coaches, small group leaders, and spiritual directors.  These people should be identified, trained, and ready for action in the local congregation.  Yet so few churches systematically approach this vital work.  Many of us have personally stumbled into fortuitous relationships that have served these roles.  But many others have not been as blessed to find wise and thoughtful partners and have wandered off into the spiritual weeds without guidance and support.

Discipling should be a systematic process.  Discipling leaders (whatever form they take – and there are many, many possible forms) should be nurtured, trained, equipped, and supported.

Preparing local churches for this good work is a big part of the 7 Dimensions training.

Does your church have a systematic approach to discipleship?  Are people who are interested in spiritual growth able to identify useful resources and a clear pathway on the journey to spiritual maturity?  Can they get connected with a mentor, coach, or spiritual director to help them clarify their own unique journey?  How about yourself personally?  Would you say that you are on a clear trajectory towards maturity as a disciple?  By what criteria do you answer that question?  What resources, small groups, spiritual growth classes, and personal relationships have guided you on your way?