True Christian leaders know that it is not optional to love and invest in all of their people—even the “lowly” (Rom. 12:16). However, discipleship is different. When we disciple others, this is a strategic endeavor. There are expectations in mind. We have the goal of delivering the person into leadership and living for Christ.
All believers should strive to lead for God. Paul calls this a “noble” pursuit (1 Tim. 3:1). Properly understood, leadership means to serve others (Mk. 10:42-45) and be a spiritual influence on equipping them to serve (Eph. 4:12). If a believer refuses to lead for Christ, what does this say about their spiritual health? For instance, consider Moses as an example. He told God that he was too inadequate to lead his people, and God was pretty angry with him because of this (Ex. 4:14). Most often, people do not want to lead, because they don’t want the title. But, why not? This is most often because of man-pleasing, fear of failure, fear of expectations, or fear of responsibility.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the church will want to lead for Christ. Therefore, not everyone should be invested in for discipleship. We see distinctions between Christ-like care for all believers, and discipling a few believers:
Christ-like Care versus Discipleship
Done for all Christians
|Done for specific Christians|
|Intended to help personal spiritual growth||
Intended to help ministry to others
Unconditional for all leaders
|Conditional for people who want to lead|
|Sporadic (whenever we have time)||
Regular (weekly and scheduled)
No strings attached
Expectations are clear
In healthy churches, most members will want to be discipled, but oftentimes, not all. The purpose of making this distinction is this: As leaders, we shouldn’t commit to discipleship, when you should simply be showing Christ-like care for the person. Discipleship is a strategic investment that goes beyond Christ-like care for a member in the church.
Jesus didn’t disciple every person he met. Instead, he took his time to select his disciples. Likewise, we shouldn’t agree to discipleship, simply because someone asks to be mentored. Instead, care for them in love and prayerfully watch their lives for signs of dedication to Christ. On the other hand, as leaders, we shouldn’t sit on our hands until the perfect disciple falls from the sky. We should look for signs of spiritual hunger and interest. Here are some questions to consider:
Do they have an interest in the Bible? Do they ask questions about it? Do they ever talk about it? Are they responsive to solid answers to their questions? Do they search for answers on their own?
Are they transparent, or are they guarded and self-righteous? Jesus said that the good seed is the one who “have heard the word in an honest and good heart” (Lk. 8:15).
Do they take initiative in ministering to others? Do they demonstrate an ability to love others on their own, or do they always have to be asked to serve? Are they interested in people, forming relationships with people in the group, etc.?
Do they respond properly to God’s correction or discipline? How do they respond to correction in general? Do they initiate a desire to change when corrected by the Lord or others?
Do they take challenging steps of faith, or do they usually stay in their comfort zone?
Are they chronically preoccupied with the things of the world-system?
The necessity of discernment in selection
It can be difficult to select a person to invest in. We should also be aware of our own tendencies here: either being too optimistic or too critical. Most of us will struggle with being too critical of a potential disciple. It’s important not to be overly critical of sin issues with a believer, but learn to “believe all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Most people that we invest in will not be radically spiritually zealous for God when we begin to invest in them. But we need to remember that a person’s spiritual direction is more important than their present, spiritual state.
Prayer is important in making a decision like this as well. Remember, when we begin working with a person, this could be a 2 to 5 year investment. We should seek God’s counsel on such decisions. Jesus spent an entire night in prayer before selecting his disciples (Lk. 6:12), and he was the son of God! How much more should we seek God in making such an important strategic decision?
If we aren’t working with anyone, we shouldn’t be overly conservative in investing others. Instead, spend time offering counsel, care, and friendship with possible people with whom you could invest. As you invest in this way, you’ll find that God will guide you in your strategic investment. By contrast, sitting in a watchtower without any sort of investment doesn’t place you in a good place to disciple anyone.
An Outline of Time Together
There are four ingredients to effective discipleship which are important to an average time with a person whom you’re mentoring: (1) studying, (2) coaching, (3) counseling, and (4) praying.
Studying. At the beginning of our discipleship, we should have low expectations for the study time. However, we should always try to open the books at some point. As time progresses, we should try for more and more study time. We try to shoot with an hour or more for an advanced disciple. This should be the bulk of our time with our friend.
Coaching. We should also help coaching our friend in their ministry efforts. This would include evangelism, follow-up, and their own discipleship. From the beginning, we should consider how to urge them to think about the health of the church and how they can make a contribution in serving the group.
Counseling. Discuss the person’s friendships, roommates, spouse, family of origin, and sanctification issues. Do a lot of listening and ask good questions. Offer insights to help them work through conflicts, problems, and hurdles they are encountering.
Praying. Every session of discipleship should close in prayer. This is your time to model your faith to your disciple (Heb. 13:7). Pray over the events and people that were discussed during your time together.
In our experience, discipleship can quickly degrade in its quality. We call this pseudo-discipleship. The difficulty with identifying pseudo-discipleship is that it often looks much like true discipleship. For instance, pseudo-discipleship often contains friendship, pastoral help, and equipping to some degree. However, in reality, this is far from true biblical discipleship. How can we identify true discipleship from pseudo-discipleship?
Pseudo-discipleship avoids studying. Strong disciple-makers base their efforts around studying God’s word (or related Christian books). This is the source of influencing another person for Christ—not our own novel wisdom. Teaching someone to read and understand Scripture is integral to training strong disciples for Christ.
Pseudo-discipleship is irregular. Jesus spent his entire life with his disciples. They travelled together, ate together, and lived with each other. Paul’s time with the Thessalonians was brief, and yet, from reading his letters to these churches, it becomes clear that his investment level was high. Likewise, strong disciple-makers commit their time to the people they invest in. To have any sort of serious impact on a person, we feel that we should meet at least weekly, in addition to investing in them during times of fellowship together.
Pseudo-discipleship avoids academic study in favor of devotional literature. Strong disciple-makers know that they need to instill a thorough Christian worldview in their disciples. False teaching pervades the church today, and without strong doctrinal discernment, our people will constantly be “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14) or “deluded with persuasive arguments” (Col. 2:4). Instead, we do our best to ground them in God’s truth (1 Pet. 3:15; Col. 2:3).
Pseudo-discipleship settles for superficial character change. Strong disciple-makers do not ignore the importance of true spiritual healing and transformation. They do not pretend to see this sort of change in their people. Instead, they strive to see real, authentic change—not superficial change.
Pseudo-discipleship keeps disciples for self-serving purposes. They worry that they will lose the security of having a personal ministry. However, Jesus told us to make disciples—not to merely have them (Mt. 28:19). Like Jesus, strong disciplers are willing to lose people, rather than compromise on the truth (Jn. 6:66). Moreover, disciple-makers are eager to send their disciples, rather than keeping them back for themselves. The goal of disciple-making is to release people—not keep them back. This form of codependent ministry is present in pseudo-discipleship.
Pseudo-discipleship doesn’t emphasize the importance of serving others. In fact, they will often excuse their disciple’s lack of sacrificial love and dedication to ministry. However, stronger disciple-makers agonize over their disciple building a personal ministry.
Pseudo-discipleship refuses to continually coach. These disciple-makers have the attitude of “out of sight, out of mind.” Strong disciple-makers recognize the importance of sending, but they also spend time coaching people whom they’ve sent for some time (a year?).
In many ways, pseudo-discipleship is worse than the absence of discipleship. If someone wasn’t being mentored spiritually, at least we would know that this was the case. However, when someone is being pseudo-discipled, we erroneously believe that they are being covered. Moreover, those who are pseudo-discipled will probably never be truly discipled again, and they will pass on this faulty view of pseudo-discipleship to others.
Those who are caught in a pseudo-discipleship relationship should be vocal about this, and ask for someone to truly disciple them.