Common Hurdles in Discipleship

By James Rochford

Disciple-makers often encounter various hurdles when working with younger believers.

Failure to make the “second decision.”

Ascertain that the person is an actual believer. This might sound strange, but without seeing spiritual fruit in a person’s life, we should wonder if they have ever met Christ personally. Of course, from God’s perspective, a person is truly a believer when they receive Christ (Jn. 1:12). However, from our perspective, we can’t always be sure for believers that do not bear fruit. We’ve seen several examples of a person who was being discipled for several years without any progress, only to discover that the person did not have a true conversion. After receiving Christ, the person’s spiritual growth soared.

Discover what is taking God’s place as the object of adoration in their lives. Everyone is living for something. We reject the notion that people are disinterested in everything and anything. What is it that the person is living for? Comfort? Sex? Money? What are they sacrificing their time, talent, and treasure toward?

Develop good arguments to show the importance and significance of following Christ. We need to argue that following Christ does involve suffering, but also deep fulfillment, joy, and purpose. By contrast, we need to show that living a selfish lifestyle is not God’s way, and it leads to misery and hopelessness (Prov. 14:12; Eph. 2:12).

Balancing ministry and character

Learn to ascertain your own bias in this area. Often times, disciple-makers will emphasize one value to the detriment of the other. That is, they will emphasize ministry, but overlook the importance of character—or vice versa. Write out objective assessments. It is often helpful to write out objective criteria to see if you’re missing something. Moreover, try to seek out the help of colleagues for objectivity. We often have blind spots, because we never ask for a second opinion.

Use good illustrations to explain the weaknesses of lacking GODLY CHARACTER. Ministry without character is like a body-builder on steroids. They have the muscles and the strength, but they lack the frame to support it. These people often have their bones break when lifting, because they lack the skeletal structure to support their power. Likewise, character is the backbone that bears the weight of talents, gifts, and influential ministry (see King David).

Use good illustrations to explain the weaknesses of lacking MINISTRY. Those with character who do not serve others are like the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is rich with nutrients, but since it doesn’t flow into any other bodies of water. Because it doesn’t pour into anything else, the nutrients and salt level of the Dead Sea is actually life-prohibiting. Likewise, believers without ministry keep gaining knowledge, but this is lethal to loving others. They become deluded as a result, when they refuse to take steps of faith (Jas. 1:22-25).

Doesn’t take daily time with the Lord

Model the importance of this in your own life. Share what you’ve been reading in the word, or what God has answered in prayer. Make it a regular conversation to show your latest insights into Scripture.

Give them the tools that they need. When I was young, my father had just finished putting several coats of lacquer on the newly finished bathroom floor. After he finished, he put a big white sign across the entrance to the bathroom that said, “WET FLOOR! DO NOT USE!” However, later the same day, I walked across the floor to use the toilet in my furry white socks, leaving little footprints on the newly finished floor. After my dad discovered this, he called me downstairs to yell at me, and he said, “Why did you use the bathroom?! I put the sign up right here!!” However, since I was only four years old at the time, I said, “Dad… I don’t know how to read yet!” My dad’s anger immediately evaporated. He knew that I was not culpable for my crime, because I was too ignorant to know that I was doing something wrong.

I wonder if the same is true of young believers whom we disciple. Many hear the words, “You need to get personal time with God.” But many do not even know where to begin. They read a few chapters in Genesis, and they give up. It’s important to show people how to read through Scripture with an attentive eye, interpret it properly, and utilize commentaries, lexicons, and other resources.

Set goals and ideas for personal study. Give your friend a concept for reading a small epistle in a week, doing chapter summaries of it. You can also give them a question for reading through a book, such as, “What was Jesus’ approach to different people in the gospel of John? What was their reaction to Him?” Be creative in giving your friend ideas for prayer and Bible study.

Fails to have critical biblical thinking

Ask questions instead of giving answers. When reading through difficult material, ask the person questions, rather than offering answers immediately. It is often our kneejerk reaction to explain all ambiguities or problems in theology. It’s better to let the person struggle to comprehend, and even fail, before imparting our view.

Recognize and resist dependency. It is normal for younger believers to ask lots of questions about what they’re reading. At first, it is healthy to give answers or insights on various topics. But we need to recognize when the person is milking us for answers, when they should be doing the hard work of looking these up themselves. This is the old principle: “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a meal. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

Read materials that are difficult for the person. Too much difficulty will frustrate your disciple. Too little difficulty makes them feel patronized. We want to aim just above their comprehension level and ability. Consider weightlifting. If we put 400 pounds on the bench press, this will crush the person. If we give them the green sand-filled weights, they won’t break a sweat. We want to discern what will be just enough to build them up.

Lacks internal convictions

Learn to recognize a persuaded state of mind. Here we look for a number of signs: (1) independent action, (2) willing to act with only God’s approval, and (3) can explain their perspective in their own words, rather than Christianese or other mantras. True discipleship hasn’t occurred, until we have fostered independent action.

Explain the reasons for why an action is important. Often disciple-makers focus on the imperatives, rather than the indicatives. Rather than simply repeating the imperatives over and over, we should explain why a given action is important.

Model strong convictions. Whenever possible, explain the scary steps of faith that God has been putting in front of you. Walk the person through your internal struggle, false beliefs, and difficulty in making the decision. Explain your reasons for why you did what you did—not just what you did. This is the difference between behavior modification, and having Christian convictions.

Encourage steps of faith, rather than outward actions. We often can see the difference between outward compliance versus an inward step of faith. For instance, an introvert might relish in personal Bible study, but be afraid of sharing their faith. If we see them do something that is uncomfortable and scary, make sure to encourage this, rather than the behavior that comes easy to them.

Break down an action into smaller steps. For the insecure and fearful, we need to set the bar pretty low. For instance, if a person isn’t ready to share their faith, what are they ready to do? We should break this goal in half, and just encourage them to talk to a new person or pray for them. If confronting a Christian roommate is too difficult, encourage them to get lunch with this difficult person, instead. When a person is unwilling to do even simple steps like these, we are in a better position to admonish or even rebuke a fellow brother in Christ for the sin of omission (Jas. 4:17).

Love-starved and desperate for romance

Explain the biblical view of sexuality. Show that God’s way isn’t meant to suppress us, but to fulfill and protect us (see “The Bible’s Sexual Position”). Make the case that rebelling against this will be temporarily thrilling, but eventually empty and damaging (Prov. 14:12).

Warn that many Christian workers lose their walk over this very issue. Repeatedly, this area is the most vulnerable to believers.

Help the person to work on areas that may be blocking interest from the opposite sex. Many people settle in their romantic relationships because of insecurities, relational problems, or even physical issues. Help them to build relationships with the same sex, in order to work through these problems.

Counsel them through pornography use or even addiction. Pornography is one of the major issues that confront believers today. Porno saps our ability to relate properly to the opposite sex. We treat other people like physical objects and shapes, rather than persons (see “The Rational Case Against Pornography”).

Give a vision for healthy dating and healthy relating to the opposite sex. This can often be done through modeling healthy relating, and encouraging a positive vision.

Lacks quality multilevel discipleship

Remember that the purpose of discipleship is replication. What is halting this person from replicating themselves? Pray together for this together, and set goals for practical steps. Try to discern where progress might be breaking down. If possible, spend time with the younger believers yourself to get a read on the situation.