Developing a Discipleship Approach in Your Church
First, let’s consider what discipleship is.
Discipleship is both relational and transformational. A disciple of Jesus is in a growing relationship with Jesus. Transformation occurs as the Holy Spirit renovates people’s hearts; godly character qualities grow (see Five Strategies for Growing Your Character blog); thoughts and actions become more God-honouring.
According to Dallas Willard, "Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you." This requires a close relationship (see John 15) that produces Christ-like fruit.
Next, let's understand what disciple-making means.
Disciple-making is helping people take next steps in their relationship with Jesus and obedience to Him.
In Real-life Discipleship, Jim Putnam suggests there are five spiritual stages: dead, infant, child, young adult, and parent. It is helpful to identify the stage in which someone is located so that we can come alongside them and help them move toward the next stage.
As we help people become more spiritually mature, it is helpful to think about doing so in six ways (these align with the Dimensions of Christian Leadership). We want to help people grow in their relationship with God, develop godly character qualities, understand and live out God's calling on their lives, develop strong relationships, learn how to serve well on a team, and maximize their gifts and abilities in living out their calling.
How then do churches position themselves for maximum discipleship?
In Developing a Strategic Pathway for Discipleship in Your Church, I suggest there are five layers of discipleship within the church: church culture, large group, small group, one-on-one, and individual. As we strengthen each layer, we will position our churches for more effective disciple-making.
1. Church Culture
Obviously, we want our people to naturally make disciples as they go through the day. There are at least five cultural factors that facilitate this kind of continuous disciple-making:
As a church facilitates growth in these five areas, people will be much more inclined to become and to make growing disciples of Jesus.
2. Large Groups
Discipleship that occurs in our worship services and large group training events (e.g. a marriage-builder course) is vitally important. We need biblical teaching that inspires us to move forward in our Christian lives. We need practical training to equip us with knowledge and skills that build capacity in us to love God and others more deeply and serve Him (and others) more effectively.
3. Small Groups
Robust small groups do four things well: prayer, outreach, care, and empowerment (see Four Strategies for Growing Your Small Group). When small groups are growing in these four areas, they will be in a stronger position to see people come to and grow in Christ.
Coaching/mentoring is a great way to come alongside people in a highly personalized way and walk with them as they take steps in their personal growth (see Why Being a Mentor Might Not be as Scary as You Think and The Five Stages of a Structured Coaching Conversation). A coaching approach that moves beyond simply listening and asking good expanding questions (as important as these are) to lovingly calling people to action (and following up with supportive accountability) is a key discipleship strategy.
Spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study are an integral part of growing as a Jesus-follower (see Using a Rule of Life to Support Your Spiritual Growth blog). As we make disciples, it's important that we help people build structures and practices into their lives that will encourage and support personal growth.
As you can see, the five layers move from a global level (church-wide culture) to an individual level. As we move toward the inner layer, we are often able to make our discipleship much more personal and relevant to the individual.
Let’s go back to the question I posed at the start: How do we develop a discipleship strategy in our churches? I would suggest we need to work diligently to strengthen each of these five layers, recognizing that the five cultural elements are foundational to the growth of the other elements. As we strengthen the large group, small group, one-on-one, and individual layers, we look for ways to help people mature in Christ (i.e. moving people through Jim Putnam’s spiritual stages mentioned above). To help us do this, we assess how people are doing in each of the six dimensions of discipleship (e.g. godly character) and then preach, teach, facilitate, and coach in ways that help people take next steps in the areas of greatest need.
Randy Wollf is the Director of MinistryLift and Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Leadership Studies at MB Seminary.