How to Quit Using a Discipleship System and Start Making Disciples

quit now post-it signDoes your Small Church have a discipleship system in place? Most don’t. Mine doesn’t.

We used to. But we quit doing it years ago. It didn’t work for us.

We were using a well-known discipleship curriculum from a megachurch, that we adapted to our Small Church. We did it because everybody – and I mean everybody! – said you can’t have a healthy church without a system to train disciples and measure their growth.

So we adopted a system of discipleship classes. People signed up, the classes were full and church members took notes on the outlines we gave them. Some continued into the upper level classes. They moved through the steps we laid out for them, with fewer taking every additional step, like climbing a pyramid.

Then I decided to find out how we were doing. Since our church is small I didn’t need to tabulate numbers. I just started asking church members if they felt like they were being discipled by the classes. They looked at me like I’d just grown a third eye.

“Uh, I took the classes. Is that what you mean?” was the typical response.

So I clarified my question. I asked if they’d been discipled by taking the classes. Apparently I was sprouting new eyes all over the place. Every person I asked was confused by the question. So I changed the question.

I simply asked people if they’d ever been discipled. Most said yes. Good start.

Then I asked them where they received their discipleship from. Not one of them named our classes or curriculum. Instead, almost everyone named a person – a mentor, pastor, teacher or friend.
But not anyone connected to the classes. Those that didn’t name a person, named a church. Some named our church. But again, not in relationship to the discipleship classes.

It turns out the church members following our system didn’t equate that system with discipleship because none of them equated discipleship with sitting in a room, taking notes. They all stubbornly stuck to a strange idea that real discipleship should develop out of long-term relationships, not from a series of classes.

Once again, the people in the church saw the simple truth of things better than the people who were supposedly in charge.

We all know systems don’t save people – only Jesus does that. It turns out systems don’t make disciples either. People do that.

When we do what Jesus told us to do, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit kicks in and discipleship happens. Through relationships. Through following someone else’s life example. Through solid biblical teaching. Through Q&A sessions.

Systems aren’t wrong. They’re needed for a healthy church. But systems don’t disciple people.

 

Relationships + Ministry = Discipleship

Now don’t get me wrong. Discipleship doesn’t happen automatically. It needs some intentionality.

And in a larger church, a system with classes, teachers and curriculum probably makes sense, since it’s likely to be the best way to connect new and growing believers with more mature ones.

But in a healthy Small Church, biblical teaching, responsive worship and intentional ministry, linked together through healthy relationships, may be all the intentionality we need. Healthy Small Churches may already be doing more discipleship than our discipleship classes or systems ever could.

Jesus, Paul, Peter and the early church did the best discipleship the world has ever seen, and they didn’t have a classroom, curriculum or measurable steps. They had relationships. Relationships that grew as they did ministry together.

When church growth advocates try to tell me that my church isn’t healthy if we don’t have a discipleship system in place, I respectfully disagree with their premise.

 

Systems Don’t Make Disciples – People Do

We used to have a discipleship system. That system graduated students.

Now we work on intentional relationships. And that’s producing disciples.

One at a time. Through lots of ups and downs. Imperfectly. With no human record-keeping system to let us know how many have reached goals we’ve set to try to measure the immeasurable.

Now, when I ask church members if they’ve been discipled, they’ll smile or shed a tear as they talk about the mentor, teacher or friend who helped them become a more well-rounded, passionate follower of Jesus.

Those stories don’t put numbers on my discipleship report, but they are the best proof I know that Jesus is building his church. And it turns out a healthy church – big or small – is the best discipleship system ever devised.

 

So what do you think? Is it possible we’ve been missing out on the greatest discipleship method ever, by concentrating on systems over relationships?

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(Quit Now photo from fuzzcat • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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21 thoughts on “How to Quit Using a Discipleship System and Start Making Disciples”

  1. I think times of fellowship are GREAT ways to foster discipleship. These can take the form of meals, retreats, shopping trips, luncheons, camping trips, fishing trips…anything that gets people together where conversations may take place. We all lead such busy lives that finding time to just sit down and have conversations with people can be a challenge. However, having times of fellowship, where people are free from expectations, lessons etc…and can just kind of flow – may produce some excellent opportunities for disicpleship. Some people may think, ‘what’s the point of fellowship?’ But discipleship is the point.

  2. I think times of fellowship are GREAT ways to foster discipleship. These can take the form of meals, retreats, shopping trips, luncheons, camping trips, fishing trips…anything that gets people together where conversations may take place. We all lead such busy lives that finding time to just sit down and have conversations with people can be a challenge. However, having times of fellowship, where people are free from expectations, lessons etc…and can just kind of flow – may produce some excellent opportunities for disicpleship. Some people may think, ‘what’s the point of fellowship?’ But discipleship is the point.

  3. I love it Karl and was thinking this very thing over the last month after answering on a church form “No we do not have a discipleship program”. But I know we are making disciples by the changing lives of my congregation.

    1. I’ve had to answer that question in the same way, Rick. I think one of the reasons I even attempted a discipleship program to begin with was so I could check the “yes” box. Not a good reason.

  4. I love it Karl and was thinking this very thing over the last month after answering on a church form “No we do not have a discipleship program”. But I know we are making disciples by the changing lives of my congregation.

    1. I’ve had to answer that question in the same way, Rick. I think one of the reasons I even attempted a discipleship program to begin with was so I could check the “yes” box. Not a good reason.

  5. Amen!
    A small church family seems to know and pay more attention to what is happening around and within the family. We know when John Doe is not in church and find ourselves asking why? Therefore, we find ourselves, recognizing our family and neighbor’s needs. We consider their needs to be as important as our own because we are involved, leaning and caring, and learning from one another. It becomes means for developing our relationship with God and experiencing God’s presence in our lives which we then take out into the world. Discipleship is not an “activity” that we “do.” It is a life that we lead.
    Loving our neighbors is more than just random acts of kindness. It takes time, energy, and commitment. It is a lifestyle carefully cultivated in response to God and if you have this kind of involvement in a church (Working together towards the same mission as commanded by the Lord) you have a disciplship program that is definitely worthwhile and working. Thanks Karl!

  6. I so agree with you on this one…
    Totally about the relationship!

    Iral McNeal…I will never forget the time that man invested in me when we first came back to The Lord…priceless!
    And I can only hope to honor his memory and walk with The Lord by doing what he did…humbly lead and serve as The Lord did. And in turn, honor God by following that example!

    So ironic that you posted this today as I am reading through one of the latest issues of a popular resource magazine that is focusing on discipleship in this print.
    Some of the articles are on point with the relationship, others…eh…

    Thanks as always for your insights brother!

  7. I so agree with you on this one…
    Totally about the relationship!

    Iral McNeal…I will never forget the time that man invested in me when we first came back to The Lord…priceless!
    And I can only hope to honor his memory and walk with The Lord by doing what he did…humbly lead and serve as The Lord did. And in turn, honor God by following that example!

    So ironic that you posted this today as I am reading through one of the latest issues of a popular resource magazine that is focusing on discipleship in this print.
    Some of the articles are on point with the relationship, others…eh…

    Thanks as always for your insights brother!

  8. Richard Wadholm

    Finally someone who agrees with me. my disciples are winning more people to Jesus then I am. I call it fruit reproducing fruit. I desciple by spending time with people!

    1. It is kinda nice to get that affirmation, isn’t it? Even when you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to, when all the other voices say something else, it can be demoralizing. Keep doing what you’re doing, Richard.

      1. Thanks Karl! Thoroughly enjoyed reading that, & actually reminiscing on the time i’v spent in your ‘small church’ with some amazing people now. I will be back this summer to say hello, & continue what’s been started… back home, ‘discipleship’ classes that we started among our young leaders have morphed into the least structured, most casual, authentic, ‘discipling’ sessions we could ever have imagined- once we moved away from curriculum!
        Keep up the good work, & hopefully see you at the end of July. Alan x

        1. Great to hear from you, Alan! Can’t wait to see you again this summer. It’s great to hear your church is discipling in that way, too. Authentic relationships – who knew?

  9. Just be really careful. My husband has had a passion for discipling for about 6 years and we have had bible studies in our home. He mostly uses Navigator ideas but does alot of his own work. What we have seen works best is when he is able to teach new guys and then those guys can teach others. There needs to always be new people so everyone feels they have a purpose. So everyone needs to be inviting people around them or looking for ways to approach people in their daily life. Either they are training or getting trained so they can be ready to train. Relationships are very important in helping to draw people in and strengthening bonds but if too much emphasis is put on the social aspect then it becomes more of a social club and the group becomes more comfortable with the way things are and they lose the passion for bringing in others. And ultimately that is what Jesus wants all of us to do. Go make disciples. Then whey need to go make disciples so they can also fulfill the command. And so on

    1. I agree Abby. Socialization can’t replace intentional discipleship any more than a classroom setting can. Intentional teaching within an atmosphere where people are getting to know each other and, like Jesus with his disciples, are also ministering to others, then assessing that ministry, is the best combination. You know the job is being done right when disciples become disciplers.

  10. I’m not reading much about what a disciple looks like after they are declared a “disciple.” Do they get more involved in the church, do they leave the church and join missions, do they fill their pockets with tracks and hand them out at malls, do they take a couple weeks off a year and visit a foreign missions? What defines a disciple today. Do they look like the guys in the Bible?

    1. Interesting question, James. I didn’t mention what a disciple will look like because that’s not the subject of this short article, but here’s my quick take on it.

      First of all, I would never “declare” someone a disciple, except at the moment of conversion. After that, discipleship is an ongoing process which might include, but is not defined by any of the behaviors you mentioned.

      Second, they would not look like the disciples in the Bible, except to the degree that those disciples looked like Jesus. The goal of discipleship is not to look like Paul, Peter, John, etc., since each of them was a unique person who followed Jesus in their own way, according to their gifts, circumstances, calling and more.

      The goal all disciples have is to look more like Jesus – to display his character in all we do and think. That’s as true today as it was in the first century, but the outward appearance of that will be different for every person.

  11. So what should I do if I want to experience discipleship? (WARNING: I’m one of those people who has been a believer for over 30 years and knows everything about everything, but think maybe i should try discipleship which, from looking at the fruit of my life, it’s apparent I lnow absolutely nothing about)

    Sincerely,

    A person who goes to a great, healthy church full of fallen sinners who are trying (imperfectly) to create evidences of faith. For whatever reason, I have no relationships with other believers who have both the capacity and desire to walk the discipleship walk with me.

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