A Simple 5-Step Discipleship Process for Any Small Church (That Won’t Wear Out the Pastor)

UnpluggedMy church doesn’t have a discipleship program.

But we disciple people.

For a couple years, we adopted a well-known step-by-step discipleship program that many of you would be familiar with. It started amazingly well. Almost everyone in the church went through the first step of it together and the positive feedback we received was overwhelming.

But fewer people signed up for the following steps. By Step 4, I was having one-on-one meetings in a coffee shops, struggling to get through material that was designed for a classroom setting.

If you pastor a Small Church, you may have experienced similar frustrations.

I’m grateful for the people who have put their wisdom, time and energy into writing good discipleship curriculum. But nothing is perfect. No program can meet every need. Here are a few reasons why.


Some Limitations of One-Size-Fits-All Discipleship Programs

  • One size never fits all
  • They tend to be more academic and less hands-on
  • They tend to replace personal interaction with downloading facts
  • The goal can become more about finishing the program than becoming more like Jesus
  • Many people just don’t learn or grow that way
  • Most are designed by large churches to work best within a large church setting
  • They can give people the idea that, once the program is over, discipleship is over

When you factor in the cost of many of these programs, many Small Churches are scrambling to fulfill this essential element of the Great Commission, with little success.

TGM box sale 250cFor many Small Churches, discipleship just becomes one more item on a pastor’s already full agenda. Most Small Church pastors are unhappy with the way discipleship is being done (or not done) in their church.

But it doesn’t need to be so hard.

If you pastor a Small Church without a discipleship program, or with one that’s not working well, I have some good news. You don’t need an expensive, staff-heavy discipleship program to do great discipleship. And it doesn’t need to kill your already-over-busy schedule either.

After a few hit-and-miss attempts, our church has discovered a simple 5-step process that can work for any Small Church. And it looks suspiciously similar to what Jesus, Paul and many other early church leaders did.


1. Meet With Every New Believer

Pastors of big churches can’t do this. That’s not a slam on them, it’s just the way it is.

But it does point out one of the advantages of pastoring a Small Church – the personal touch. 


2. Determine How They Learn and Grow

I recently met with a new believer who had no bible knowledge whatsoever.

I learned about his schedule, his temperament and his learning style. I determined that the best way for him to start growing in his newfound faith was to read the Gospel of John. I told him to start by reading one chapter a day, then chew on it. If he wanted to re-read the same chapter the next day, do that until he was ready to move to the next chapter.

When I followed up on a Sunday morning about 10 days later, he was only on John 5. “I sat with John 3 for a few days”, he told me, with great joy. “That conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus was really good!”

I smiled. He was getting it. God’s Word was doing its work.

Since then, he and I catch up regularly. He read through Acts the same way. Now he’s moving slowly through Romans. I answer questions when he needs help.

I’ve never met anyone else for whom I’d recommend that style of discipleship. But it’s the best way for him, for now.

People learn and grow in different ways. Let’s use the personal touch that we get from being in a Small Church to help people in the way that suits them best.

UPDATE: A reader asked me to elaborate on how I determine what a person’s learning style is. (A great question!) To read my answer, click here.


3. Connect Them With a Mature Believer and the Right Resources

Right now there are a handful of new believers in our church who meet regularly with mature believers to learn, grow and be discipled. Each one of them does it differently, depending on their circumstance.

One of those discipleship/mentoring relationships is between two people who enjoy book clubs. So that’s what they do. I recommend a good Christian book to suit their needs. They read it at the same pace, then meet once a week to talk about it. I take a few moments about once a month after Sunday service to hear how they’re doing. When they finish reading one book, I recommend the next one. They’re both growing in faith and their relationship.


4. Help Them Plug Into An Active Ministry That Utilizes Their Gifts

This is the most-neglected step of most discipleship programs. We fill people’s heads with bible knowledge, but don’t activate that knowledge within real-world ministry. That is dangerous. For the believer and the church.

The longer I pastor, the more convinced I am that the #1 reason for pastoral stress in the church is people with a lot of bible knowledge but who are doing little – if any – practical, hands-on, outside-the-church-walls ministry.

It’s never the new believers that drive us crazy – it’s the know-it-all saints. They always seem to know how to run the church, but never lift a finger to help do it. Then they leave because they’re “not being fed”.

The best solution to that? Teach people how to pick up a spoon and feed themselves!

The Apostle Paul taught us that, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s what happens when we cram bible knowledge into people’s heads without helping them activate it with their hands and feet.


5. As People Mature, Call On Them to Start Leading Others

Discipleship is never finished. Even the most mature believer has something to learn.

The best way for a mature believer to keep learning is to teach others as they do ministry together.


Start With One

One of the great side benefits of these steps is how little time it takes from the pastor’s schedule. Instead of putting in endless hours of discipleship myself (though I still do some of it) I often hear about great results after-the-fact.

I recommend starting with one person. That’s what I did. I walked a new believer through the early stages of discipleship myself, including letting them know that they’d be doing this themselves some day. Then, when another new believer came along, I showed them how to adapt what we’d done with this new believer.

Believers discipling believers.

Your church doesn’t need a program, a curriculum, a classroom or a certified teacher. We just need to do it.

So what do you think? Do you have any ideas for discipleship to add to this list?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Unplugged photo from Geoff R • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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20 thoughts on “A Simple 5-Step Discipleship Process for Any Small Church (That Won’t Wear Out the Pastor)”

  1. Would recommend that pastors also not be scared to let members in their church help with the discipleship process. After all, pastors, teachers, apostles, etc are called to equip others for works of service. I’m in the military and whenever I move to a new area I get push back from church leaders who are unwilling to humble themselves by letting a layman share their ideas. “We already know what discipleship is,” they’ll say. Pastors don’t own the term “discipleship.” We are all called to make disciples. Not saying you didn’t say this but just wish more pastors would get this.

  2. I, as a pastor, agree with Mike. We as pastors need to learn to teach and trust our people to do ministry such as disciple-making.
    A great tool that we make available in our church is Francis Chan’s book, MULTIPLY. This is available to churches at a bulk rate of less than $3.00 per book. But we are also flexible. A man that I am using this book with was able to lead one of his buddies to the Lord and they are doing a study on the book of John. There is another man in our church with whom I will be going through a book on leadership. Karl, your first point is right on!!!

  3. I certainly would agree that a major goal of the discipling process should be to produce disciples who themselves can disciple others. At the same time I believe that it is important that those doing the discipling should be on the same page. One way to ensure that they are is for those doing the disciplining to use the same disciplining material and to set some goals on what they are going to accomplish in the discipling process. In other words, they should share a common vision of a disciple of Jesus Christ and should work toward specific outcomes. Otherwise, the result may be under-discipled believers and over-discipled believers who may hold widely-disparate views on a range of key issues and who may in their thinking and actions reflect the idiosyncrasies of the one who discipled them. It can and does happen.

    1. I agree with the need to all be on the same page, Robin. That’s why I recommend that the pastor meets with each new believer and matches them up with the right mentor. I’m curious, though. How would you define an “over-discipled believer?” I didn’t think that was possible.

      1. Are you familiar with J. I. Packer’s book, Hot Tub Christianity? In that book he examines the phenomena of “sit and soak” Christians. They are Christians whose primary focus is learning more and more about the Word without applying what they learn. They are like sponges absorbing more and more water.

        Derwin Gray writes about a similar phenomena in his article, “Four of Us and No More.” To read the article, go to http://www.christianitytoday.com/derwin-gray/2014/december/us-four-and-no-more.html. This is what can be happen when a believer is “over-discipled” in a particular area of discipleship. Too much attention is given to one area to the neglect of other key areas of discipleship.

        Reading and studying the Bible is not the only area in which a believer may be “over-discipled.”

        Obviously over-discipling in one area results in under-discipling in other areas. In discipling new believers, the discipler needs to adopt a balanced approach and to be mindful of passing on his own idiosyncrasies. The end product of the initial stages of the discipling process should be a well-rounded disciple.

        The discipling process, as I believe we both recognize is a life-long process. Spiritually healthy disciples having received a good foundation in the key areas of discipleship will evidence growth in these areas throughout their lives They may encounter setbacks, struggle with dry periods, and face a variety of challenges but they will continue to grow — not despite these experiences but because of them.

        I once had a pastor whose favorite hobby and pastime was gardening. He was also gardener as a pastor. He would treat each parishioner as a plant in the garden that God had entrusted to him. He saw his role as ensuring that each plant had the optimal conditions to flourish and bear fruit.

        He recruited and equipped co-workers to help him tend the plants in the garden. He first instructed them what to do, then showed them, and then left them to do it much in the same way our Lord did with the first disciples.

        The important thing was not the size of the garden but that the plants in the garden were thriving and bearing fruit.

        Sometimes in gardening one can neglect a plant and it either does not grow or it does not grow properly. On the other hand, one can also give too much attention to a plant, giving it too much plant food, water, and so forth. The plant will grow but it will produce only leaves but not fruit. It may crowd out the neighboring plants and keep them from growing.

        Does this give you some insight into what I mean by “over-discipled” believer”?

  4. By “use the same disciplining material” I meant “use the same disciplng material..” Disciplers can use the same material and still be sensitive to how a particular individual learns, adapting the material to their particulr way of learning.

  5. Karl, I love this post! You give a very simple five step philosophy that we can all use even if we adapt it a little to suit each of our churches and styles leadership.

    Did I ever tell you that you are a very smart guy!?? Thanks for sharing insight that we can all reach, by putting on a “lower” shelf.

    1. Great question, Tom. I’m going to tag the post to point to this comment for others who have the same question.

      For me, it’s a simple process (because I’m a simple guy). I ask about their background and family. I ask how they liked school. Do they like to read? Are they more hands-on? More relationship-oriented? What do they do in their spare time? What was their best learning experience in the past? Their worst? Who was their favorite teacher and why? I just get nosy until I feel like I have a handle on things.

      Then I suggest an idea or two and ask if that sounds like something that might work for them. I also give them a guilt-free “out”. If the selected style doesn’t work for them, they can come to me at any time and we’ll find another way to get it done.

      I hope these suggestions help.

  6. I know the list probably isn’t numbered by priority or importance. I’d point out that #4 should be early, very early, in the sequence. Getting people on mission is absolutely essential to their spiritual formation. In Mark 1:16-17 Jesus said, “Follow me…”, which I take to be an invitation to mission, “… and I will make you…”, a statement that Jesus is the one who forms the disciple, “… fishers of men.”

    Spiritual formation is preceded by mission (or service if you prefer) engagement. Once we’re on the job, Jesus gets to work on us!

  7. Karl, I’ve seen your posts and tweets from time to time and appreciate your emphasis on the benefits of small church ministry. After serving overseas for many years, my wife and I came back to the US to care for family (parents). We were involved with a vibrant church in the Philippines and had a difficult time finding a church to settle into here (JAX, FL).
    As I continued doing ministry overseas and here, and started writing, I realized something major was missing–relational, intentional, non-programmed discipleship. I still look for sites that focus on this, but they seem few and far between. Maybe I just don’t know where to look. But perhaps it’s more related to what you are doing with small church ministry focus.
    I started and pastored a small church in SoCal in the late 70’s through the 80’s, and we turned the church over to another pastor in ’90. I miss the integrated process of discipleship within a church body. I led a men’s study/ministry for several years here in NE FL, but needed to move on from the church we were involved with here in Jacksonville.

    Currently, I’m working with a ministry of pastors to pastors, along with some church evaluations (www.poimenministries.com), and doing some small group discipleship. I guess I’m writing to see if you know of any specific online ministry in the area of simple, relational, and intentional discipleship?
    thanks and blessings,

    1. Thanks for the very kind comments, Trip.

      I wish I had something for you. I’m constantly looking for that, but haven’t found it yet. If I do, I’ll pass it along through this blog. If you find anything, I’d appreciate knowing about it.

      1. Ok, will do, thanks!
        My wife and I grew up in Corona del Mar, but don’t get out to CA very often. I went to SCC/Vanguard in ’72-73 & Golden West in 66-68. Ok, enough nostalgia ?

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