I am giving a lot of time these days to discipling and mentoring younger Christian lay people and ministers. And I am hoping to influence leaders and theological students to take up the task of discipling others.
It is, of course, the task Jesus took up in his earthly ministry. He did indeed bless the masses with his public teaching, but he gave the lion’s share of his time to invest in the few, his men (the twelve), whom we call his “disciples.” He called them to a particular season of learning under him: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). For three and a half years, they learned under his personal tutelage and care. And having been discipled by him, there would have been little doubt in their minds what their Master was calling them to when he said, “Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Paul followed suit in his manifest personal investments in younger associates, Timothy and Titus among them, and he encouraged Timothy, in essence, to disciple the church’s next generation of leaders, and teach them to do the same: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
Despite the biblical witness, I realize how hard it is to maintain a discipling ministry and to convince people to decide to set apart the time it requires to devote oneself to discipling. By discipling, I mean the work of personally caring for a select number (few, not many) of other Christians and helping them become more fully committed disciples of Christ — who then will turn and invest in others in the same way.
“Discipling is a ministry that does not initially yield impressive statistics.”
It often feels like an uphill battle due to some of the problems churches can face with discipling. First of all, discipling is a ministry that does not initially yield impressive statistics (though, in the long run, the results can be impressive). That only a small number of people benefit from such an intense effort suggests that this is an inefficient use of time, and many donors and leaders are not impressed by such a seemingly unproductive investment. At least it runs strikingly counter to our modern assumptions and instincts.
Also, discipling is difficult to maintain in our busy world. We have so many opportunities for impressive public ministries that crowd out time from our schedules that could be devoted to personally caring for a few. Additionally, among other hurdles, we seem to be greatly enamoured by public displays of talent in our celebrity culture. It seems foolish for people on the upwardly mobile path to celebrity status to jarringly slow down their schedules to invest in a few people.
Answer to Our Urgent Needs
Discipling, however, can be the answer to some urgent needs in today’s church. For one, statistics give evidence of an epidemic of loneliness among Christians. The care of a mentor/discipler who is devoted to the disciplee can be a great antidote to loneliness. There also seems to be an epidemic of insecurity among Christians resulting in people acting in foolish ways that can ruin their witness, especially when faced with challenging situations. Such insecurity could be markedly reduced through the experience of committed, loving care and advice from a particular spiritual mother or father.
We also see that highly talented people are falling by the wayside through missteps at key times in their lives. If only they had someone to guide them! Many fine Christians are struggling with huge problems in their personal, family, and professional lives. They are making some big mistakes in their responses to these problems. The influence of a more mature Christian on their lives could be what helps them get a handle on their problems and move in the right direction.
Sadly, as in any age, we continue to find converts to Christ who are active in church but continuing to do many things incompatible with Christianity (like lying, straying on the internet, and being unkind to their spouses) with no one realizing that there is such a problem. A good discipler would discern and challenge such behavior. At the same time, talented young (potential) leaders are climbing the ecclesiastical ladder as a result of the church realizing their usefulness. And then some experience a really bad fall. There were serious weaknesses in their lives that resulted in the fall which could have been attended to by a discipler.
One of the greatest needs for us leaders is to “keep a close watch on [ourselves]” (1 Timothy 4:16). Being a discipler helps keep one spiritually alert. We can’t ask others to do what we ourselves are not striving to do, at least not for long. We are pushed to keep ourselves trim in order to be in a position to truly help those we disciple. Paul said, “Be imitators of me,” and quickly added, “as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Christianity is not an individualistic religion. The Christian life is lived in community, and the body makes a key (nonnegotiable) contribution to the Christian’s growth (Hebrews 10:25). A few members of the body can especially help us deeply and personally. The loving care of spiritual parents (disciplers) could be the chief means God uses to make this “body contribution” to our growth. Disciplers don’t need to be older than those they disciple. Some of the most effective discipling today takes place through peers helping each other grow (2 Timothy 2:22; Hebrews 10:24).
“Christianity is not an individualistic religion. The Christian life is lived in community.”
Small-group Bible studies can be an ideal medium through which discipling takes place. But in my experience, a “pastoral element” needs to be added to the group ethos. By that I mean that an effort is made to help in the total welfare of the persons in the group and a conscientious effort is made to know about the goings on in each person’s life. Everybody in the group does not need to know everything about everybody. But the members should have a sense that they are being cared for by and are accountable to at least one or a few in the group who are passionately committed to their welfare.
We often find Paul addressing his disciples as “my child” (1 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Timothy 1:2, 18; 2 Timothy 1:2; 2:1; Titus 1:4; Philemon 10). May God be pleased to continue the renewal in our day of such personal, intentional spiritual parenting relationships, such that we too may be able to say the same.