Home Outreach Leaders Articles for Outreach & Missions Discipleship Is a Who, Not a What

Discipleship Is a Who, Not a What

Last year, I wrote an article (“Are You an ‘Evangelism’ or ‘Discipleship’ Church?”) on the tension that I experience between having a very evangelistic heart and seeing the need to disciple people. As a pastor, I am increasingly burdened that we don’t do a good enough job discipling our people. So I identified the problem: People need to be discipled. But I didn’t know the solution until very recently. At least I think I’ve discovered the solution. Bear with me as I share what I’ve found to be true.

At my church (and in many others), we say discipleship happens best in small groups. We push our LifeGroups very hard and encourage people to be a part of them. Nothing wrong with that, but is it the answer? We also believe we grow through our weekly teaching of the Word, even though we know that’s just one way people grow.

However, research and history seem to indicate something else. The book Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth, by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, shares some startling lessons from Willow Creek’s REVEAL study and research of over 1,000 churches:

1. The most effective strategy for moving people forward in their journey of faith is biblical engagement. The authors note that biblical engagement is “not just getting people into the Bible when they’re in church … but helping them engage the Bible on their own outside of church.”

2. Serving experiences appear to be even more significant to spiritual development than organized small groups. Why is that? I have a theory I’ll come back to.

3. We don’t challenge people to reflect on Scripture. This is huge. The REVEAL research reveals that if leaders could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, “they would inspire, encourage and equip their people to read the Bible.”

4. Though many churches believe small groups are the solution to spiritual formation, Move reveals, “there is no evidence that getting 100 percent of a congregation into a small group is an effective spiritual formation strategy.”

As I thought about this important research and these insights, I finally started to grasp what they mean to us as church leaders desperately wanting to see our people grow into spiritually mature disciples: We must stop pointing people to a program and start pointing them to a person, specifically Jesus Christ.

When I interviewed at my current church and they asked me about discipleship, I said that it happens in a number of ways. I told them that I love mentoring and one-on-one discipleship, as well as small groups. This is still true, but in hindsight, I missed the key to the whole thing. Let me explain.

You Can’t Delegate Prayer

On a regular basis, I see a counselor and I love how I grow personally through therapy. I meet with a mentor and have always been passionate about mentoring, but this just fills me with more knowledge and sharpens me as a leader. I do a lot of one-on-one discipleship, but the truth is that on a quantitative level, I barely make a dent in my congregation. I can handle maybe three to five (tops) one-on-one relationships with men in my church, and that’s out of a congregation of 500-plus.

Like you, I don’t have enough hours in my day or week to meet with everyone individually. Plus, I see nothing in Scripture that teaches our role as leaders is one-on-one discipleship with multitudes of people. And in fact, Move authors Hawthorne and Parkinson point out that, “Taking too much responsibility for others’ spiritual growth fostered an unhealthy dependence of congregants on the church staff.”

What I do see happening in Scripture is Paul writing to a church and encouraging them to read his letter (the Word of God). I also see Jesus often getting away alone to pray. Just last week, God showed me my desperate need for more prayer in my life and that I need to spend more and more quality time with Him—not just read about Him in one of my books or talk about Him with a friend, counselor, mentor or small group. All of those things are wonderful, but repeatedly, Scripture shows us that there is no replacement for my personal relationship with Christ.

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Greg Atkinson is an author, speaker, consultant, and the Founder of the First Impressions Conference and Worship Impressions—both specializing in guest services and hospitality.