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Reflecting on Discipleship

May 12, 2010

I have been thinking a lot about discipleship lately (since it is sort of my job description at City Church) and there is also a girth of material being written on the subject these days.  There is no doubt that part of this is a reaction to discipleship not being done very well in the church (broadly speaking).  Much of what evangelicals think is more caught than taught.  There are various things that need could be addressed and various approaches, but this post has some initial observations I have made about what I have seen out there.

First, I do not consider this exhaustive, but just initial reflections.  Second, ultimately discipleship needs to be rooted in a firm theological foundation of humanity and the salvation that God provides through Jesus Christ.  Thirdly, this is basically an exploration not of the content, but the method.  Lastly, you can tell I am an engineer since I made a chart.

The approaches I have seen essentially fall along two axises: 1) ranging from formal to informal, 2) ranging from group to individual focus.  The each have their strengths and weaknesses which I put some of my first thoughts below.  I invite anyone to provide additional thoughts and comments on what is basically the beginning… dare I say it… of a long conversation.  Ultimately, the whole of a church’s ministry would hit these elements to different degrees.  Thus, discipleship really is not a separate work of the church but constitutes everything that it does.
















1) Broad Group Focus


  • Reflects a highly corporate theology (our human commonality)
  • Highly efficient
  • Good for communicating lots of information everyone needs to know


  • Assumes everyone is at the same place and has the same needs
  • Limited effectiveness at engaging transformation of heart and hands
  • Tendency to be homogeneous and difficult to incorporate diversity

2) Specific Individual Focus


  • Reflects a individualistic theology (our human distinctiveness)
  • Highly effective and customizable
  • Good for addressing individual needs, gifts and growth areas


  • Very inefficient and extremely time consuming
  • Difficult to engage and review all the common beliefs and practices of the whole church
  • Tendency will be to stress individual uniqueness and diversity

3) Formal Stages


  • Recognizes a common growth path for many Christians (i.e. the “Spiritual Journey,” or from non-xian to Disciple Maker)
  • Enables uniform teaching and training


  • Can be so formal it neglects the role of the Spirit to guide and direct people’s growth and sanctification path
  • Can neglect holistic transformation and need for ongoing and continual growth
  • Tendency to compartmentalize sins
  • Easy to replicate and train leaders

4) Informal Areas


  • Stress on holistic growth in a variety of areas that combined incorporate the whole picture
  • Recognizes different growth paths for each person or group of people
  • More holistic view of depravity and gospel transformation


  • Tendency to neglect treat all sins or growth areas as equal
  • How in the world do you implement such a strategy?
  • Difficult to train many to do and requires a high level of expertise for leaders
6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 12, 2010 10:29 am

    This is a lot to think about! But I think a lot of the strengths and weaknesses of each simply prove that we need it all! We need our discipleship to be both formal and informal/group and individual. The Christian life is just that…a whole LIFETIME of moments wherein we are learning what it means to follow Christ. I learn at Church and I learn at home from you. I learn with my friendships and I learn in my prayer times.
    I think this is a good lesson that we can’t just compartmentalize ourselves into little bitty Christian boxes. It’s a big box because we have a big God. And maybe we don’t need to “think outside the box” as much as we just need to make our box a whole lot bigger.

  2. May 12, 2010 10:02 pm

    really nice outline. i’m wrestling through these things and praying about how to balance out these different strengths and weaknesses. i can’t wait to read more thoughts here, but i’m comforted in knowing that in all our efforts, there is grace.

    when discipling in small groups (2-5 people), do you think there are more strengths to keeping the groups homogenous in terms of where they are spiritually, backgrounds, etc? or more strengths to keeping them diverse?

  3. Chris permalink
    May 13, 2010 11:43 am

    You know, I heard someone say recently that balance isn’t the best way to approach things. It is kind of a mantra in our culture that we have to “balance” work and play, family and personal, etc. I don’t remember what the alternative was, but it makes me wonder, if I am overwhelmed by the possibilities, am I asking the right questions? You are right on, we need to remember God’s grace. He doesn’t demand perfection, but he demands “completeness,” which doesn’t happen if you don’t leave room for Him.

    I will be honest. I don’t like homogeneous small groups. Homogeneous groups have a tendency to perpetuate blindness. Its the blind leading the blind. High School students cannot learn to grow up by hanging around other high school students. They need to hang around adults.

    But now I realize you are talking about “one-on-many” discipleship… umm… I think that is different but I am beginning to think such intensive and time consuming forms cannot be done by everyone or for everyone. Everyone should pursue such relationships but they need to be strategic relationships, i.e. a Paul and Timothy thing, a young dad with a seasoned father. It becomes a problem when a pastor thinks he has to disciple everyone that intensely. Nope, focus on emerging leaders. Delegate the rest. Jason and I have decided we each will pursue 2-3 discipleship relationships with a mix of non-Christian and Christian people. Though arguably, the “non-Christian” won’t probably call it a “discipleship” relationship but just “we hang out for coffee sometimes and talk about life.” Both of those are strategic relationships for a church leader.

  4. May 13, 2010 1:31 pm

    haha, personally, i’m not a fan of “balance” either. i think j.i. packer calls it something of a horribly self-conscious or calculating word, though he’s talking about it in a different context.

    but two take-aways that were really good for me in this discussion: the idea of “completeness” and the reminder to be strategic with “emerging leaders.”

    thanks yo!

  5. John permalink
    May 14, 2010 11:45 pm

    I think there can be good with both the one on one things, like a younger man with an older, more mature man, and the group settings. I think that there are seasons of discipleship. I have different accountability partner/mentors over time. Not because I outgrow my mentors, but because there are seasons of growth and change. My current mentor/accountability guy is someone I met with years ago. I learned a lot from him then, and now that I am in a different place in my spiritual walk, I am learning different things. I love my men’s small group. We have great opportunities to talk about ‘guy’ stuff that you might not talk about in a larger or mixed environment. I also like the college and career group because it mixes the sexes and people from slightly different life stages. Early career folks can teach and encourage those about to finish college. Those near the end of their college years can teach and encourage the new college students. Same people, different groups, different seasons of life. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. As a subset of the college and career ministry at Willow Glen we have a couple small groups. We also have leaders from all other parts of ministry at the church in that group. The group is a great mix of new Christians, ‘old’ Christians, and all steps in between. How do we reach out to all people and help them grow and mature? The answer that is speaking most clearly to me right now is the ‘seasons of discipleship’ answer. Lots more in my head on that one.

  6. May 17, 2010 12:07 am

    “seasons of discipleship” — i like that. gonna think about that some more. thanks!!

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