One-size-fits-all discipleship is a detriment to the church. Disciple-making has been so programatized and systematized that personal individuality is dismissed, deemed irrelevant. But if no two disciples are exactly the same then no two disciple-making methods should be the same. We need a view of discipleship that is as diverse as the disciples of Jesus.
Often we let our dreams and agendas for people cloud our disciple-making. All who are involved in this process of discipling another have a certain level of experience and expectation that colors how they help others grow in godliness. Perhaps our own discipleship involved being given important books to read and discuss, and perhaps our growth has been highly intellectual. It will be our default, then, to assume that those we disciple will need the exact same type of discipleship and will become the exact same kind of disciple. The problem, of course, is that not everyone responds the same to reading books, not has the same intellectual interests and depths. Some of us think that “making-disciples” means equipping someone to become a Sunday School teacher, or youth pastor, or a specific type of lay leader. But not everyone is called to such roles. Our agendas can get in the way of healthy discipleship.
We must be willing to consider the individuality of the disciples we are seeking to walk alongside. Their passions, interests, skills, and maturity will necessarily inform our discipleship. A brother struggling with pornography needs more than just a casual lunch once a wee. A sister in a broken marriage may find a book helpful, but she may also need a friend to cry with and with whom she can talk out frustrations. Some people want to dive into theology textbooks, others need to learn the basics of how to study the Bible. Many need intimate friendships. We will only know as we seek to understand the individual. Programs do not make disciples in that intentional and informed way. They may give information, they may help people understand processes and priorities, and even Scripture. But intentional discipleship will seek to apply the Word of God in ways specific to an individual’s life and need. Programs can never really do this because they are not personal, intimate, and designed for individuals. Programs are designed for categories of people, types of people, but not individuals. If you want to see your friends, your small group, your counselees, your church grow, you must be concerned with individuals.
Ted Kluck demonstrates a great approach to individual-specific discipleship in his book Dallas and the Spitfire. Kluck tells the story of his friendship with Dallas Jahncke, a recovering addict and former prison inmate. “I am struck by how hard this is going to be,” he writes, realizing what it means that he has been tapped to “disciple” Dallas in his new-found faith. “The thought that discipleship is more than a bi-weekly cup of coffee momentarily freaks me out” (17). Discipleship with Dallas looks markedly different from what many of us are used to. For Ted and Dallas, their relationship centers around rebuilding an old car. They talk about life, theology, relationships, and all sorts of other things, but they get together to work on the car and the discipleship happens in this context. It’s more organic, it’s more relevant to who each of them is. If Ted had attempted to make his time with Dallas conform to the expectations of “disciple-making” in the contemporary church they would have met for coffee weekly and discussed a book. But such an approach may not have had the same impact, or produced the same fruit. Ted was quick to recognize that his relationship with Dallas needed to focus on Dallas as an individual, not a category: disciple.
We need this same approach in our disciple-making. Not everyone you befriend, counsel, and seek to help grow spiritually will conform to the traditional ministry roles. They may not have any desire to be a professional theologian, teach a Sunday School class, lead a small group, or preach a sermon. That’s okay, they don’t need to desire such things. God has not called us all to such traditional ministries. If your discipleship seeks to make them conform to one of these roles you may find that you do more harm than good, drive them away, and actually distract them from what they really need. We must also recognize that disciples change over time, and our methods need to be flexible enough to adjust to new interests and needs. Individual-specific discipleship will seek to help people where they are, and allow them to grow as they need – not as we expect.
A few principles may help each us think carefully about individual-specific discipleship:
- Build a relationship – Discipleship is not a program, it’s a relationship. Disciple-making, then, cannot be simply packaged and boxed. It takes real intimacy, real effort in getting to know someone. To help a person grow we need to know where they are in their life, in their spiritual journey, in their spiritual maturity. What do they know, how do they struggle, where are they weak, what resources do they have in their life. I recall a scenario where I had been challenging a counselee to do some reading not realizing at all that he had literacy struggles. The relationship dissolved and I was left wondering what happened. The failure was on my end, I didn’t take the time to get to know this brother personally and that damaged the kind of discipleship I attempted to offer.
- Build Confidence in the Basics – All the good books in the world, and the best techniques and programs, cannot replace the simple value of the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. Pray together, read the Scriptures, help one another understand the Word of God and apply it. If you don’t know where to start with someone just take your time and read through the Scriptures together, pray together. Learn about their process of growing spiritually, learn about their strengths and weaknesses in this area.
- Don’t Over-complicate things – If Discipleship is really about relationships – face to face talking about things that matter – then we needn’t be overly anxious about the method or the process. We are simply spending time together encouraging and challenging one another. Focus on the “one another” passages of Scripture and seek to live them out together. Sometimes the meetings may be focused around a specific issue, question, or challenge, but other times they may be more informal. That’s okay – obviously intensive crisis-counseling situations are going to be a bit different and more focused.
- Don’t be too consumed with goals and results – Discipleship paradigms that focus on goals and results can treat people like projects. It’s good to have goals and to talk about those together. It can be productive to have spiritual bench marks that you are each aiming for, but don’t focus solely on progress and how close you are to achieving it. This will tempt both of you to despair if the progress is slow (which it often is), and it will attempt you to treat the other person as a project that you need to complete.
There’s much more that we can say here, but the key is to recognize that every person you disciple is an individual. There is no formula for making disciples, and no program can account for all the unique features of a personality. That takes intimacy and intentionality. Love people well by allowing flexibility and latitude in your disciple-making. If disciples are diverse, our disciple-making should be diverse too.