We’ve read it, heard it preached, plastered it on our church walls, and recited it over and over. What is it? The charge of Jesus to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[ the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28: 19-20). While it’s truly one of the most important charges in the Gospels, after more than two thousand years, we are still asking ourselves, “How do we effectively disciple others as we are commanded?” A search for books on discipleship yields over 1,000 results on Amazon alone. Clearly, we still have many questions surrounding this centuries-old concept. Why? Discipleship is difficult because it involves sinful people-people with baggage, biases, trust issues, and more.
During the majority of my mentoring other ladies for the last 30 years, most of my “mentoring,” as I would call it, has involved teens in varying contexts: the inner city, treatment facilities, Sunday school, youth group. While teen mentoring can differ widely from that of young mothers, the principles that apply to this age group can be helpful with a wide variety of mentees today.
- Discipleship takes time. In my 22 years of observing teens and adults in the public school setting, I’ve come to a few conclusions: People today are cynical. The truth? Some of them even think that God hates them or judges them or the people they care about. I recently overheard a teen say, “I hate God.” Why? She had been told that God hates her because of her sexual orientation. Most of the people I observe daily are not the type to say, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean,” like the leper in Matthew 8 but are more apt to ask questions like, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” and “Are you greater than our father, Jacob?” (John 4) like the woman at the well. Unfortunately for us, we don’t miraculously know another’s deepest secrets like Christ did with her. Since trust is difficult, even laborious, to earn with people in general, discipleship takes time and lots of it. The good news? The time required is not necessarily hours on end, but one hour at a time, for a “Godly” amount of time, accompanied by hours of prayer, until the trust required for true discipleship is earned (or given).
- Discipleship must be genuine. At first glance, discipleship seems simple, honorable, a noble practice, but there are many potential pitfalls. If we’re honest, sometimes our desire to disciple is less about the spiritual growth of a mentee and more about making this person live the way we want them to. From political leanings to thoughts about denominations, wealth, or education, it is easy to be enticed by the desire to make protégés instead of disciples. Paul warns against encouraging the following of God’s servants instead of God in 1 Corinthians 3, saying, “ . . . let no one boast in men” (3:21) and warning, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (3:11). His commitment, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2), must be ours as well. Any attempt to do more than lovingly share the gospel to someone who is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) is selfish and potentially damaging to the mentee.
- Discipleship requires humility. Any good gospel-oriented mentor understands the concept of sin. We can recite such verses as, “. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God” (Romans 3:8), and many more. The problem? In our fallen state, we fail to remember our own weakness described in Romans 5. We may say, “The ground is even at the foot of the cross,” but living that out is easier said than done. As mentees, we often suffer from spiritual amnesia, forgetting how God redeemed us in the midst of depression, addiction, abuse, sexual sin, etc. This amnesia causes us to believe that God’s power is limited and wonder if only certain people cannot be redeemed. A spiritually healthy mentor will often review David’s murder and adultery, Jonah’s pride, and disobedience, Paul’s persecution of Christians, Peter’s betrayal of Christ as well as his/her own sordid past. Only then can we enter into a discipleship situation, saying as Christ said, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19: 26).
- Discipleship is messy. I have always wanted to lead others to faith like Amy Carmichael, Elizabeth Elliot, and countless others. However, time and time again, I am reminded of the glamourless nature of asking people to reveal their deepest struggles and sins. The well-intentioned books and Christian movies do not give justice to the actual act of listening to the reasons your mentee (even those who say they are believers) feels they can’t come to God. We know from our own lives, struggles with guilt, shame, and the doubt that God loves us come from some dark places. Past sins, abuse of all kinds-including the religious flavor- mental illness, sexual identity, bitterness, and even the media’s portrayal of Christianity present a wall that must come down before the truth of the gospel can be heard. Let’s face it. In order to “. . . lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely” and “. . . run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), it is necessary first to identify and confess misconceptions, doubts, and sin. Simply put, this process is painful and uncomfortable at times.
- Discipleship requires biblical truth. Discipleship is commitment, a larger commitment than many may think. After taking time to build a relationship with the mentee, there is a time in which biblical truth must be shared. For some, the truth of the gospel (or correction of misconceptions of God and the gospel) can be shared right away, for others (who have been damaged by hateful religious messages), it will take time. In other situations, the gospel is known, but the mentee is blinded by sin that must be addressed. The goal of discipleship is to help the mentee “know the truth” that will “set [them] free” (John 8:32). In the end, discipleship requires an end goal of the unapologetic (and loving) declaration that Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [Him]” (John 14:6) and what that means in our lives.
While discipleship will never be easy, simply remembering to “ . . . love the Lord your God with all of your heart” and “. . .love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). Doing so can help us keep biblical truth before our hearts and eyes and avoid pitfalls in this essential work of discipleship with others we may work with within the local church.