The need to disciple others in their walk with Christ is nothing new. Jesus took twelve men with Him and taught them separately from the larger gatherings. Then we see Him choose three of those twelve to get even closer to. However, we’ve seen in recent years an uptick in interest when it comes to discipling. This last year with COVID-19 has been extremely telling as all communication moved online, and we realized just how crucial personal relationships are.
The basic definition of being a disciple is to be a learner. One of the hardest things about starting a discipling relationship is convincing people they are qualified to disciple! We all want to take the humble route and claim we have nothing to teach; we haven’t been a Christian long enough, etc. But the truth is, if you’ve been a Christian for a day, you’ve been a Christian longer than someone who got saved today. If you’ve served in church two Sundays, you have more experience than someone just starting this Sunday. If you were saved yesterday, you will probably not be able to explain deep doctrinal issues but sharing how God has changed you and what you are learning about Him is a great start to discipling others! Discipling doesn’t mean – at least it shouldn’t – that you are lording your superiority or knowledge above others. It’s a genuine coming alongside to guide and help a fellow Christian.
Another hang-up in relational discipleship is making it natural. While at times it might have a more formal feel, it certainly doesn’t have to be an hour-long, weekly appointment. Again, we look to the example of Jesus. He and the disciples were living life together. They were traveling, eating, being together in whatever the day brought. The way this might look in the 21st century is having lunch together, doing yard work together, texting, reading through the same Bible plan. The thread here is that you are doing things with the other person. You are, in a sense, doing life together and talking about God while you’re doing it. It’s so much easier to share hard things with someone who is walking the journey with you. And discipling is more effective when you can see how the other person lives and acts daily.
So, what does discipling with intention look like? First, think about what ‘intentional’ means. It means on purpose, something you are purposefully setting your energy on. It’s not waiting for the perfect moment or person to approach you. It’s seeing someone and purposefully going to them. If we want to form discipling relationships, we need to be okay with initiating those relationships and steering the conversation in certain directions when needed.
Second, as mentioned above, it’s getting into people’s lives, not in an intrusive way but in a regular, familiar way. I’ve found that often discipling doesn’t begin with a formal, “please can you disciple me” question. It’s organic. It’s being friends and getting comfortable together. Then you turn to deeper questions you text Bible verses of encouragement, share what you’re learning, and ask how they’re growing. As you learn, you share those things with them. You pray for each other and keep them accountable.
One of the hardest things for me is being informal in certain relationships. In my mind, when I have someone over for coffee and a chat, I want to sit and get out the nice dishes and give my full attention to the conversation, and sometimes that’s good and possible. But other times – especially if you know the person well – we shouldn’t be afraid to invite people in while we’re doing the work of living. Maybe this would involve planting flowers together, decorating the church, folding laundry, changing the oil in a car, or fixing a meal. Relationships can grow and flourish in the midst of doing these things together. And maybe most of the time, you’re joking and swapping stories. Still, even in small moments of sharing heartaches, frustrations, and failures, you’re deepening the relationship and allowing discipling to happen naturally.
When I was first married, a lady a few years older than me who already had young children approached me at church and asked me out for coffee. We talked about life as a newlywed, books we loved, fashion and makeup, and our favorite memories from growing up. Later, she invited my husband and me over for dinner, and the conversation was again informal. We continued an easy friendship and shared Bible verses and prayer requests. I taught her Sunday School preschool class when she was out of town, and she offered suggestions for Bible study books.
At the time, I didn’t consider she was discipling me. We were friends, and while we didn’t have everything in common, we got along well. However, looking back, I can see how she was helping me in ways I didn’t know I needed. Through her interest, encouragement, and support, she helped me transition into my new life and gave me a glimpse at what keeping a godly home can look like. She didn’t say, “Can I disciple you?” She initiated a friendship. Intentionally.
If you’re on the other side and want to be discipled, it works the same way. Look at the people around you. Have you reached out to anyone and tried to start a relationship? Is there someone you respect that you’ve asked for input about various things in your life?
It is worth noting that we can’t disciple everyone we know. As mentioned before, Jesus selected twelve specific men, and of those twelve, we see Him pulling three (Peter, James, John) aside. These were the three with Him on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1) and in Gethsemane, before He was betrayed (Matt. 26:36-37). Although Jesus preached to thousands and had many dedicated friends and followers, His focused teaching was for the twelve, and more personal time was spent with just three. There’s nothing magic in these numbers; you don’t need to limit yourself to twelve friends. But it is important to remember our time is limited and pulled in many directions. If we only have energy and resources for a few deep friendships, our time is still well spent with them.
True discipleship needs to be in person the majority of the time. I know it’s incredibly tempting to want that person on Instagram or Twitter to have a personal say or interest in your spiritual formation. But, as already mentioned, true discipling is life on life. It’s knowing each other and particular struggles or hardships. It’s stepping into each other’s lives. You can’t do that online. There are people on social media that I would love to know in person and count as friends. But since they aren’t, I read what they post, gather encouragement, and then see how I can pour that into the life of someone I personally know. We can learn from others from afar, but we shouldn’t expect them to truly get into our lives or disciple us in a helpful, biblical way.
I hope this encourages you to reach out and begin forming intentional relationships. Not every friendship will become a discipling opportunity, but we need to start somewhere!