“Disciples who make disciples.” This phrase is a marker of ministry success every church-planter and missionary strives for in their sphere of influence and discipleship.
For many Christians, making a disciple might seem like a herculean task, as much of your early effort is spent learning how to be a disciple yourself. For the first ten years of my Christian life, I remember stumbling through multiple attempts to make a disciple, well aware that my own consistency in prayer and knowledge of the Bible was meager. I did manage to impact a few other Christians, but, by and large, I felt I was surrounded by others who were much more adept at the Christian life. I remember my many, many failures to impact others. One guy I tried to disciple failed to thrive. Another ended up in jail.
Principles for Discipleship
Along the way, my desire for obedience in making disciples was evidence of God’s work in my life. My lack of success was due to many things, my own immaturity chiefly among them. This long season of fruitlessness regarding discipleship was a humbling experience. Thankfully, God does not base his love for me on my performance (Romans 3:23-26).
Christ came to earth to seek and to save sinners. And I am one of them. No matter how many times I gladly choose obedience over sin as a Christian, all credit for my new condition always and forever is owed to Christ. I am the product of God’s merciful action on my behalf. I can’t earn his favor, because I have no capacity to do any kind of work that pleases Him in my own power (Romans 6:22-23).
Here are four guiding principles that help to ground discipleship (and disciplers) in the gospel.
1. Receive potential disciples from God.
When you find yourself being blessed by God with opportunities to disciple others, your flesh will likely try to deceive you into thinking some of the credit belongs to you instead of God. The result of this error is a diminished glory for God and a distorted picture of what a true disciple looks like. Disciples should be open-handed and look to God to provide opportunities to influence others for the sake of the gospel. Earners, on the other hand, use others to prove they are “good enough” to earn God’s favor. Like the shamed younger son returning from a far country, these earners lack a real intimacy with God and negotiate for position rather than listening to what God has to offer them (Luke 15:18-19).
2. Be a discipled disciple.
When you want to disciple others, you ought to first find someone who is more spiritually mature than you and ask them to disciple you. Not only will you learn much that will benefit you, but those whom you disciple will also benefit. They will have a discipler who can empathize with them in the process of discipleship, and they will also have another resource when you are stumped by a difficult situation.
3. Be a discipler who is teachable.
When you are a young Christian, you should begin discipling others as quickly as possible. This can be done informally, for you will likely have little to say at first. In terms of your pride, discipling others can be a great way to make you see the reality that you are in need. If no one wants you to disciple them, chances are, you are immature. Go to someone who is more spiritually mature than you and ask them what is getting in the way. Tell them you want to disciple others and would like their help as you root out relational habits that distract from your goal of being a discipler.
4. Discipleship requires listening and praying.
If you are quick to speak, like I often am, make sure you keep this tendency in check by asking for God’s help. Nothing shuts down trust in a discipling relationship like an overbearing know-it-all. Be a friend who listens long enough to truly understand. Open your Bible before speaking and share some Scripture that applies to the other person’s situation. Pray together and ask God for wisdom as to how best to live in light of truth. It is wise to admit that you don’t know an answer. Then seek out that answer in Scripture and prayer. Reconvene later to discuss the issue again. It is foolish to want the person you disciple to rely on you instead of relying on God.