Someone once told me that when the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I looked in my small groups toolbox over the weekend and I have a bunch of tools... but the hammer needs to strike the head of the discipleship nail once again because it's still sticking out of the wood. In fact, I'm confident that some churches have never even attempted to strike the nail ( because there is no nail to be found) while others have tried but failed (considering all the marred wood surrounding the nail).
Another wise person once told me that if you ask the right questions, you'll get the right answers. So, here's some of the best questions I can find to help develop a discipleship path that actually moves people from spiritual immaturity to maturity and into leading others along the same path.
Where am I?
A couple of weeks ago, I bought a GPS unit. What an amazing little gadget and time-saver. However, as nifty as it is, the thing is worthless for providing direction to the driver if it cannot obtain the requisite satellite signal to inform the GPS unit where it is on planet Earth. Without a point of origination, it's a very expensive road map that's cumbersome and not worth the time to use over a printed map from the gas station.
Many church discipleship programs/processes have no instrument in place to help people determine a point of origination. Without some process or tool to discover where one finds himself or herself on the giant map of Christian maturity, one can never move in any direction with confidence knowing he or she is progressing toward a destination.
My father discovered this fundamental discipleship principle in the 1980's. He developed a little booklet entitled The Journey Guide For New Christians that is still for sale today and does a good job of helping a new believer—with the help of a mentor—determine where they are with a knowledge of God, God's values, their own learning style, and basic milestones for a road to spiritual maturity.
When I turned it on my new GPS for the first time, I was forced to walk outside so it could find out where I was. When a satellite signal was found, the gizmo came alive with features. It changed screens and said aloud, "Where do you want to go?"
A self-assessment tool will help a believer see where they are and where they can go with Christ. It also shows the believer how important their small group is in the process of working out your (plural use of the word) salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). If you don't have an initial interview piece like this in your discipleship process, you no longer need to wonder why people don't start down your discipleship path in the first place or why folks don't make it through it ... they have no idea they need to make a move in the right direction. Self-assessment is an excellent inoculation for spiritual alzheimer's.
Where am I supposed to go?
I have a confession to share here. For many years, I believed (and taught) that it was vital to the small group ministry's success that we disciple new believers into strong group leaders. In other words, the core motivation was to train believers to a point to where they could expand a man-made structure inside a local church.
Friends, there are only two reasons to disciple others into spiritual maturity:
1. We're called to do it by Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:18-20.
2. It's heathy for everyone involved in the process.
Today, I firmly believe we are to make disciples to build the kingdom of God and provide individuals with a strong, driving sense of personal and corporate purpose in life. If we do this well, the church gets an endless number of people who can be mobilized as small group leaders as one of their first leadership responsibilities. You read that right. Small group leadership isn't a big thing really, and it should be the first of many leadership roles a believer embraces.
So, to answer the question, Where am I supposed to go?, a church must examine its mission and vision and create an end-goal that is in perfect alignment.
My mom was brought up in the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. With great regularity, her pastor invited CMA missionaries to come and share about their missions work in Africa, Asia and South America. As she aged and matured in Christ, she felt that winning the prize (Phil. 3:14) was to serve the Lord as an overseas vocational missionary.
The CMA continues to cast a strong vision for vocational missions, and they use their small groups as a support structure to raise up missionaries. What does your discipleship path reflect? Does it answer the question for the disciple, "Where am I supposed to go?"
How am I to get there?
I no longer teach there is a superior way of helping a believer get from point A to point Z. There are many learning styles and methods. However, I will say this about myself—I do not learn in classrooms or by reading books. I learn by interacting with someone who loves me deeply and is willing to walk with me into whatever I need to experience so I can learn verbally. (There are actually seven types of learning styles. Check out this web page for more information about them.
I don't profess to be a discipleship expert by any means. But I do know that offering a discipleship class ain't gonna cut the mustard. It will require small group members taking responsibility for other small group members to get the job done.
I love the analogy of hiking up a sizable mountain with a guide. The mountain is so large that part of the mountain rises above the clouds and I can't see the summit. However, I'm confident I'll make it to the top. Why? I am motivated by my senior pastor, who has been to the summit many times. Moreover, I am not alone... I have a friend who's been much higher in elevation on this climb than I have ever been, and he's come back down the mountain to show me the way.
As we hike along a steep path, I know the climb won't happen fast and we're not in a hurry. Each day, we consider the day's pace and how long it will take us to get from the base camp to the camp found at 1,200 feet. There, we will learn about the rock formations ahead and learn techniques for climbing those rocks. We'll get tools for that part of the journey, and build upon what we learned when we were hiking in the days before on lower elevations.
Where will we camp along the journey?
Most of the discipleship paths I have examined carefully have covered ground in the areas of basics of the faith such as the depravity of man, the true nature of God, the life of Jesus Christ, the work of the cross, salvation by grace, water baptism, the Trinity, tithing, avoiding sin, developing spiritual disciplines, and the inerrancy of the Bible. I'd want all this in my church's discipleship path for sure.
Yet much is missing. What about freedom from satanic strongholds and the need for deliverance? How about training for relational evangelism and mentoring/discipling a new Christian effectively? There are many other areas along the spiritual path to maturity that may not be easy for a mentor-guide to help a believer move through. That's where the church must rise to the occasion with corporately implemented events. At strategic places in every discipleship process, there must be events (camps) where the local church helps believers move to the next level.
The Vineyard church where my wife and I serve has a six month intensive program to help people walk through and out of relational and sexual brokenness called Living Waters. While I've been through this process, I am also a big fan of weekend events like Encounter God, which help the believer see the need for something much deeper.
The combination of weekend events in the form of retreats and mentoring makes for a powerful and transformational process.
Who else is going along?
I have a lot of axes to grind when it comes to the way people do church, but none needs grinding more than what I'm about to share. If the church was commanded to make disciples, why does it so often fall short of the mandate by discipling only those rare individuals who want to sign up for it? Discipleship is something every small group member should be involved with, and they should know their current position on the path. Any discipleship process for a small group ministry that's worth its weight in salt involves everyone in the disciplemaking process.
This is an easy thing to conceptually agree with in theory, but a much harder thing to do in reality. My grandfather would shout, "There's a fly in the ointment!"
Many a small group ministry has zero discipleship going on beyond what is heard from the pulpit. Even if a stellar discipleship pathway were set in place, many existing small group members would say they are already mature Christians and don't need to go through it.
One in five would be correct by my estimation. And that 20% aren't that mature in Christ. If they were, they'd instantly see the opportunity to mentor others.
Implementing a new discipleship process must be done very carefully. Donning my strategic hat, I'd say that the latter portions should be implemented first with the so-called "mature" believers in the small group ministry... spiritual gift assessments and relational evangelism training would be two higher milestones I'd want to move through first, after accountability partnerships have been established among the members.
I am certain of one truth about small group ministry: everyone must be personally involved in the Great Commission. When this is happening, the small group structure is welcomed by everyone involved because it supports the lived-out values of the disciple makers. Let me repeat a small group truth here to insure it's caught through repetition: Small groups will not move lazy consumer Christians into action. Structures don't motivate anyone who isn't already motivated.
[End Note: I cannot take credit for many of the principles and concepts in this blog entry. That credit belongs to my dad, who was one of the first pastors I know of who create a systematic equipping system for small group members which I have moved through numerous times with new believers.]