Across the country, churches and contexts vary widely due to geography, age, socioeconomics, and many other factors. No matter the church setting, every pastor desires the best discipleship approach for the congregation. It is encouraging to know the solution is not elusive or difficult. Simply answer five basic questions when planning your discipleship strategy.
Question one: start by asking “why,” not “what.” Many pastors fall prey to thinking they must imitate a bigger church in their discipleship approach. They mistakenly think they must do “what” the big church is doing. But if you start with “why” and consider the problems that need solving in your own church, you will feel more confident explaining to your people why this approach works. People will more readily adopt the “what” when the “why” is clear to everyone. Churches around the country (and the world) face the same challenges: aging congregations, biblical illiteracy, lack of biblical worldview, and the loss of young adults when they come of age. The last problem is why the first problem exists.
If churches had concentrated on keeping young adults 30 years ago, our congregations would not be aging today. Such problems frame the “what” of discipleship because they start with the “why.” Remember, the “why” shapes your philosophical strategy, and the “what” forms the tactics and programs to solve or accomplish the mission.
Before going further, let’s define discipleship. Biblically, it means passionately finding, pursuing, and living for Christ while helping others (all generations and ethnicities) do the same. This involves both reaching and teaching (Matthew 28:18-20; John 15; Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Psalm 78:1-8). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
To effectively accomplish this goal, discipleship must be done within community. You cannot make disciples if you choose a solo approach to discipleship. People find others like themselves and form community around common interests and life experiences.
Question two: ask what communities you already have in your church. Begin by grouping people into natural communities based on needs, ages, seasons of life, ages of their oldest children, married, unmarried, and more. You must build from what you have toward what you want.
Once you identify these natural communities within your church, it is time for Question three: ask where and when these communities meet. The debate continues over meeting in the church or home (or coffee shops and restaurants). Which is better? The answer is both, but again, with the understanding of why each location works for communities. For some non-Christ followers, meeting at a coffee shop is safer, less threatening, and maybe more convenient.
This may also be true for regular church members, but you still expect attendance at your weekly worship service. Why ask everyone to attend two events at two locations? Instead, combine discipleship and worship by having both small groups and church services in one location on the same day—at church. In a day when people are reluctant to visit other homes or host others for safety and liability reasons, the church offers great advantages: an appropriate environment for kids with built-in supervision, since all ages meet at the same time, and enough chairs, tables, and restrooms. It goes without saying that young adults of every generation own the “cool factor.” They can easily gather in homes and coffee shops, but that often stops when they have kids (or they stay within a close circle of friends, limiting outreach to new people).
The layers of discipleship graphic below illustrate suggested meeting types, locations, and participants based on the discipleship maturity level discussed in the next question.
Question four: ask if there are layers to discipleship. Absolutely! Even in Jesus’ group of 12, we find layers of commitment, with an inner circle of three (25%). While we hear much about Peter, James, and John, we cannot overlook the eight other solid disciples who brought many people to Christ and followed Him faithfully. And remember, even Jesus had one follower who was barely connected and ultimately did not stick. Jesus taught all His disciples regularly while connecting with a few more deeply, demanding greater individual maturity (illustrated by His asking them to watch and pray alone). Have you ever wondered if Jesus wished all 12 would comprehend everything He taught in a single setting? He addressed particular needs in certain settings and never stopped trying to reach the lost, all while teaching His disciples to model His approach.
Every sports team has similar layers of talent and expectations. The athletes train together but also benefit from specialized coaching to categories (communities) of players. While one size cannot fit all communities, all communities can fit into one strategy.
The first layer concentrates on biblical literacy, the redemptive message of Scripture, and the application of Scripture for good choices. This layer includes all ages (everyone) and equips them for everyday life beyond the walls of the church. The next two layers use homes and coffee shops primarily for subgroups (often called D-Groups), apart from the larger community: men, women, newlyweds, and groups interested in a special topic or study beyond what the larger community tackles together. The final layer is always the product of these community goals. Each person participating in the top layers will live out his or her faith in personal study, influencing others for Christ, and be active in daily personal quiet time in the Word and prayer.
Question five: ask what content is taught. The answer changes with each layer as the “why” and “what” shifts while still complementing the overall strategy. Follow the chart and notice everyone participates in layer 1, but fewer participate in layers 2 and 3. The goal is to push people of all ages and communities to reach level 4—knowing if they do levels 1 and 4, their faith is more likely to stick, because you accomplished the “why” from the first question.
Studies show the major factors in kids sticking with their faith in adulthood involve regular time in Scripture, sharing their faith, and having an involved, caring adult helping develop their faith. “What” they are taught should always complement the “why” of layer 1, making the choice to remain faithful easy. This is why it is important to have everyone studying the same lessons, in age-specific classes, and using a planned curriculum like D6. If every teacher writes his or her own curriculum, or if some groups study the sermon and others a different Bible lesson, no connected conversations can easily take place in the home. By putting every age on the same page, you set the stage for helpful conversations and applications in the home, where life happens, and instruction is needed. D6 curriculum provides biblical literacy, a biblical worldview, and easy connection points to conversations and life applications.
Provide corresponding devotional studies for daily home use, encouraging and discipling them toward level 4. This makes it easy for a caring adult to study the same material and help children apply those lessons to everyday life. The church should not look like it has five strategies, one for each age group (pre-school, children, teens, adults, older adults) “What” you teach must answer the research, solve the issues all congregations face, and build on your comprehensive strategy to make a generational difference.
In layers 2 and 3, natural communities receive individualized discipling and practice. Pick topics of interest, explore the sermon series further, increase levels of accountability, and watch sub-groups thrive and develop during a study of a book of the Bible, a published book, or self-written lessons. Layers 2 and 3 also make space for new members/ believers’ classes. View layers 2 and 3 like elective classes in college. Everyone loves selecting topics, but a student is poorly educated without the core curriculum. We must provide the essentials that growing disciples may not select on their own. Just like everyone needs the Sunday message without the option to select the topic they desire, layer 1 provides core discipleship teaching everyone needs.
Be careful not to allow preferences to override principles. You cannot opt for layers 2 and 3 and ignore level 1 any more than you can ignore proteins at a meal and opt only for sides and dessert (or even a supplement alone). Offer your people the healthiest approach to discipleship. Work through these five essential questions, looking at your own congregation and not another church to form a well-rounded approach to discipleship.
This article was originally published in the April/May 2022 ONE Magazine.