Edited by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here.  

What is Discipling?

 ‘Making disciples’, really serious followers of Jesus, is central to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). What we call ‘discipling’ happens in many kinds of relationships. One vital example is in helping younger Christians grow, and helping ensure that the essential foundations for spiritual growth are in place in their lives.

Following up new Christians, for instance (we should ensure that anyone who becomes a Christian has such a relationship at least for a time, to make certain that the basics are in place); or young Christians; or Christians who need special attention because they may not (yet) be able to fit into (for example) a homegroup.

‘Discipling’ is not the same as ‘coaching’. Coaching is for more mature Christians and is non-directive: the coach helps the coachee find solutions themselves, and indeed may not even be an expert in the field of the coachee.  In discipling, in contrast, there is an older Christian in a ‘helping’ role who has some experience to share and who consciously provides input, counsel, and some direction.  Of course if the relationship continues for a long time, and as the younger Christian matures, a discipling relationship may well turn into a coaching one.  We could say that discipling and coaching are two ends of a spectrum.

Discipling is also not the same as counselling, in the sense of deeper ministry in areas of deep emotional, mental and spiritual distress.  Again, there is a spectrum here and some discipling relationships may come to involve some elements of counselling.  But true counselling needs particular expertise and we must not be embarrassed to be in partnership with other believers who are equipped to handle these counselling elements.

So then, ‘discipling’ assumes an older and a younger Christian, and a process whereby ‘making disciples’ is happening.  Don’t be ashamed about the implication here of your being a tiny bit wiser or maturer and able to help your younger brother or sister grow: if you’ve been invited to do this it’s because someone else confidently believes that – although you will surely learn from them too - in some ways at least you’re at least one step ahead of the person you’re discipling, and that you can help them grow!  Paul counsels us against having either too high or too low a perception of our strengths: ‘Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment’ (Rom 12:3).

So, ‘discipling’ involves helping younger Christians grow and helping to ensure that the ‘essential foundations for spiritual growth’ are in place in their lives. But what in particular should I be aiming for here? 

The first priority has to be making sure that your friend really understands the gospel, is really saved, and has the assurance that flows from that.  (Maybe work through the Why Jesus booklet with them?)  This isn’t just because heaven and hell depend on their not ‘just missing’ what Jesus called the ‘narrow gate’ (Matt 7:13) – but also because in significant ways everything else in their spiritual growth builds on the gospel.  

And the second priority has to be ensuring that they learn to feed themselves! – that is, helping them learn the vital habit of regular daily ‘quiet times' of personal prayer and Bible study.  Suggest ways of doing these (for example: fixing tomorrow’s time; seeking the main ideas in the Bible passage and turning them into prayer and worship; how to pray and what to pray about [Thankyou/Sorry/Please? ACTS = Adoration/Confession/Thanksgiving/asking for Stuff?])  Perhaps do your ‘quiet times’ together a few times and show them what you do.  Maybe when you meet, ask what they’ve read in the Bible the last couple of days.  Of course if they’re someone with a learning disability or who finds reading difficult, we will need to be thinking about tapes or CDs.  Whatever, take some time to find Bible reading resources for your friend: ‘Every Day With Jesus for New Christians’ (CWR) is an example.  Pray for them in all this!

Then what next?  For Jesus, ‘make disciples’ meant ‘teach them everything I have commanded you’ . That’s quite a calling!   So we have to look to the Holy Spirit to lead us and show us the areas of priority where He desires to work in our friend - and also, of course, listening to them and their felt needs.   Whatever the area God is working on, many of the underlying values will come out again and again and be reinforced.  Here are some of the ‘basic and foundational areas’ it’s vital that they should grasp, that are good to pray especially about and sense how God would have you help them move forward over the period that you meet together...

Many of these are covered in a useful short guide called Just for Starters (Matthias Media). Or they might flow well from your going chapter by chapter together through John White’s excellent book The Fight (‘This gave a fantastic platform for discussing all aspects of the Christian faith’, says one person we know).

In all this, however, we want our friend to grow into the unique person God has made them to be. The body of Christ has many diverse parts and we need them all!  Discipling is about helping people discover who they are in Christ, growing in their gifts and developing in character along the way. A healthy relationship means the disciple should grow to be our equal on many levels - indeed, outgrowing us in some!  If we have fostered dependency, we have failed.  And growing in maturity also includes taking personal responsibility for one's own spiritual life: taking on responsibilities in proportion to one's maturity, seeking to understand God's Word and apply it to one's own life, and having a teachable spirit while nonetheless learning to exercise  discernment in weighing up the interpretation and advice of others - including our mentors!  Make sure you ask them, ‘What do you think?’  The less you are having to direct them, the faster they are growing!

Discipling: Getting Started

First of all, face your fears and anxieties about this role!  Fears can be good because they keep us dependent on God – His strength is made perfect in our weakness (see 2 Cor 12:9).  But you’re unlikely to go wrong – care is seldom unappreciated!  Remember you don’t need to have the answers all the time.  Your aim is to learn from God together, and often that may mean reflecting and clarifying their thoughts in hope and faith, as much as it is to teach them.  But above all, your own hunger to grow in Christ is what you will pass on!

Pencil in times to meet when you won’t feel rushed.  And when you do, put a clock where you can see it so that you don’t have to look at your watch.  Switch your phone off, and if it rings, don’t answer it!

Encourage them as to how meeting together like this can help them grow. Emphasise also that this is a two-way thing - you are expecting God to use them to help you grow too.

Discuss mutual expectations – how often will you meet and how long (weekly for about an hour??)  Perhaps agree provisionally for how long a period you might expect to continue to meet.

Perhaps tell each other your life-stories in your first meeting?  Talk too about each other’s hopes for the future and for your personal spiritual growth.

Discipling: Knowing Where You’re Going

As we’ve said above: have a plan of the foundational areas and topics you want to cover and to help them grow in over the period you meet together, but be flexible with it.

What Scriptures will help? (What’s helped you in this week’s area?)  If you’re using one of the study guides recommended above, that question’s answered – but what activities besides Bible discussion might help them grow in this week’s area?  (An introduction to someone else who knows more about it than you do?- a missionary, if you’re looking at mission?)  Some people are more visual learners and need sometimes to see or experience what you’re talking about together.  And what tools should you start thinking about for topics you’re aiming to look at in the future – relevant books, websites, tapes?

Then again, an important part of all this is helping them learn themselves how to learn spiritually – and not just to learn knowledge, but obedience to God.  So encourage them to take initiative in setting their own specific goals for growth – what might their next growth area be? or some step of faith whereby they can put into practice this week what you’ve been talking about?- and then in assessing together how they are getting on with it. (On a scale of one to ten, rather than just ‘ok’?).

Maximize the ‘encourager’ side of your personality. Rejoice over small successes!  But pray too for the Lord’s help in being lovingly firm, and holding them accountable, when you need to.  You may find it easier to help them with accountability as you have a slightly ‘official’ position in that your relationship has been encouraged by the church?  But don’t let this undermine your own openness and honesty; it is above all God who has brought you together, so that you can both help each other grow (Eph 4:16), in a two way process; and your relationship will deepen as you are honest about how you yourself need to grow.  So encourage them to hold you accountable too in these areas.  In particular, prayerfully helping each other’s witness forward, step by step, should be an important part of your life together.

Be prepared that things may not go quite as you hope!  And remember you’re in a team in your church – you’re seeking to help them grow in some areas of life, but they (like all of us) will need to learn from others in other areas.

Be a Good Friend

This is a relationship, not a project!  Show them respect - take an interest in what interests them – ask questions - learn to look through their eyes and grasp what they care about and why.  Look out for areas of shared interests.  And be reliable and trustworthy!

Pray together.  Exercise hospitality.  It doesn’t have to be a Bible study every time you get together! Share your life as much as you can.  Have fun together!  If at all possible, do some ministry or a practical project together.  What we want them to ‘catch’ from our friendship is far more than just head-knowledge, it’s (at the least) a lifestyle: ‘Whatever you have learned or seen or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice’ (Phil 4:9).  The best place for this is if they can be welcomed in your home and family: lunches and birthdays, for example.  Still, this varies from person to person according to our life-situation: what other pressures we have, our family situation.  (With emotionally damaged people in particular it may be very important to set boundaries, and to protect space for your family and for yourself.  Don’t do more than you can do with love: draw back when necessary to a level of relationship that you can sustain with love.)

Whether they’re ‘damaged’ or not, love them!  Have big hopes for them; and make sure you PRAY for them regularly!

Saturate your friendship with Scripture

Always seek to have some component of scripture in your ‘serious’ times together.  (I have often found that the most fruitful discussions have been about areas that ‘just come up’, rather than what I’d planned to study – but that’s ok!)  Try to ask questions so that they make the discoveries.  Focus on key passages and stories that have been meaningful to you.

Emphasise the importance of quiet times.  Talk about what each of you is learning in this way – particularly in the last 48 hours!  When you look at a Bible passage together, model how Bible study is done – drawing out the main ideas from a passage, turning them into thanksgiving and prayer.  (But sometimes your time together may just focus on one verse!)  And encourage them in the habit of reading good Christian books on a regular basis.

Be a Good Listener

No matter how important the topic you’re discussing and the wonderful things you’re hoping to share, stay focused on what they’re saying. Use gestures to encourage them to keep talking - through nodding your head, leaning forward, eye contact.  Don’t fidget!  Andrew Waugh writes:

‘If you're doing more than half the talking, you're probably not listening.

- Nod, grunt, uh-huh, keep on giving nonverbal clues that you're paying attention.

- Feed back the feeling words: eg, Talker: "...which just made me feel more desperate." Listener: "Desperate?"

- Near the end of a listening phase ask two questions (which may prolong the discussion by another 20 per cent): Q1 "What's the most important thing you've told me just now?" Q2 "Is there anything you'd like to do as a result of our conversation?"

- Never, ever say you know exactly how they feel. You don't. [You may well want to encourage them that they’re not alone by sharing an experience you can say was a little bit like theirs – but there may be all kinds of reasons why you responded differently.]

- You are not obliged to come up with answers or solutions; 80% of the value comes from the talker being listened to, which for many is a very rare experience.’

What if Things Come Up Which Leave Me Out of My Depth?

Firstly, know what your depth is!  "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but with sober judgement."   Be honest, say you would like to include someone else with you to pray about or input on a particular area (for example past occult involvement or an addiction), or to refer it on to others who are more pastorally experienced.  (This is a very normal thing to do, even if it means ending your discipling relationship; we’re a team in church.)  Make clear that in doing this you are not rejecting them or wanting to end the relationship (unless of course you feel you should!)

Be aware that emotional healing is often a long slow process and is much like an onion, getting rid of the damage layer by layer. The direction is more important than the speed of travel - there is no time limit to the process, just keep heading in the right direction.

Hurt and damaged people need time, safety, and acceptance.  Try not to appear shocked by what they tell you; model openness: “We are all sinners saved by grace!”  Focus on the truth of the freedom available in Jesus, and not just our feelings.  Be aware that hurt people often hurt others and may lash out.  With emotionally damaged people in particular it may be very important to set boundaries that you are comfortable with, and to protect time and space for your family and for yourself.  This may have to be done very explicitly; some more damaged people don’t pick up clues or hints.  (‘I’m finding this difficult and I need to make sure that when we meet I can give you real time and attention; let’s arrange a time that suits us both.’)  As we’ve said above, don’t do more than you can do with love: draw back first to a level of relationship that you can sustain with love.

If the person you’re discipling turns out to have been involved deeply in the occult, this isn’t something to deal with alone.  Arrange a separate time to pray with them and with someone else with experience in this area.

Any relationships are potentially hard work; so remember that, if you end up carrying significantly challenging or emotional burdens for your friend, you may need emotional support yourself from a church leader - and especially if your relationship has moved down the spectrum towards the counselling end.  Your pastor should be in touch with anyone they have asked to take on a discipling relationship (and can arrange for more specialized help to be available if it is towards the counselling end of the spectrum); please talk to them at any time you would find it helpful.

What Do I Do if it All Seems to Fall Apart?

First: If they walk away, let them go!- but keep a door open for the relationship to resume if that seems right and they want it.

Then, get support for yourself!  Talk to someone; we believe that it’s ok to fail!  Look over what has happened with someone else and be willing (like Jesus with his disciples) to recognise areas of weakness and failure, and to try again.   But then again, don't take responsibility that was not yours.  ‘I learnt from this’, writes one person, ‘that you can do all you can to enable a person to build their faith, but it’s their responsibility to take things forward and you can’t do that for them!’

How Do We Prevent Long Term Dependency?

As you aim for growth, promote independent thought.  Tell them why things are as they are – because God says so in his Word, not because we say so!  Ask questions rather than always giving answers; point out the scriptures that speak to a particular issue and send them away to pray them through: “What might God be saying to me through these Scriptures?”  Encourage the person to think for themselves; help them make their own decisions.

And for yourself, stay off your pedestal!  Be honest, within reason, about your own shortcomings; point towards Jesus.  (And understand your own needs to be liked, respected etc – and get them met elsewhere!)

Keep them looking outwards.  Encourage steps of faith as well as good habits. ‘Tell them why; show them how; get them started (introduce them to other practitioners); help them keep going; help them pass it on.’

Coming Towards An End

It may well be good to have an agreed close to your ‘deliberate’ discipling relationship.  If you do, discuss how they will go on pursuing their spiritual growth. Tell them (if it’s the case!) that you’re available to be a sounding-board when they need you, and particularly to tell you when they need prayer.  But while the deliberate discipling relationship may have stopped, the friendship can go on!

But remember too that your aim was to pass things on in a way that they could pass them on to yet others who the Spirit puts on their hearts as faithful, available, and teachable (2 Tim 2:2).  ‘Helping them pass it on’ is the step disciple-makers often leave out.  Only when it’s passed on does what you’ve done together multiply in the way Jesus desires!   Jesus is our example: he invested in individuals.  You have no idea how much the person you’re now investing in may be accomplishing for God’s glory ten years later – or the people they will go on to invest in!

So expect lots of God's blessing on both of you!

Compiled by Pete Lowman,

With thanks to Nicky Ashby, Jeffrey Tan, Vasie Gurusamy, Rod Eades, Roman Zischka, Steve and Sue Han, Dorothea Lowman, Helen Brown, and John and Jan Moore; and especially Nalini McMaster and Bob Sewell Alger.

© Pete Lowman.