By Chuck Lawless
I keep in my desk a Father’s Day card from a student in whom I invested significant time. That card encourages me to press on when I get tired of the bureaucracy, paperwork, meetings, and tedious tasks that sometimes come with the job of being a seminary dean. It also reminds me that most churches have not yet figured out how to do discipleship.
Most churches—if they do discipleship at all—still do it programmatically. That is, they organize a program, teach some classes, and evaluate the program’s success based on numbers attending. The more who attend, the better the program is assumed to be.
To be clear, I am not opposed to programs. Well-designed and well-implemented programs can be an effective step in disciplemaking. My concern is that programmatic discipleship built solely around small groups and directed studies misses the most obvious New Testament means of disciplemaking: one-to-one mentoring.
Jesus produced disciples by investing first in a group of twelve men, and then more pointedly in a group of three. He called them to be with Him, taught them, empowered them, prayed before them, sent them out, challenged them, called them to account, and even fixed a meal for them (see Matt 5-7; Mark 3:13-15; Luke 9:1-6, 18, 29; John 21:9). They in turn became leaders of the early church.
The Apostle Paul followed Jesus’ model by pouring his life into a few young men. The best example is Timothy, whose life was never the same after the missionary evangelist called him to join his team (Acts 16:1-3). The young protégé watched Paul minister, surely rejoiced with him when lives were changed, and prayed for him when he was persecuted. What joy Paul must have felt when he could end his race with the knowledge that Timothy would carry on the work of the gospel (2 Tim 4:1-8).
Why should we make disciples through mentoring?
- The approach is biblical. If Jesus and Paul made disciples through this means, how can we not follow that pattern? Older men and women teaching the younger generation is not optional for the church (Titus 2:1-8). A commitment to the Word requires a commitment to mentoring.
- Christian teaching lived out reinforces the truth of the Word. The mentee who watches his mentor do personal evangelism is more likely to catch that fire. A mentor with a godly marriage gives his disciple the invaluable gift of Christian living modeled in the home. Faith exhibited during times of crisis becomes a challenging example for the disciple to emulate. Simply stated, it is in the classroom of life that we best see the Word in action.
- Mentoring discipleship requires the mentor to guard his life against the Enemy’s attacks. Committed disciplemakers wear a bull’s eye on their back for Satan. He knows that if he can seriously wound the mentor, the disciples bear the scars of that fall. Knowing that their actions affect a second generation of believers, good disciplemaking mentors stand strong against the Enemy.
- A strong disciplemaking relationship provides a safe place to deal with failure. Confession is good, for it brings our sin out of the Enemy’s darkness into the light—where we can deal with the wrong through repentance and forgiveness. Most believers, however, have no one to hold them accountable to Christian living. A disciplemaking mentor models holiness, calls his disciples to the same, and holds them accountable to that standard. Should they fail, he offers forgiveness and encourages them to return to the fight.
This kind of disciplemaking is, of course, costly—and often risky. Finding the time to invest in others usually means deleting something else from the calendar. Your own sin becomes magnified when others are watching. The costs of study resources, shared meals, and occasional travel expenses quickly add up. Pastors who mentor may discover that church members accuse them of having “favorites.”
On the other hand, the risk you take might result in a disciple whose faith is potent and whose growth is obvious. You might have the privilege of watching someone grow far beyond you and be used by God in ways you had never dreamed. Indeed, you might just find a “son in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2) who remembers you on Father’s Day.
I’ll take that risk any day.