Four minutes into one of my first sermons, I realized I’d made a pretty big mistake. Leading into that sermon, I genuinely believed words just came to the person speaking as he went. At least, I thought that’s what would happen to me because, you know, of my special talent for preaching.
That night, I walked up on the stage, read the passage, prayed, and then began with the few prepared thoughts I had. After four minutes I was completely out of material. I looked at the clock and panicked. Nothing else came whatsoever. So, I did what any self-respecting preacher would do—I repeated the only material I had. After six total minutes elapsed, I crash landed the plane and left the stage, resolved to never do that again. I learned this principle that night: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
That same failure to plan extends into other areas of our churches—like discipleship. I assumed discipleship was taking place in my people’s lives simply because they were attending the service and hearing me teach. Thankfully, this failure of mine to plan out discipleship was challenged at a youth pastor conference I didn’t have much interest in attending.
At the time, I was a youth pastor, and I attended a YouthLab Conference in Fort Worth, mostly so I could come back for the weekend to the city I loved and missed. Robby Gallaty was the keynote speaker, and he spent the entire weekend sharing about discipleship and creating a discipleship plan. I’m not exaggerating when I say that weekend was one of the most impactful ministry experiences for me because it was the first time I’d ever heard about an actionable discipleship plan within a local church.
Since that weekend, I have focused a lot of my attention on discipleship planning and leading cultural change within my church context for the sake of greater discipleship among my people. Here are some thoughts that may be helpful to you as you seek to do the same in your church.
1. The Hard Work: Plan Your Discipleship Plan
If we desire our people to develop as disciples of Jesus—in Christlikeness and in their involvement in the Great Commission—then we must give them the path forward. What happens for most people is that if uncertainty exists as to what to do, nothing is done. Thus, we need a plan for discipleship that we can lay out before our people with specific steps and goals that will lead them to greater levels of Christlikeness and Great Commission work.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
In creating the discipleship plan for our churches, there are a number of questions we need to answer to give us a framework:
- What is discipleship?
- How did Jesus model a discipleship relationship?
- What are we calling our people to do?
- In what areas are our people expected to grow?
- What are specific replicable steps people can take to grow as disciples in those areas?
- How do you define or gauge success?
- What is your method for replicating this process?
Whatever answer we give to these questions, we must source them from the Word of God.
In walking through these questions, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I encourage you to read books from pastors who have promoted discipleship in the local church. Two books that have been helpful to me are Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples and Rediscovering Discipleship, both by Robby Gallaty.
What Discipleship Looks Like at My Church
We promote Discipleship Groups (or D-Groups) within the context of our larger church structure consisting of large group worship service and non-gender-specific small groups or Life Groups. Each element of our structure—worship service, Life Groups, and D-Groups—fulfill an aspect of our discipleship plan for teaching, community, spiritual growth, and mission.
Our D-Groups are gender-specific and consist of 3-5 people who meet an hour or an hour and a half weekly for the purpose of Bible reading/discussion, Bible memorization, accountability, and prayer. These groups meet for 12-18 months, after which each member is encouraged to begin their own D-Group made up of new Christians or Christians who have not yet been discipled.
2. Promoting a Discipleship Culture
Once you have a discipleship plan, you need to have a plan for how to roll it out to your people. Just because you mention discipleship once or set out an informational sheet doesn’t mean your people will take it and run with it.
Here are a couple methods that, when used together, have been successful in rolling out discipleship in our church.
- Be a Discipler Yourself
This is the most organic method of promoting discipleship within our churches. We as disciples of Jesus are called to engage in discipleship just as all believers are. Out of faithfulness to Christ, we must personally be discipling people within our churches, leading the charge for spiritual development. And, as pastors, what we do, are involved with, and celebrate will be what our churches become. Therefore, we must have boots on the ground, leading discipleship groups and training people within those groups to replicate this process when our time as a group is over.
2. Preach About Discipleship
In addition to the ground attack of discipling people yourself, consider using an air attack by preaching about discipleship, both as a series as well as sprinkling discipleship stories and application in your sermons. What we celebrate from the stage is what our people will begin to be excited about.
3. Allow Members to Share Stories of Discipleship
In addition to preaching about discipleship, consider having members who are involved with discipleship share their positive experiences and stories about discipleship from the stage on a Sunday. The benefit of allowing others to speak about discipleship from the stage is that it may change the perspective in some peoples’ minds that discipleship is something “pastors” do to something people like they themselves take part in. This could be done by giving them three minutes to share their experience or it could be an interview that you lead.
3. Give Grace and Allow Time for Development
When I began at my church, a godly elder (and close friend) named Paul told me often, “You’ve got time.” What he meant was that I didn’t have to be in a rush to bring about all that God was going to do here at our church. Things take time to develop and that is OK. Often, that is God’s way. Just as in the parable of the mustard seed, new initiatives such as a discipleship plan will start small and develop over time with diligence. Celebrate each win, such as when a group flourishes and continues to meet after three months or when a member takes initiative to begin a group. Give grace to the process and to your people as a new culture of discipleship begins to develop.
Now, looking back on that rudderless preaching experience, I’m grateful it happened. Of course, there was embarrassment at the time, but I learned the great value of having a plan. For those of you also tasked with shepherding God’s people, do you have a discipleship plan?