Discipleship: The Missing Key in New Convert Care

Discipleship: The Missing Key in New Convert Care
Phillip Bower

Downer and MacGregor articulate a two-phase process of discipleship. In phase 1, evangelism, they use the image of farming. The believer’s involvement with the non-believer is described in three stages: cultivating, sowing, and harvesting. In phase 2, after the point of spiritual birth, the discipleship metaphor changes to parenting. The mature believer’s role is that of parent/discipler and the new believer’s role is that of child/disciple. Over the course of time the new believer should grow through four stages of development in the process of seeking Christlikeness (69). First, they are baby Christians. Their cry is ‘feed me!’ Their primary needs are for information about the new life in Christ and loving care to help them survive.

The second stage is the child Christian. The request now is ‘teach me!’ The primary needs are for the basic truths of the Bible and someone to explain them. Adolescent Christians represent the third stage of growth. Their demand is ‘show me!’ Their primary need is to find victory over sin and to develop a life of obedience to Christ. Finally, the adult Christian can say to a new disciple ‘follow me!’ Their primary need is to use their gifts in ministry and begin training others (98). These four stages are discussed in great detail by Christopher Adsit in Personal Disciple-making and closely parallel the four stages articulated in Leroy Eims’ classic, The Lost Art of Disciple making (Adsit 60-76; Eims 181-186).

Jenson and Stevens have combined Tippett’s ‘Process of Change and Engle’s Evangelistic ‘Countdown’ to demonstrate graphically that making disciples is a process that begins prior to conversion and continues far beyond (182). Many congregations and denominations have developed ministries and systems which help lead seekers to Christ and subsequently grow them up in their faith (Garlow Team 15; Gospel 3; Hornsby 4; Martin Issachar 125-128; Write 74-78; Warren Purpose 144). However, the mainline congregations studied by Oswald and Leas offered little help to new members in going deeper in their spiritual lives. Most of the congregations had no formal system or plan that could direct new members deeper into their faith, just as they had little or no plan for attracting or incorporating new people into the church. Sadly, it seemed that all formal assimilation efforts ended once people officially joined the church (69).

Making Disciples: Evangelism

Too often evangelism has been equated with ‘decision making’ rather than ‘disciple making;’ however, evangelism has only been accomplished when disciples are made (Arn 8-35; Logan Beyond 103-106; Schwarz Paradigm 199; Stutzman 57). Robert Orr illustrates the destructive results of short-sighted evangelism efforts. Research has shown that there are three major times in the first year when newcomers tend to leave. The first and largest of these drop-out times comes within the first eight weeks after joining. These drop-outs are usually new Christians who were the product of manipulative approaches to evangelism. ‘Research indicates that the method of evangelism has a great deal to do with the fruit that remains’ (6).

Perhaps the most effective way of making disciples is for existing Christians to focus on the oikos principle. Oikos is the Greek word for ‘household.’ In the Greco-Roman world, oikos described more than just one’s immediate family. It included all of one’s sphere of influence including servants, servants’ families, friends, and business associates. Most people become Christians and enter the church through webs of relationship common kinship, common friendship, and common association. The effectiveness of this natural method of disciple-making is that it is the most fruitful way to reach people; it tends to reach entire families; and, it provides the most effective means of assimilating new members into the church, through the use of existing relationship (Arn 40-53; Neighbour 61).

One of the more common ways that the church can assist its members in evangelizing their oikos (relational network) is by providing a newcomer or membership class that clearly presents the Gospel of Christ. ‘Let’s not assume that everyone who indicates a desire to become a member of the church has already become a Christian’ (Heck 16).

Discipleship: Establishing New Believers

Christian leaders have recognized the importance of spiritual formation for new believers and have acknowledged that the church must greatly improve in the area of new Christian follow-up (Mead 50-51; Moyer 348). But none has stated it as clearly as Wesley, ‘How dare you lead people to Christ without providing adequate opportunity for growth and nurture. Anything else is simply begetting children for the murderer’ (Merrill 39). Three basic formats summarize the variety of ways that local churches have offered nurturing for new and growing Christians: classes, small groups, and one-to-one discipleship.

New Believer’s Class

Many congregations have had great success with a special class for new believers. Often this is a short class that is repeated several times a year, or it may simply be on-going and the lesson topics recycle every two or three months. The danger of the class format is that it can become too focused on academic content and curriculum rather than relationships (Coleman Disciplemaking 149-152; Merrill 46; Stutzman 63). The key to successful nurture of new believers is relationship (Stutzman 59). Warren states that ‘believers grow faster when you provide a track to grow on’ (335). But he also acknowledges that Christians need relationships in order to grow and that believers develop best in the context of fellowship (338-339).

Small Group and One-to-One Discipleship

‘Balanced discipleship takes place in the ongoing, nurturing environment of accountability provided by the cell group’ (Slaughter 75). One of the most successful models of small group discipleship was that of early Methodism. ‘Wesley’s genius invented the class meeting for adult training in discipleship. To this day, no better model of lay formation has been invented’ (Mead 49). Jesus also employed a small group for the formation of the twelve apostles. He concentrated on just a few men. The world can only be transformed as individuals are transformed. During the middle of his second year of ministry, as he became increasingly popular, Jesus selected twelve men in whom he would invest the majority of his time. Within this group he selected an inner circle that included Peter, James, and John (Coleman Evangelism 24-26).

Bill Hull, author of The Disciple Making Church, promotes a holistic discipling process through an expanding network of healthy small groups within the local church. He joins Coleman and others in stating that one-on-one discipling by itself is inadequate to bring another believer to maturity in Christ, the whole body is needed. Ultimately, however, there is a place for one-on-one discipling if it is within the context of the larger body of the church (35; Disciplemaking 144).

Many authors have begun to look at discipling in the context of mentoring (Hull 35; Frying 8; Hawkins 39; Krallmann 122; Stanley 42). Clinton and Stanley define mentoring as a ‘relational experience through which one person empowers another by sharing God-given resources.’ It creates a positive dynamic that enables people to develop potential’ (12). There are three categories of mentoring relationships: Intensive mentoring (more deliberate) includes a discipler, spiritual guide, and coach; occasional mentoring includes a counselor, teacher, or sponsor; and passive mentoring (less deliberate) which includes either contemporary or historic models (Stanley 41).

Whether in a small group or one-to-one, the key principle of Jesus’ approach to discipleship is suggested in Mark’s statement that Jesus selected the twelve apostles, ‘that they might be with him’ (Mark 3:14). ‘Over the next twenty months, Jesus provided his newly appointed disciples constantly and consistently with opportunities to share in his life and ministry’ (Krallmann 52). The early church continued Christ’s pattern of gathering regularly to spend time together, learn from the Word of God, and do the work of God (Acts 2:41-42; 9:18; 20:7, 26-27, 32). The process of assimilation was enhanced by one-to-one and group discipling as these new believers united around a shared ’cause’ (Saletri 30).

This article ‘Discipleship: The Missing Key in New Convert Care’ by Phillip Bower was excerpted from: www.moodymonthlymagazine.com web site. August 2008. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’