Long Distance Discipling
You can help a new convert grow no matter how many miles are between you.
It was time for after-dinner tea. My new friend Luda moved gracefully as she served, pouring concentrated tea into our cups and then filling them with hot water from the samovar. We sipped our tea and conversed in an atmosphere of quiet warmth. Luda had many questions, some heartaches, and above all, an eagerness to be used of God. She wanted to learn how to encourage the women in her church. I listened, aware of the privilege of the moment.
As our conversation ended, Luda asked me if I would be willing to help her grow as a Christian. Ordinarily, I would have responded to this question by suggesting that we begin meeting regularly to talk about what it means to follow Jesus. But though the request was straightforward, the circumstances were not. I was in Luda’s apartment in Tobolsk, Siberia, talking with her through an interpreter. I knew I would not see her again for a long time, if ever, because I live in the United States. How could I help Luda, with such a great distance between us?
Maybe you, too, have faced a similar situation. On an overseas missions trip, you developed a fast friendship with a young believer who wanted to stay in touch. Or perhaps your circumstances are a bit more mundane. You helped someone become a believer and began to share how to live the new life in Christ; then one of you had to move to a new job in a different state. Either way, the apparent dilemma raises the same question: How do you disciple someone who lives hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away? What can you do to close the mileage gap between yourself and someone you want to encourage and nurture?
New Christians need immediate spiritual nurturing. And growing disciples need a personal touch from someone who loves them enough to spur them on toward maturity in Christ. Though distance creates unique challenges, you can still do many of the same things you would ordinarily do when discipling a new believer.
BECOME A WRITER.
“More than kisses, letters mingle souls,” wrote John Donne. The Bible is a collection of messages and letters from God. The New Testament contains 23 letters from Paul and others to churches and individuals throughout the Mediterranean world who needed help and encouragement. Paul’s letters show he was no stranger to long-distance discipleship. Though he traveled extensively, he stayed in touch with people by writing to them.
His letters expressed his heart, his exhortations, and specific teaching to those he’d met and ministered to. Many, if not most, of these believers were young in their faith as well. Across the long distance of the centuries, Paul’s letters still disciple us today.
Like Paul, we, too, can have a significant impact in the lives of young believers by writing to them. Here are a few suggestions on how to encourage a long-distance friend through your correspondence.
Make it personal. A letter is an intimate gift to a friend. It serves as a personal, tangible reminder of your love and concern. As you compose your letters, write just as you would speak to someone. Be chatty, if that’s your style. Above all, be yourself as you write. Two pages is probably long enough for any letter, especially if you plan to write regularly. If your handwriting isn’t neat, type out your letter and sign it by hand. Using stationery will also enhance the personal feel of your letters.
If the idea of writing letters intimidates you, let other writers help you share what is on your heart. Send a brief note along with a booklet that helped you, a Bible study, a poem, or a favorite verse. Quote from books you are reading that have been helpful.
Don’t overload a letter. Choose one point or idea to share in each letter, along with words of encouragement and assurance of your love and prayers. You could respond to a need or address any questions your friend raised during your last talk or letter exchange. As you think about what you will write, weigh your words before you put them on paper. Letters give you the opportunity to share what’s on your heart more clearly than you would in a spontaneous phone conversation.
Write often. Frequent encouragement is vital in the early days of a new Christian’s life. Send a note or letter about once a week for the first few months. Even if you don’t receive a response to every letter, keep writing.
If you are writing to someone who will need to have your letter translated, as in the case of my friend Luda, leave room between each line for the translation to be inserted. This is a brief letter I sent to Luda recently. My husband, who was traveling into Siberia on a missions trip, carried the letter to her personally.
How I wish I could come with John on this trip and see you face to face. I long to hear a word from you, to find out how you and your family are doing. You are often in my thoughts and prayers.
Did you receive the letter I sent last month? I am giving John another copy of it in case it got lost on its way to you.
I am studying the book of Ephesians each week with nine women from our church. They all send greetings to you. I am praying for you the prayers found in Ephesians 1:15-23 and Ephesians 3:14.19.
When you pray for me, pray that I will keep working toward that day when I will become all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be (Philippians 3:12).
Love from your sister in Christ,
Electronic Communication. Thanks to e-mail and fax machines, you can send letters, Bible studies, or a list of recommended books to anyone in the world who has the same equipment and receive a reply the same day or hour! Electronic communication has advantages and drawbacks. The chief advantage of e-mail is fast communication. Instead of waiting weeks (or even months if you’re writing someone overseas), you can exchange messages with each other very quickly.
And because many people have free or low-cost e-mail access, it can be a much cheaper alternative than talking on the telephone.
But e-mail has some disadvantages as well. One of those is the expectation of a fast response. Some people may expect you to respond to e-mail immediately. While they would be content to wait for weeks for a letter, they may be offended if you don’t respond to their e-mail within a day or so.
E-mail can also accelerate intimacy in a relationship because of the speed at which messages can be exchanged. While this can be a good thing, responding to multiple messages weekly can become an emotional drain. It’s critical to establish boundaries and guidelines regarding frequency and length of communication.
As long as you keep these considerations in mind, e-mail can be a fantastic way to maintain relationships.
PICK UP THE PHONE.
The telephone is another natural and effective way to communicate with a long-distance disciple. Just as you meet regularly when you’re discipling someone face to face, you can set up a regular time to talk on the phone. When Lisa met Nancy, who was a young Christian, she began to help Nancy grow in her relationship with Christ. When Nancy moved away, the two women kept in touch by telephone, usually weekly. Sometimes they talked several times a week during what Nancy called “crisis times.” Lisa was always available to listen, to talk about difficult issues, and to give encouragement. She always directed Nancy back to the Lord. Lisa never minimized her pain or difficulties. She often sent Nancy notes of encouragement as a follow-up to a phone conversation. Now Lisa and Nancy talk and pray on the phone about once a month.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
If you’re not sure what to write or say, ask yourself, What would I say to a young Christian if she were here with me? Ask God for insight into this person’s needs so that you may share, instruct, and perhaps even correct or rebuke as God leads you. Always seek God’s help in choosing your words.
In the beginning, help your friend establish a daily time in God’s Word. Talk about your time alone with God, what you do, and when and where. If you struggle to keep this appointment with God, discuss what helps you stay faithful. Tell her about what you’re learning from God’s Word and how you’re applying those truths to your life. In general, share what has helped you to grow in Christ.
If you’re developing your relationship primarily through telephone conversations, be careful not to do all the talking. Ask open-ended questions that draw your friend out and give her a chance to talk about what she’s thinking or wrestling with.
Encourage your disciple to find a church where the Word of God is taught. Pray that she will find a “close-by” friend for companionship, someone who can reinforce her faith in Christ. Don’t criticize anyone in her life who may also be helping her. Continually direct her back to the Scriptures to see if what she is hearing agrees with God’s Word.
Be sure you leave yourself open to challenge, too. Let your friend know that you value her prayers and input in your life. The disciplemaking process is never one-sided because the Holy Spirit resides in all believers. He wants us to learn more of Him through each other. Help her to become dependent on the Spirit’s guiding and teaching through the Scriptures, not merely on your opinions.
When we are discipling someone face to face, that person can see our “warts” as well as our strengths. But when we disciple by phone or letter, we can easily neglect to mention our difficulties or weaknesses. Be honest about any struggles you may be having. God will receive glory when you are able to tell your friend later how He has helped you.
Finally, regularly remind your friend of the purpose and power of the gospel. It is God’s plan to spread the message of Christ’s love and redemption around the world, through us. We have been entrusted with the job of helping new believers to grow up in Christ.
The success and eternal significance of any discipling relationship depends on God. It is by His grace that anyone grows spiritually. Ask God for creative ideas to communicate His truths accurately and effectively, with genuine love. Pray before and after you send a letter or make a phone call. Pray as you listen on the phone. Write out your prayers, so your disciple can read your heart for her in your letters.
Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Philippians contain prayers for young believers that you can pray word for word. It is obvious in the New Testament letters that the letter writer carried the letter readers in his heart. Prayers of love and longing for their spiritual well-being preceded any instruction. As you pray, expect God to help you and use you as you reach across the miles to help one of His children, just as He used the writers of the New Testament.
A number of resources can help you become a more effective long-distance discipler. If you’re not a letter writer or are uncertain what spiritually focused correspondence should look like, two books in particular are valuable. In Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer (Crossway) you’ll find examples of letters that speak from a loving heart as they deal with the concerns of living daily with Christ. Letters to an American Lady (Eerdmans) is a collection of letters written over a period of 13 years by C. S. Lewis to encourage a woman he never met face to face to grow in her faith.
Two other tools also help a new believer grow. Growing in Christ (NavPress) is an excellent first Bible study to send to a new believer. Your friend may want to complete a portion of the study and then mail it back to you for comment and encouragement. Or you may discuss it over the phone from time to time.
If you’ve regularly memorized Scripture, share how that has helped your walk with God. Encourage your disciple to begin memorizing Scripture by sending him the Topical Memory System (NavPress). This system provides a plan to help people memorize Bible verses consistently. It contains 60 verses that focus on the major areas of the Christian life. If you’ve not gone through the TMS yourself, consider spurring your friend on by memorizing these verses with him. You might also share a verse or two from the TMS in each letter you write and invite discussion.
Much like investing in a young believer nearby, long-distance discipling isn’t easy or convenient. But the rewards of “watching” a faraway friend grow in the Lord are certainly worth the cost. If you meet a young believer who’s hungry to grow, but who for some reason lives far away, don’t just write off a discipling relationship as impossible. Instead, take the initiative to stay in touch and help him grow!
The above article, “Long Distance Discipling,” is written by Tam Fondonme. The article was excerpted from www.discipleship.com website, May 2011.
This material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.