When I served larger churches, I never really understood what discipleship was. If someone had told me I had to do it as a minister over hundreds, I would have replied, “I don’t have time to do that!”

But as I planted a church, I began opening my life to the people who joined us. I started meeting with them to talk about their lives, giving them advice, praying with them through struggles, and pointing out scriptural guidance to apply to their lives.

I did this organically, simply to meet the needs I saw. It was only later when other pastors asked, “What’s your discipleship strategy?” I realized discipleship was what I’d been doing all along—without ever really making myself do it.

Most of us realize discipleship was Jesus’ model for leadership and spiritual growth. But here are a few of the things I hadn’t noticed about it until doing it from scratch:

Discipleship is Messy

There’s a friend from my hometown I’ve known since Middle School. We were catching up over coffee a few years back, when he dropped a bomb on me: his wife of 20+ years, the mother of his kids, was leaving him for another man. He was devastated, trying not to cry. As we talked I realized his life was about to be irrevocably ripped in pieces.

As I listened, he shared things he’d done wrong in the marriage and habits that had been detrimental. There was nothing deserving of a divorce, but he knew these problems made things worse. He asked me if we could restart our old friendship, and if I would keep him accountable regarding those habits.

As a pastor, I counsel lots of people. But this was more. This was not just responding to what someone tells you, but choosing to be proactive in their spiritual life. I would have to risk offending him at times, and saying uncomfortable things. We would talk about personal, even intimate details I might not really want to know about him.

And yet this is exactly what Jesus calls us to do.

If you choose to disciple people, things may get awkward, even gross at times. But without going into the mess of people’s lives, it’s not really discipleship.

Discipleship Can Be A Power Trip

I remember a guy who approached me once in college.

“Dave, I’ve been watching you.”

Even though the concept of stalkers wasn’t known then, that still seemed a bit creepy.

“I can tell you’re trying to grow in the Lord. So I would like to start discipling you. How ‘bout it?”

My response was an evasive, “I’ll pray about that…,” followed by a quick exit, stage right.

While I’m sure he thought he was being generous with me, I found his offer to be more than a bit arrogant. Without already having a friendship established with me, he was saying in effect:

“I perceive you as less spiritual than I. In fact, I am super-spiritual. You’d be wise to sit at my feet and drink from the wisdom of my spiritual journey.”

You’d have to have a pretty low self esteem to respond to that offer. But that’s the way some people approach discipleship.

Real discipleship is never supposed to be about one-way growth. Even when there is a clear “Paul” (teacher) and “Timothy” (learner) in the relationship, it’s still supposed to work both ways. Only when Jesus was the one discipling, did the teacher have nothing he could glean from the learner.

The Biblical way is “iron sharpens iron,” and both people are better off for the relationship. As obvious as that sounds, I must guard against being the guy who thinks that just because of my age or experience, I have nothing left to learn.

That’s pride, and spiritual pride leads to spiritual abuse. So check yourself and your motives when seeking to disciple others.

Discipleship Guards Against “Fluffy Church Growth”

We’ve seen a huge drop off in church attendance in the past few years. And I can’t help but think it’s partly due to a lack of discipleship.

People attend our churches, but never get past the Sunday morning sermon. Their spiritual growth stagnates. And then, they either get mad at the pastor, dropping the old “I’m not being fed spiritually” claim on their way out the door, as if the sermon was supposed to be their only nourishment. Or, they figure they’ve just failed as a Christian and give up coming since nothing has changed in their lives.

This is where small groups and one-on-one discipleship could’ve cemented their relationship with Christ and put them on a growth trajectory. Instead, they flame out early and leave.

Many churches only focus on Sunday morning as “the big event.” The service is emotional and energetic, which are two things I actually like in a church. However, the emphasis is on the spiritual hype and not the heavy lifting of following Jesus daily.

So people come in for the show, and leave when another church puts on a better show. It’s the old “a mile wide and an inch deep” complaint about large churches. And sometimes, it’s completely accurate.

Discipleship is the antidote to closing the “back door” of our churches, and to keep people from walking out.

Discipleship Gets More Complex in Larger Churches

Honestly, discipleship is hard work. And when lots of people are already attending a church, it may seem like too much trouble.

In a late church, you have to train leaders in leading others, mentor them in mentoring. So there’s lots of opportunities for things to disintegrate as they go farther down the chain of command.

The way it’s supposed to work is that, as the church grows, the pastor disciples key leaders (staff and lay leaders) who then do the same thing throughout the congregation. But this takes increased discipline for that pastor, since the more the church grows, the more demands there are on his personal time.

It’s a lot easier just to make it another church program or series of classes. That’s something we can buy curriculum for and schedule. But real discipleship takes time – OUR TIME. We have to pour into people who often fail, and sometimes walk away completely. So since our time is so valuable, some pastors and leaders figure it’s not worth the sacrifice.

But there is no Plan B. If the leadership doesn’t disciple, the church will not disciple. And there ends the chance of any long-lasting spiritual growth.

Discipleship Often Works Best When It’s Informal

I’ve got a friend named Kevin who was a member at a church I planted once. We would meet most every week for coffee outside of church. We’d talk about everything, including spiritual issues at that Starbucks in Florida. When I’d crack a joke, he’d laugh so loud it would cause others to stare at us. It was a bit embarrassing, but also fun.

Years later now, we still talk on the phone most every week. He tells me how his life is going, and I make sure he’s going to church and growing spiritually. But there’s no agenda. It just happens naturally, because we care about each other.

Like so much of Christianity, discipleship is really all about relationships.

As a middle-aged pastor (as if I’m really going to live to be 110), I often notice some of my younger Christian friends going off in directions I know from experience lead to pain. They’ll react to a situation emotionally, not realizing it will only make things worse. I see them digging a ditch for themselves, but, often, I can do nothing.

That’s because my knowledge is useless to them without a relationship with them. The only way they’d ever accept my rebuke or exhortation is if they trusted me as their friend. So relationship is the vessel through which wisdom is properly transferred. And if I really care about that person more than their wrong actions, I will work to build that relationship.

Be careful trying to push just one specific system or formal method of discipleship. It happens as many different ways as there are personalities. Discipleship works better if it flows from true caring and true relationship. It’s not as effective when a program creates a false sense of caring or promotes a forced-friendship.

And, oftentimes, it happens best outside the church walls.

In the end, discipleship should look like what Jesus had with his disciples. He spent lots of time with them, spoke spiritual truth into their lives, and corrected them when they were wrong. And between being stuck in boats together during storms and breakfasts on the beach, they had rich experiences and a lot of fun too.

So I guess discipleship looks a whole lot like a great friendship. And who doesn’t want that?