There’s a lot of interest and activity surrounding discipleship today, and that is good! As I hear and read a lot of this discipleship talk, it often seems to be in the context of maturing those who are already believers—often lifelong believers. We need to continually remind ourselves that the discipleship journey includes life from unbelief to mature discipleship.
When we follow Jesus’ ministry we see a fairly seamless process as he meets people where they are and moves them from unbelief to active believer. Look at the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42. When Jesus encounters her at the well she’s not a Messiah believer. Jesus begins by establishing relationship. Then the two engage in a series of back forth questions and statements. Ultimately, Jesus gets to the heart of her life,
Jesus: “Go call your husband” Woman: “I don’t have a husband”
“You’re right, you have 5” “I see you’re a prophet”
“Believe me woman” “I know that the Messiah is coming”
“I am he” “Come, see. Could this be the Messiah?”
By the end of this story the woman is confessing her commitment of belief to her towns people, who by this time are ready to go and see for themselves. I believe this is a classic story demonstrating how Jesus met this woman on her terms, then deliberately led her to conclude that he was the Messiah of promise and worthy of discipleship.
Here’s the question you need to answer: Do the activities your church provides give people a clear, well-defined pathway to faith in Jesus then growth towards active discipleship?
Here’s a simple, effective five-step system that you can use to create a discipleship funnel to help your church create disciples while it grows in numbers and health.
Step 1: Encounter. If we believe that God is searching for and gathering people to himself, how do we meet these people? You must learn to turn encounters into meeting events. Your church needs specific meeting activities where you get to encounter people. Good meeting points often include one off events such as neighborhood parties, Vacation Bible Schools, and holiday activities. What truly characterizes a meeting point is you have to collect contact information, at minimum first and last names and their phone number or email. If you don’t get these, you can’t follow up. Not only do you leave people stranded, but all that energy you expend doesn’t do you any good. Your goal for encounter is to get to know people, listen for their spiritual story, and provide them opportunity for a next step. What are your most effective encounter activities that help you meet new people?
Step 2: Engage. Engagement is where people have opportunity to hear the gospel, ask questions, consider the gospel’s implications for their lives, and see how they fit with you, God's people. Good engagement activities are short-term, well-defined studies such as the Alpha course, Story of Redemption, or Let’s Start Talking. What I think makes these some of the best engagement activities is because they occur in small groups where there are multiple seekers. These small groups allow discussion and question asking; people get to think and process together so they gain a multi-dimensional look at the gospel. The believers in these engagement groups act as guides and gospel illuminators; they’re not teachers. The goal of engagement activity is to provide seekers the opportunity to make a valid decision about the lordship of Jesus in their lives. What activity do you repeatedly use so people can engage the gospel?
Step 3: Commitment. People need to have the opportunity to make a specific commitment to Jesus. Even more than that, they need people who care for them to ask them if they are ready to give themselves to Jesus. Good commitment activities include events like baptism days, special preaching series, and weekend retreats or summer camps. It's always important to give people the opportunity to respond to God's big ask in their lives. The goal of commitment is for people to make their confession of faith in Jesus and give themselves over to him in baptism. When and how do you ask people to make their commitment to Jesus?
Step 4: Essentials. When people are new Christians they need specific information, ideas, and guided experiences that help them integrate their new belief into practical life. In Kenya we had a year of specific teaching that oriented new believers to the Bible and we guided them through the basic practices of Christian life. Specifically prepared Bible classes and small groups for new believers provide good opportunities for new Christians to grow in an environment designed for their needs. The goal of the essentials period is to give new Christians the essential insights into Christian faith and life so their newly acquired faith can grow. What activities do you provide at your church where new Christians can be oriented to both scripture and their new life in Jesus?
Step 5: Experience. Again, in Kenya, we found it took several years of experience and growth for faith to become firmly rooted in people's lives. There was often a trial during this time where their faith would be tested. Sometimes they would make it, sometimes not, sometimes they would succumb then later return. Our role was to help them consider the possibilities and consequences of their decisions. Good preaching series, ongoing small groups, solid Bible classes and accountability groups are all good activities that allow experienced Christian living to form. How do you support your people through the trials of life that test their faith?
If you think of these five steps as a funnel, you want to always be putting new people into the wide end of the funnel where they can move down through these five sequential steps. The structure of such a process gives everything you do intentional purpose that creates movement. Without such structure, most churches find their activity becomes a hodgepodge of ever repeating events that simply maintains what they have. We find ourselves very active but without much movement or results.
I hope these ideas are helpful to you as you obey God’s great commission and make disciples of Jesus Christ.