4 Reasons Why People Struggle To Disciple Others

Russ Johnson

If you have been part of the Church in the West during any point in the last decade, you have probably become well versed in the missional conversation. Through this call back to the mission to “go and make disciples” has come a movement of new thinking and new workings some refer to as the “second reformation." Change came through the first reformation as Martin Luther called everyone back to Jesus’ message: life is found in trusting in what God has already done for us all through His Son. With hopes to see this message make its way into every nook and cranny of society, change will come through the “second reformation” in the form of the medium needed to carry the message. A medium that isn’t relegated to the pulpit and pew Luther left intact.

As a network of risk-takers who see themselves as part of the Church in the world, we have benefited greatly from this missional conversation as we have applied what we have learned in an array of contexts over the years. Along the way, we have found that principles stick, programs fade, and if you build bones in order to add flesh on rather than boxes to put flesh in, you can keep things flexible, simple, and easily reproducible.

In a recent conversation, I was asked to give some examples of the principles we have seen stick as people have stepped into loving and discipling others in the everyday the way Jesus did. Here is a look at the four principles I shared:

DESIRE The first thing we have discovered to look for is whether or not someone has a desire to join in the movement of Jesus. Where there is an absence of desire, it’s often for one of three reasons: 1) they are unaware of this invitation to mission; 2) they have been taught disciples are made in the programs and services they attend, volunteer for, and invite their friends to, or 3) they know Jesus has given them a new identity as missionary (“ambassadors”) but they have no desire to live in this identity. Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure, without a Spirit-led desire to disciple others, the efforts to do so will be short lived. After seeing well informed people never run in what they knew, the lesson was clear: always follow up inspiration with investigation, or as we often say, “look for behaviors, not just beliefs.” Only there can you see who is hungry and therefore, who to invest your time in. 

AVAILABILITY Availability—i.e. time—is perhaps the most practical reason for why someone is or isn’t engaged in discipling others. Sometimes this is because someone is squandering their time in the “paralysis of analysis” that comes with searching for the "big" idea that will impact the world rather than seeing the mission in the simple everyday. But the general reason for someone's lack of availability to those around them is due to the church structures they are part of. We have seen time and time again how structures that keep gatherings simple and conducive to their context make room for scattering. Structures that hold weekly services, small groups, meetings, and/or programs—although sincere—often war against the limited margin members have to slow down with those around them. 

CONNECTED Pouring out is both good and needed, for our discipleship and the discipleship of those around us. But when this labor of love comes at a cost of losing ongoing connection with like-minded people who are going out with you and pouring back into you, discouragement and burn-out soon follow. There’s a reason Jesus went out with the disciples, sent them out in groups, and gathered them together on a regular basis. Just like there’s a reason for why—throughout the New Testament—the church scattered as missionaries and gathered as family in homes. We need each other, and those we’re reaching out to need the apologetic of our love for one another as they journey alongside us in the things of Jesus. In fact, this connection is so vital, in every case where someone has waned in their commitment to gather with others we found these individuals were also not personally involved in discipling others to Jesus. In other words, those who are making disciples need ongoing encouragement and equipping from fellow practitioners, whereas those who don’t, won’t.

KNOW-HOW When desire, time, and connection are present, we have seen people step into discipling others even when they didn’t feel they knew how. God is good like that. But knowing we run more efficiently when we know how to run, we have also seen the difference between those who have been equipped to disciple and those who haven’t. For instance, disciples who have been taught that trust in the finished work of Jesus is at the core of discipleship, find the freedom to focus on others and to allow Jesus to work when and how He chooses. Disciples who have been equipped to listen, know where someone is in their journey, and therefore know how to share where their own story of grace intersects. And for those who have been discipled in the Christian life as a life of faith in what is unseen, comes the ability to invite others to take a step of faith into what Jesus is currently showing them. By empowering disciples in the timeless functions of discipleship, we have seen them become far less stressed about the mission, and the people around them far more interested in hearing what they have to say. 

What about you? Where have you seen some of these principles at work in either helping or hindering disciples in the work of making disciples?