Director of US Training and Leader Development
We work with many churches who are trying to figure out how to start a discipleship ministry.
This is one of the biggest challenges facing the modern church. It has been said that this generation is the most connected generation of all time, but we are also the loneliest generation. Shallow relationships tend to dominate social media, neighborhoods, workplaces, and even the church.
In this article, we will share several key principles for successfully starting a discipleship ministry in your church. We’ve used these principles to help build discipleship movements in hundreds of churches around the world, and we believe that they can help you as well.
Discipleship is the model that Jesus gave us – it works and it is a key foundation to having a healthy church.
Let’s get started.
1) Start Small
Too many churches try to launch a discipleship ministry by starting big. They teach a sermon series on discipleship and encourage everyone to sign-up. Lots of names get registered and people join groups, but then they realize one very large problem:
Most of the groups fall apart or turn into community groups because the leaders of those groups have never experienced a discipling relationship before. Maybe they know how to teach or lead a community group, but they don’t know how to invest in another person to help them become mature followers of Jesus. Pastors gave great direction, but the people were not equipped to be disciple-makers.
If you want to start a successful discipleship ministry, look at what Jesus did: he loved the world, ministered to many, but discipled a few. Find a few people who you think could become great discipleship leaders and start discipling them. Then, once they are ready, empower them to go and make their own disciples.
The beauty of this? You can start today.
2) Be Patient
We love it when things go fast. If there is a way to make things happen more quickly, we’ll take it.
But discipleship takes time.
This kind of ministry is more of a crockpot than a microwave. Jesus did not direct the 12 apostles to go out and lead discipleship groups from day one. Instead, in Matthew 4:19, he said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
He spent three years living alongside them, discipling them, and equipping them to make disciples. Right before leaving the disciples, once he knew they were ready to be “fishers of men,” that is when he gave them the great commission to make disciples in Matthew 28:19.
While you may not have to disciple everyone for three years in order to equip them to be disciple-makers themselves, you should commit for at least one year so that they can truly experience life-on-life ministry.
This method may not come with an exciting grand opening, but great things often take time. Start small, build a strong foundation, and watch the discipleship movement slowly take over your church.
3) Find a Coach
As we’ve worked with pastors over the years, many have said “this is something we really want to see happen in our church, but I’ve never experienced this myself, so how could I equip my people to do this?”
There are many useful books on discipleship, plenty of conferences you could attend, and countless online courses. All of these things have their place and are useful, but we have found that the best way to learn to lead a discipleship ministry is through a personal experience of discipleship.
This has shaped the way we approach our training. We don’t want to simply tell people what to do, but we want to help them experience it so that they can pass it along. In the first 12 weeks of coaching we host a pastors ignition group, to give a taste of what a discipleship relationship might look like.
The training we provide combines several different methods to ensure you and your team are equipped to start a discipleship ministry in your church. Our discipleship training process includes three in-person weekend workshops, weekly coaching calls, and guidance for you and your team.
4) Recognize the Role of Curriculum
It is important to remember that effective discipleship ministry is life-on-life, not curriculum-on-life. Too many small groups focus so hard on answering every discussion question that they miss the life issues going on in each other’s lives. Discipleship is a relationship moving people towards maturity in Christ and curriculum can be an effective tool to that end.
Here are a few key qualities of effective discipleship curriculum:
- Truth – The Word of God must be central to our discipleship.
- Equipping – Too often, small groups identify the things they like in the Bible but never discuss how to apply that truth into life transformation. We want to be sure that people know how the Word of God is real in their daily lives.
- Accountability – Discipleship groups should encourage each other to seek the Lord both in pursuing holiness and turning from sin
- Mission – Jesus frequently invited the disciples to join him on mission in both word and deed.
- Supplication – Prayer is not simply an afterthought at the end of a group meeting, but woven throughout as we pray with and for each other as well as in response to what God is doing in us by his word and through his people.
We refer to those five key qualities as TEAMS. There are many great discipleship curriculum options, but we highly recommend The Journey. It features every aspect of TEAMS in each weekly unit and provides three different years of curriculum.
One of the best qualities of the Journey curriculum is that it provides tons of support for discipleship leaders, which helps enable spiritual multiplication.
5) Pray for your Discipleship Ministry
Once again, we look to the model of Jesus. He spent tons of time with his disciples, he frequently spoke to large crowds, and he would often retreat to “desolate places” so that he could spend time in prayer.
In the same way, we should spend significant time praying for God to be at work in our church. Certainly we can all plan a program, but without him, transformational discipleship movements simply are not possible.
You can certainly spend time praying for your discipleship ministry on your own, but you should also invite others in to pray with you and for you.
And of course, prayer for this should never stop. Keep praying as your discipleship ministry grows, pray for your own life-on-life missional discipleship group, and ask God to be at work in the hearts and minds of your people.
If you want to start a discipleship ministry, then you desire a great thing. It takes time, patience, passion, prayer, and help.
Seek out good coaching or mentoring, and start small. As you begin to see people in your church embrace life-on-life discipleship, you will see multiplication and a movement that transforms lives and builds spiritual maturity.