“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” – Paul the Apostle
Have you ever said those words to a young believer? In some cultures, them’s fightin’ words. Some people believe theoretically in the gradation of maturity, but they get a little uptight in actually labeling one person as more mature than another. Nevertheless, the Bible accepts this gradation and gives us the responsibility to disciple those who are coming behind us in the faith.
The goal of Christian discipleship is to facilitate a younger believer’s growth in understanding and applying the gospel. Yet while many churches believe in this principle, they do not have a culture that naturally funnels people into discipleship relationships. Members of these churches may find it hard to visualize what it looks like to disciple someone because they’ve never seen it done. (Or if they have seen it, they didn’t recognize it as discipleship.) For that reason, I’ve compiled a short list of methods you can employ to intentionally pass on the gospel to the next generation.
Remember that these ideas are intended in the context of a discipleship relationship, not a friendship. Friendships are between people who choose to see each other as peers. Discipleship relationships are between people who mutually agree that one party is more spiritually mature and in a position to train the other. In starting these relationships, it’s very helpful if the difference in spiritual maturity is wide and pronounced. In a healthy discipleship relationship, one person will be seen as an authority on the subjects that relate to spiritual maturity, including the subject of authority itself.
That dynamic is what makes many discipleship relationships spoil before they even start. The duel dangers of pride and false humility are equally damning here. You must wrestle through some tough questions such as: Who should initiate this relationship? How long should it last? How should we navigate disagreement on what is being taught? The answers to these questions may be as diverse as the people in the relationship, but it’s normally better if those answers are established as early as possible. Unity and clarity in expectations can mean the difference between a healthy relationship and a fight waiting to happen.
With all that said, if you’ve been walking with Jesus for a while, it may be time for you to find someone to disciple. Again, the goal of Christian discipleship is to facilitate a younger believer’s growth in understanding and applying the gospel. So what exactly does that look like? There are lots of options, but I’ve listed five that I’ve seen work very well. Let me encourage you to find a young believer who looks up to you (or could look up to you), and try one of these.
1. Have coffee/lunch with them every week
If you talked to someone for 2 hours every week, it would be awkward if neither of you ever talked about your lives. A regular meeting encourages you to invite someone else into the thought process of your week, and creates space for you to talk about successes, challenges, disappointments, and blessings.
Why every week? Because most people live in a weekly life rhythm. It’s not so regular that you get tired of each other too quickly, and it’s not so infrequent that you forget what’s going on in their life.
2. Study a book of the Bible together.
Read the text in sections, write down observations, write down your questions, research some possible answers to those questions, then meet together weekly to compare notes.
Recognize that this is not simply a time to talk about what you think about the passage. This is a time to figure out what the passage means. For that reason, you should avoid and discourage phrases like “To me, this means…” As the more spiritually mature one, your observations will carry more weight in interpreting the passage. You should carry that weight with a healthy sense of terror. The Bible matters. (James 3:1)
3. Read through a book about theology or Christian living.
There are many excellent resources that you can study together, many of which I’ve already highlighted elsewhere.
Which book you pick might depend on the interests of the person you are discipling, but it should mostly depend on you. Part of helping someone grow to maturity in Christ is helping them recognize and invest in what they need, not merely in what interests them. So recommend a list of books that have been helpful in your own walk with God.
If the person you’re discipling constantly rejects your book recommendations, you should eventually consider them unwilling to learn from you or follow your example. That’s not necessarily sinful or rude, it may just be an indicator that another mentor would be a better fit for them. That’s okay. Discipleship relationships can end amiably, and most should end eventually. That’s one of the reasons it’s helpful to distinguish between a discipleship relationship and a friendship.
4. Serve together
Find someone in your community who needs help with yard work. Help someone move. Visit someone in the hospital. Spend time with homebound members of your church. Go through the membership directory and look for people who need something. If you don’t know, call people and ask if they need anything. In all these things, invite the young believer to come with you to observe and to help out.
You don’t have to talk much to the person you’re discipling during this process, you just have to keep scheduling them to join you the next time. The point is not necessarily to teach them verbally. The point is to give them chance to observe how you interact with people, how you serve the needy, and the heart attitude you display during menial tasks.
5. Invite them over for an evening with your family.
This is a good one for young singles, or newlyweds. Don’t just invite them to dinner, invite them to help you make dinner for your family. Include them in your family devotions. If you have kids, parent in front of them. Invite them to stay during and after bedtime. Not everyone has grown up in an environment that included these things, so holding your family up as an example of a healthy home can be a huge blessing to someone in their twenties.
Observation and Emulation
Notice that most of this is about living your life in front of someone else, and answering any questions they have. It shouldn’t be awkwardly structured or formal. (E.g. you probably shouldn’t say “any questions?” after you put the kids to bed!) You just need to be available, approachable, and humble. Have the integrity to be honest about your shortcomings, but also have the confidence and compassion to be helpful when you can be.
Christian maturity is caught much more than it is taught. Most mature Christians are intentionally or unintentionally mimicking the generation above them. Living your life in front of them gives them an example to follow. They won’t become exactly like you, and you don’t want them to. But they will see the parts of you that have been regenerated by the gospel, and hopefully that demonstration will inspire them to be the next link in the chain.