Several years ago the muscles in my back surrounding my lower ribs went haywire. They were spasming every time I would breathe–something it turns out I do a lot–which meant I was in constant pain. So I went to the doctor, who prescribed me … muscle relaxers. I remember in that moment thinking “those might help the pain go away for awhile, but shouldn’t we figure out what caused the problem?”
So I went to a chiropractor, who explained I had a rotated rib that was inflaming nearby muscles. A couple adjustments later, I was back to normal. To be clear, I love doctors, and hospitals, and modern medicine. I just realized, in that moment, they were sometimes only treating part of me, not all of me. The same is true of chiropractors, and dieticians, and really any other specialized form of health care. They see health through their lens, and often miss the bigger picture of holistic health (I should say this is quickly changing for the better). I’ve realized from this that to be a truly healthy person, I need to lean into multiple streams of health and wellness.
Church cultures often become theological specialists: some are really good at Bible knowledge, others focus on living in tune with the Holy Spirit. Some churches are really into acts of service, while others are great at ingraining a value of evangelism. One church may have a community-building potluck at least once a month (I grew up SBC, and went to dozens of these truly wondrous events), while another invites their people to fast together (I grew up SBC, and … don’t remember this happening).
You probably get where I’m going here though, right? A holistic discipleship path–where we guide our flock toward becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus–combines elements of all these. Because of this there is no right discipleship path, anymore than there’s a right marriage. Each marriage is a unique, relational blend of factors, quirks, and differences. There are certainly similar characteristics across all healthy marriages, yet each one will look different.
There isn't a right discipleship path for your church, because such a thing doesn’t exist. However, there are traits and characteristics that should show up in every church’s discipleship path. Or to sum it up in one sentence: a good discipleship path isn’t perfect, but it is holistic. Here are 5 traits a holistic discipleship path has:
A Good Discipleship Path is Intellectual
There’s no getting around the importance of the brain in a discipleship path; the Bible talks quite a bit about renewing our minds and taking thoughts captive, after all. While I tend to think some church cultures over-emphasize the intellectual at the expense of other elements of discipleship, that doesn’t make it unimportant.
A good discipleship path has a plan for how people will engage with the big story of who God is, who we are, and how those two intersect now and for eternity. It teaches people how the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is an epic saga of God’s redemption plan for the world. Exactly how this gets taught will be different at every church, but the steps must be intentional. Think about, say, 10-15 key beliefs you think are vital for every Christian to know. Once you establish those beliefs, evaluate whether your church is intentionally guiding a member toward learning those beliefs through Sunday School, sermons, small groups, one-on-one mentoring, membership classes, or anything else you can offer.
A Good Discipleship Path is Emotional
The Bible talks a lot about the importance of the heart, and how it is the wellspring of life. You can’t read the Psalms without immediately engaging with the centrality of human emotion in a relationship with God. David, a man after God’s own heart, was nothing if not a man of intense passion. Same with Peter. Paul gets seen as this super left brained lawyer type, but he could get pretty gooey and emotional, too (see 1 Corinthians 13, or Ephesians 3).
The goal of a good discipleship path is not to create emotions, but properly direct them toward God. Whether it’s anger, joy, sadness, grief, contentment, anxiety, fear, passion, or any other emotion, the job of a disciple of Christ is to invite the indwelling presence of God in to that emotional moment, and let it be shaped and formed by him.
Part of the problem with this, however, is that many of our church cultures have failed in training its leaders how to do this themselves. Most pastors (including and especially me!) have learned to repress their emotions, bury themselves in the busyness of serving God, and push through. But our inner, emotional worlds always catch up to us.
I was brought up to be very skeptical of emotions. I was told often how they would lead me astray, but was very rarely told what a wonderful gift they are when set in the right direction. Because of this, I learned to shut down and ignore my emotional world, not cultivate it. It has taken a lot of intentionality and time to undo this.
So one way to make sure your discipleship path includes the development of the emotional world, is to make sure your church staff or leaders are modeling this value. One church I went to had a paid, licensed therapist who provided free counseling for any staff member and provided a discounted counseling rate for church members. Nearly every healthy pastor I have ever worked with had a personal spiritual director they saw regularly and encouraged their staffs to do likewise.
These steps increase the emotional intelligence and sensitivity of a staff, so that as they are building a discipleship path, it intuitively reflects the emotional health they’ve let be formed in them. This could show up in an increased teaching about the role of the Holy Spirit in shaping our emotional worlds, or the value of expressing our negative emotions (rage, lust, greed, bitterness) to God, knowing he’s capable of handling them.
In Revelation, the church of Ephesus is commended for doing so many things well, and yet they are told “you’ve lost your first love.” A good discipleship path acknowledges that even if someone has all knowledge, and understands all mysteries, and does good works, if they don’t have a heart able to give and receive God’s love, it doesn’t result in much.
A Good Discipleship Path is Relational
One of the biggest culture gaps between 21st Century America and the world of the Bible is that we, at a core level, think of human beings as individuals. Hardwired deep in the American experiment is the sovereignty of the individual, and our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This isn’t how any Jewish person reading the Torah thought, and it’s not how the early church thought either. In both these cultures the fundamental block of human existence was the family, not the individual. Which means that nearly every instruction in the Bible isn’t really “you” but “y’all.” Discipleship, in other words, was never meant to be a solely individual pursuit.
Nearly every church teaches the importance of community–involvement in a small group, serving opportunity, or volunteer role. However, it’s worth asking how much of your discipleship path involves one person reading a Bible by themselves, as opposed to reading the Bible in community. When we talk about prayer, worship, giving, serving, and whatever else, do we discuss how these are both individual and communal activities?
This could look like encouraging small groups to worship, pray, or serve together. It could mean having part of the discipleship path involve mentoring from a wiser, older Christian. It could mean teaching moms and dads what it means to live out a Jesus-centered life with their children. Whatever the case, a holistic discipleship path isn’t just saying “here’s how you become like Jesus,” but “here’s how y’all become like Jesus.”
A Good Discipleship Path is Active
A pastor I used to work for loved to say that if all Christians do is sit and soak, they sour. It was pretty cheesy. It was also 100% accurate. A church’s discipleship path could be intellectual, emotional, and relational, and the result would be a bunch of soured religious people convinced the church exists for their needs. A holistic discipleship path emphasizes that true discipleship always leads to action. As James said, faith without works is dead.
One church I worked for had a brilliant solution to this. Their discipleship primarily happened by recruitment. Each pastor would invite 8-12 people to be in their discipleship group and would meet regularly with them for 9 months. They worked through an intentional discipleship path. The pastor would tell the people they invited, “listen, I want to pour into your life, but, in exchange, the expectation is, when we’re done with this group, you’re going to step into serving and leadership in our church.” Around 75% of the time it worked! By the end of the group most of the members were more involved serving others than they were before.
The question church leaders need to ask is “does our discipleship path point people toward serving, or just more soaking?” There could be multiple ways to go about this. Serving activities regularly promoted in the weekend service, small groups that serve together, or having people take a spiritual gifts test with a follow-up recommendation of where they could use those gifts. The importance is that the discipleship path moves people toward serving outward.
A Good Discipleship Path Embraces Mystery
We pastors sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we can stumble across the right formula, program, devotional, or sermon series that will unlock the presence of God in people’s lives. The truth, that we all know in our hearts, is we can’t. All we can do is lead people to the Shepherd, but we can’t make the sheep follow him. So what can we do?
We follow. We follow our Shepherd as best we can, in humility and boldness. And we pray unceasingly for the flock God has entrusted to us. At the end of the day, what is a discipleship path but our best attempts to say “love Jesus more”? Have you ever tried to make someone love someone else? It’s not effective.
The good news is that God never asked us to figure out the formula of success, he just called us to be faithful to him.
So ask God for wisdom in how to create the best discipleship path for your church, and then trust what James 1 says, that anyone who asks for wisdom and doesn’t waver from realizing their dependency on God’s wisdom, will be given it. The best discipleship paths aren’t perfect, they’re bathed in a humility that our faithfulness to God will unlock his power in our people.
And there’s something very freeing about that.