by Marcy Kennedy
In the West African nation of Ghana, where the good news of the gospel is still a new message to many, the question, “Am I ready to disciple someone else?” is rarely considered or asked. OneHope, an international evangelistic mission to children, realizes that for the gospel to spread in Africa, people need to start learning how to disciple the moment they come to faith. They’re developing a discipleship program based on storytelling so that even illiterate children will be able to teach others.
In North America our situation is different. We’re able to be discipled and mature before heading out to make disciples ourselves. Unfortunately, this also creates a dilemma for us that is uncommon in other parts of the world: how do we know when we’re ready to start making disciples, rather than being one?
The Quality of Your Life
“I can’t disciple someone because I’m not sinless.”
“I can’t disciple someone because I’ve never been discipled myself.”
Neither one of these myths about disciple making is biblical. If only a sinless person can disciple, then once Jesus ascended to Heaven, discipleship ended and the Great Commission is meaningless. If only someone who has been discipled can disciple someone else, then the apostle Paul shouldn’t have been allowed to disciple all the people he did. He made it clear that he was not taught the gospel by any man (Galatians 1:12). Likewise, you may have more knowledge of the Bible and a more intimate relationship with the Lord than someone who’s been formally discipled.
A couple aspects of your life, however, are important to assess before you set out to become a disciple maker. While being sinless is impossible, actively seeking to overcome sin in your life not only strengthens your relationship with Christ, it improves your credibility with those you seek to disciple. Before you disciple anyone, you need to decide if you have a relationship with Christ worth imitating.
You need to take an honest look at whether you have the time, energy, and emotional fortitude necessary to invest in a discipling relationship. Making disciples is similar to raising children—it’s relational, and it takes place over an extended period of time. If they have a problem, you’ll be the one they call. If they have a question, you’ll be the one they ask. Until they’re ready to face the world on their own, you’ll need to be there for them. Backing out after the commitment is made could leave your disciples feeling abandoned and disillusioned.
Keeping a Confidence
Stan Toler, author of Each One Disciple One: A Complete Strategy for Effective Discipleship (Beacon Hill Press, 2008), believes that real discipleship requires people to be not only reliable and available, but also ethical and loyal. That means keeping secrets entrusted to you. According to Toler, “A broken confidence could destroy the trust of the one being discipled.” A discipling relationship can’t survive without trust.
While we all like to think we can keep a secret, the only way to evaluate whether we’re truly able to keep confidences or not is our track record. Have you been able to keep secrets in the past? If not, you’ll want to figure out the reason why. It could be that we feel the need to be noticed or heard by others and breaking a confidence ensures that others will listen to us. It could be that we want to impress others with our inside information, or we might be seeking affirmation because we possess special knowledge.
In the past, I didn’t have a problem with keeping the secret itself, but rather with keeping quiet about the fact that I knew a secret about someone. At first this might not seem as damaging as actually telling the secret, but it can lead to harmful gossip and speculation about the person we’re discipling.
Unless the secret we’re told breaks the law or puts someone in danger (such as not reporting child abuse), we need to keep what we’re told in the strictest confidence.
During the planning of our wedding, I had my husband call a vendor whenever a problem arose that needed resolution. When my wedding dress didn’t fit correctly, my mom went with me to talk to the seamstress. Confronting people about problems or things they’ve done wrong has never been my strength. Confronting your disciple about sin in his life, however, is an essential quality of the discipling relationship. How do we confront in a loving way so our disciple knows we have her best interest in mind, while still helping to motivate her to make a change?
“It helps to lead with your own weakness,” explains Bill Hull, author of The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ (NavPress, 2006). “Weak is the new strong.” Why? Because it indicates that we’re not looking down on them. While we never want to glamorize sin, it helps to show that we don’t think we’re perfect. We can also explain the practical steps we took to overcome our sin.
We need to be prepared to give biblical reasons for calling an action a sin. No matter how much they respect you, many people will want supporting evidence to back up your position before they’re willing to change. This will especially be the case if they’ve been raised in a family where their action isn’t considered wrong, if they’ve been doing it for most of their lives, if it’s something even Christians disagree on, or if they’ve spent years in an academic environment.
Most importantly, as Toler points out, “Pray for guidance.” Ask the Lord to give you the right words to say and ask that he convict your disciple’s heart. When handling confrontation, we need to be brave enough to confront but humble enough to admit we can’t make anyone change. We help start the process, but in the end, change comes from the Lord.
Setting the Right Example
Of all the qualities necessary to disciple someone else, sacrificing something we enjoy is the most difficult—especially when we feel we have the freedom to choose the item or action. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul tells his readers that those who are stronger in their faith need to take special care in dealing with those who aren’t as strong. We influence them intentionally and unintentionally. They might see us doing something, and because they respect us, they’ll do it as well, even if they have doubts about whether it’s right or wrong. Although the action you’re participating in isn’t intrinsically sinful, if your disciple believes it’s a sin and does it anyway, it’s sinful for him.
Paul explains, “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14). At first this might sound like relativism, but it isn’t. The message is that sin is a matter of the heart: “The man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (v. 23).
In the early church, the matters under dispute were the eating of meat and the celebration of certain days. Today the issues will be different, but the principles will be the same. Are you willing to give up the beer you enjoy on a hot Saturday afternoon? Are you ready to forego watching movies that contain profanity or violence? Is there a pleasure in your life you would be unwilling to give up for the sake of your disciple? Or can you say along with Paul, “If what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:13).
In one sense, we’ll always be in need of discipleship ourselves, but in another sense, we’ll eventually reach the point where we’re ready to begin disciple making. If you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), then Hull suggests you take one more step. “Pray that God will give you someone, or even a few, to work with,” he said. “He always answers that prayer.”
Marcy Kennedy is a freelance writer in Wallaceburg, Ontario, Canada.
Consider where you are in your walk with Jesus. Are you ready to embrace the Great Commission in a discipling relationship? Begin praying for God to open that door today.