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The Discipleship Spectrum

April 29, 2015 8 comments

There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of discipleship methods. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got the hyper-casual, and on the other the hyper-formal. Those who are hyper-casual tend to advocate for the organic, unplanned moments when God shows up in everyday life. People who are hyper-formal often emphasize the intentional, planned meetings that focus primarily on spiritual development.

I’ve been in ministry for almost ten years now. I’ve seen both of these methods used. Both have their proper place in every discipleship relationship. As with most things, though, people often drift toward one end of the spectrum or the other. This is fine, but we must learn to manage the tension between the two. If we don’t, our discipleship gets one sided and we can fall short of really teaching someone to believe in and follow Jesus.

simple spectrum

Considering the Options

Like most things, both types of discipleship have their benefits and drawbacks. The benefit of casual discipleship is that it’s usually pretty natural, it’s easy to be authentic and you get to help people believe in and experience Jesus in real time as the Holy Spirit is working. The drawbacks of this type of discipleship is that it can be easy to miss opportunities to speak into people’s lives and if you’re not intentional you won’t get anywhere.

The benefit of formal discipleship is that people know exactly what to expect, it can be incredibly focused and you can teach people a lot at one time. The drawbacks are that it can become cold and rigid, faith can become something you talk about rather than something you live and if you’re not careful discipleship becomes a task rather than a lifestyle.

The key is to operate out of your strength, while being intentional in your weakness. If casual discipleship is more natural for you, then do that most of the time. If formal discipleship is more natural to you, then do that most of the time. Be careful, however, not to neglect the area of discipleship that doesn’t come as easily. If you do, your discipleship will become one sided and the people you’re discipling will miss out on some valuable experience.

Find the Right Fit

In my experience, casual discipleship seems to be most effective among non-believers. Formal discipleship seems to be more effective among leaders. Non-believers usually aren’t going to be as eager to talk exclusively about spiritual topics for 90 minutes at a time. They benefit more from the intentional relationships through which your faith rubs off on them because you live differently and answer honestly.

Leaders, on the other hand, are often busy making disciples themselves. They don’t usually have as much time to casually hang out. When they need input they often want as much as they can get in as little time as necessary. Focused meetings allow them to ask a lot of questions, get a lot of answers and discuss a wide range of topics much more efficiently than just waiting for those topics to pop up in everyday life.

Strive for Balance

Personally, I advocate for formal discipleship in the context of casual discipleship. Discipleship is about teaching people to believe in and follow Jesus through intentional relationship over time. A formal meeting isn’t going to do much good if there isn’t any genuine relationship. You need some casual, relaxed time with a person to gain that. At the same time, you can speed up the process of discipleship by including a few focused and formal meetings (such as a weekly Bible study lunch to discuss a specific topic of interest) from time to time.

This spectrum gets even wider when we also consider the individual and group dynamics. On one end of the spectrum we have discipling an individual in or toward Jesus and on the other we have discipleship in groups. Here I advocate for individual discipleship in the context of a group.

The benefit of groups is that each person gets a broad experience and understanding of the person and work of Christ. You simply have more people contributing to each person’s spiritual growth. The drawback, on the other hand, is that it can be shallow and easy for people to hide.

The benefit of individual discipleship is that each person gets a depth that can sometimes be difficult to get in groups. Conversation can also be customized to the specific topics that will be most helpful for the person you’re discipling. The drawback is that the person can end up becoming more like you than Jesus if you’re not careful.

Jesus seemed to disciple people all over the spectrum. At times he was casual with a group of his disciples. At other times he was intentional with an individual. He was also intentional with groups and, at times, casual with individuals. We’d all be more effective leaders if we discipled people using a variety of approaches, rather than just one method.

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