Discipleship in 3 simple steps (Part 1)

Does that promise sound too good to be true?  I am not interested in oversimplification or catchy sound-bite titles, but I’ve gradually come to believe that discipleship is simpler than most of us make it.  It requires no curriculum other than the Bible and a disciple maker armed with 3 simple questions.

A couple years ago I was reading everything I could get my hands on by Neil Cole.  I continue to highly recommend his books.  He wrote Search & Rescue: Becoming a Disciple Who Makes a Difference on a discipleship idea he developed called Life Transformation Groups or LTG’s.  An LTG is 2 or 3 people that meet together and do three things:

  1. They read 30 chapters of scripture together each week.  If one of them fails to read all 30 chapters, the group reads the same 30 chapters the next week and each week until everyone completes the 30 chapters in that week.  Repetition is good.
  2. They each pray daily for the salvation of 5 people they know by name who do not know Christ.
  3. They ask each other a list of accountability questions.  Neil has a list of those questions in his books, but different users of LTG’s have added here and subtracted there and come up with different lists, which Neil has no problem with.  Neil emphasizes that the purpose of the questions is not accountability as much as an opportunity to confess sin.

 I like the system all except for the 3rd part, the accountability questions.  The concept of an accountability partner of the same sex has been around a long time in Christian circles.  Some believers report that they have benefited greatly from the practice, but others complain that it doesn’t work for them.  I’ve always been uncomfortable with it.  Why?

  •  Unless the person really wants to be accountable, it doesn’t work.  People will lie about hidden behavior if they aren’t motivated to change in that area.
  • No matter what list of questions you come up with, it may not be the right questions for a particular person.  There is always a question about viewing pornography on the guy’s list, but some guy’s real temptation may be anger or cheating on his expense form.  No prepared list of questions will nail each person exactly where they are on their spiritual journey.
  • It smacks of legalism.  I’m not saying it is legalism, because encouraging victory over sin is not legalism.  But legalism is whenever we take outward actions in response to spiritual truth and apply the same outward behavior to all believers regardless of what they feel God wants them to do with that truth.  In other words, the focus of these questions is more on the outward behavior than the disposition of the heart.

Some time later I was studying Mike Breen’s approach to discipleship in Building a Discipling Culture.  Mike grew an old dead Anglican Church in a worldly and secular town in Great Britain into a dynamic church exploding with growth through his discipleship methods.  I had to know what he was doing, because whatever he was doing it was working amazingly well in a place that is famous for dying churches.  Not only did it work while Mike was there, but it continues to grow at an exponential rate under younger leadership that Mike discipled prior to moving to America over ten years ago.  But honestly, as I studied it I couldn’t understand it.  Mike has this tool called “Life Shapes” which is a series of simple shapes that represent certain areas of life we need to give attention to in order to grow.  But it didn’t make sense to me.  The shapes were supposed to make it simple and memorable, but they only seemed to confuse me.  But I knew he was on to something because what he did worked, and it continues to work long after he left that church to move to another continent.  Then I heard one of his disciples teaching on the subject of the “huddle”, which is the term they use for a small group discipleship method for developing future leaders.  This guy said, “All discipleship comes down to two simple questions.”  My ears perked up.  This sounded simple.  Maybe I would finally get the heart of this thing.  He went on to explain that the two questions that all of discipleship hinges on are:

a) “What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?” and

b) “What are you going to do about it?

Suddenly a light went on for me.  I have seen how the spirit of God works in my life by zeroing in on different things at different seasons of life.  A prepared list of accountability questions may not hit the areas the Holy Spirit is trying to work on in my life.  And if you ask the average Christian that first question, many if not most of them would not know how to answer.  But in the huddle they ask this question weekly, and the huddle members learn to look at the circumstances of their lives and the scriptures they are digesting and begin to expect the Holy Spirit’s voice, and begin to recognize more and more how he is speaking to their particular sins and life issues.   Eventually they have no trouble identifying at any given time what the Holy Spirit is saying to them.  The second question takes it from the realm of theory and moves it to where the rubber meets the road.  The answer to the second question should be an action step that is specific and measurable.  If the answer to question #1 is, “The Lord has been convicting me of my meager prayer life”, then the answer to question #2 is not “I need to pray more”.  The answer to question #2 might be “I need to set the alarm x minutes earlier to allow more time for prayer every morning” or something equally measurable and specific.  But the key here is that each person sets their own action step based on what is realistic to them and what they believe the real answer is.

I realize that some people are going to be uncomfortable with the subjectivity of asking “What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?”  Some of us (myself included) come from such a strict cessationist background that if we can’t cite a verse of scripture for something then it can’t be God speaking.  But if the Holy Spirit indwells our very bodies, then what is he there for?  Yes, everything has to be evaluated in the light of God’s Word.  The Holy Spirit uses the Word, so the voice of the Holy Spirit may be heard in a sermon, or He may be heard as we dig into God’s Word in our daily time with the Lord.  But He may also be heard through the circumstances of daily life.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks through your spouse.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks through the death of a friend or loved one or some kind of major emotional event in your life.  Recently the Holy Spirit spoke to me quite clearly when I became aware of an area of my life where I had been less than honest.  I was deeply convicted of my sin and had to take some specific action steps that were very costly to me.  That didn’t happen as a result of reading my Bible or hearing a sermon (although my knowledge of Biblical teaching on the subject certainly played a part).  It happened because of a life circumstance that brought something to light in a way I couldn’t ignore.  I have no doubt I was hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.  If you still find yourself uncomfortable with this concept, consider the fact that this takes place in a small group where input from other members can bring balance and a scriptural perspective that others may need.

OK, so now you know two of the steps (questions) in this successful discipleship system.  What is the third?  Sorry, I’m out of time today.  I promise an extended discussion of the third step and the rational behind it tomorrow in part 2.

There Is Something Good in Every Book

I do a lot of reading. Sometimes I pick up a book that others praise highly, but I find I get almost nothing out of it. But then, sometimes I’ll pick up one little nugget that is worth the price of the book. I had this experience not too long ago with the book titled Sticky Church by Larry Osborne. The book is on the small group ministry of North Coast Church, the church Osborne pastors in northern San Diego County of California. His approach to small group ministry is quite different from what I would use. He uses small groups to “close the back door” so to speak, whereas I would see small groups as the front door as Steve Murrell does in WikiChurch. He has one main purpose of small groups, and that is relationships. From his perspective, if they accomplish any more than that it is a bonus. I see a deeper spiritual value to small groups. His groups are sermon based. I think small groups should be about getting people into the Word on their own. However, it has 55 reviews on Amazon with an average score of 4.5 out of 5 stars, so a lot of people must like this book better than I did.

But he had one little thing to say that I thought was brilliant. I’ll give the extensive quote here.

To improve the quality of the discussion, we work hard to make sure that everyone comes with their answers to the study questions already filled out. One of the most effective ways we do this is by having our leaders periodically ask people to read what they’ve written down, especially if it appears that someone is deviating from their original answer. It follows the old adage “Inspect what you expect.” If a leader doesn’t stay on top of this issue, it’s not long until people show up without having even looked at the questions ahead of time, much less having written down an answer. And that’s guaranteed to cut the breadth of the study and turn the study into a platform for those who like to think out loud. We don’t want anyone to be forced to think on their feet. So all the questions are provided in the worship bulletin beforehand (and posted on our website for those who miss the service or listen online). This has two huge advantages. First, it keeps extroverts and those who like to shoot from the hip from dominating the meeting. Second, it undercuts the natural tendency we all have to let the first person who speaks set the tone and framework for everyone else’s answer. You’ve probably had it happen to you. A teacher or leader asks a question, and the first person who answers takes it in a totally different direction than you have in mind. If you’re like most of us, you simply shift gears and answer in a way that fits with or builds on whatever the first person said. While that’s an understandable response, it’s an idea and discussion killer.

This little tip all by itself was worth the price of the book. Require everyone to read their answer to the question. This keeps the discussion focused. It keeps people from rambling. It encourages people to do at least a little preparation.  It levels the playing field between extroverts and introverts, between those who can think on their feet and those who can’t.

“If they [church leaders] could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, their choice would be equally clear. They would inspire, encourage, and equip their people to read the Bible—specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives.”

from Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth by Greg Hawkins & Cally Parkinson


I read everything I can get my hands on when it comes to Discipleship.  Unfortunately, there isn’t that much good stuff out there.  Recently I came across WikiChurch: Making Discipleship Engaging, Empowering, and Viral
by Steve Murrell.  This is one book on the subject that is worth both your money and your time.  Don’t pass this one up.  I couldn’t put it down.  Steve is one of the founders of Victory Christian Fellowship in Manila, Philippines.  The church he helped start in 1984 has grown to at least 15 locations in Manila with a combined attendance of over 70,000.  I’ve been to Victory churches in Manila as well as some of their many (70+) church plants in places like Japan, Thailand and Dubai.  When you see that kind of growth, you have to be curious about how it happened.   This book explains the underlying philosophy of everything they do.  Some books on discipleship are written by young guys who are still trying to figure it out.  Not this one.  This is the story of a guy who has been eating, breathing, sleeping and doing discipleship for many years.  This will be the first of several posts on this blog on this subject and his book.  Here is a quote from the first chapter.

The “wiki” part of Wikipedia is from a Hawaiian word meaning “quick.” While it may seem as though Wikipedia has had quick success, it was actually a bit of an accident.

In 2000 Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger started an online encyclopedia called Nupedia. The goal was for it to include contributions written only by experts. Before an article could be posted on Nupedia, it had to go through an extensive scholarly review process. That strategy proved to be painstakingly slow. When Nupedia unplugged its servers in 2003, only twenty-four articles had been posted, and seventy-four were in the review process.  There were not very many articles, but they were scholarly and professionally written!

In 2001, one year after Nupedia launched, Wales and Sanger started Wikipedia as a feeder system for Nupedia. The idea was to allow non-pros, non-scholars, and non-experts to write articles that the Nupedia scholars would review. The articles would then make their way through the extensive Nupedia approval process. By the end of 2001, volunteers had submitted more than twenty thousand “wiki” articles.   It took the experts three years to create twenty-four articles and the non-experts one year to create twenty thousand articles. At the time of this writing, contributors from around the world had submitted more than seventeen million Wikipedia articles, and according to an independent survey, most are as accurate as traditional encyclopedia entries written by recognized experts.

Unfortunately, many churches today function more like Nupedia than Wikipedia. They allow only credentialed professionals to lead evangelism and discipleship efforts while volunteers are expected to show up and pay up, but not engage in serious ministry. Imagine if the situation were reversed. Imagine if every believer, not just paid leaders, were engaged in ministry. That’s a WikiChurch. That’s the Book of Acts.  That’s what is behind Victory–Manila’s growth.

Tomorrow we’ll look a little closer at the distinctive characteristics of Steve’s approach to ministry and discipleship.