Five Observations on One-on-one Discipleship

One-on-one discipleship is both an art and a science. And I’ve succeeded as much as failed at it over the past decade. But here are some observations on those successes and failures that might prove helpful to those who want to do it better than me.

1. Make discipleship a journey, not a destination.

In most of the formal discipleship training I received in the church and saw modeled in books, discipleship was a thing you did with new believers. It was a box you checked with a series of lessons. But really, if we look at Jesus’s own example of making disciples, discipleship is meant to be a lifelong process. And some of those on the road of discipleship haven’t fully believed in Jesus just yet.

So, instead of looking for new Christians, we need to look for anyone at any stage of the Christian journey and walk together toward Christ.

2. Put a horizon on the discipleship relationship.

You know what stands out to me about how Jesus made disciples, how Paul made disciples, how the early church made disciples as best we know? They all move on. Jesus walks with his guys for 3 years and then leaves them on a mountaintop. Paul spends no more than 3 years at any church and always finds his closest ministry companions rotating in-and-out of his company. The early church seems to thrive, not on drawing-in those who are furthest down the road of discipleship, but in sending them out.

This is why I tend to put a horizon on regular meetings with brothers for discipleship. With each person, it’s a bit different. But I’ll often meet weekly with a brother for 6 months and then once or twice per month for the next 6 months. During the first half, we’re getting to know each other, working toward holiness and spiritual health, and during the second half, we’re working on turning those patterns outward. In our final months together, I try to encourage these men to find another man in whom to invest. After our year together, I’ll try to connect and stay in touch, but my hope is that these men are gaining depth of relationship and even greater value as they invest in others.

3. Expect sin, not holiness.

We live in a sin-soaked world and churches full of imperfect saints. Yet, somehow in our one-on-one discipleship, we anticipate that the worst sin we’re going to encounter is a brother who doesn’t pray enough or read his Bible regularly. Although these are important spiritual disciplines, we need to use these opportunities together to confess sin and to pursue holiness together. Someone has to open that door.

A brother who is begging for discipleship is likely begging for accountability around sin patterns. Don’t dance around the issue. Go ahead and ask about the common sinful habits of porn use, substance addictions, materialism, etc.

4. Have a plan for addressing porn use.

[Heads up on some “adult-oriented” content in this section.] Over the years, I’ve developed a fairly standard approach to helping brothers who find themselves addicted to porn. This is probably the most common issue that I encounter during one-on-one discipleship conversations. If the statistics are to be trusted, about 1 out of every 2 men struggles with it and 1 out of every 3 women do too. Given this frequency, you need to have a specific plan. Here’s the approach that I’ve taken:

  • Fan the Affections Godward: Porn use is not an action that excites passions or brings excitement—it is rather a behavior that deadens the affections toward God and toward others. So, we spend at least a month restoring his passion for God. I usually ask him to read at least one Psalm a day and write a prayer based on one of those Psalms. I ask him to send me a picture of his prayer each day. When we meet, we’re not really talking about porn or self-pleasure. We’re talking about:
    • His affections: How is his daily communion with God changing his desire for God?
    • Other areas of sin: Porn addiction tends to draw attention away from other areas where a brother has deviated from holiness. We talk about these and pursue some wins in these areas.
    • Areas of victory: Porn addiction tends to draw attention toward a constant sense of defeat. We spend time, therefore, looking for areas of growth and change.
  • Shut off the Faucet: Input of lustful content is the next thing I address. Now that a brother is seeing progress in his walk with God and growing in his affection for God, we can start shifting his affections away from porn. During this phase (perhaps a month or up to even three months), we’re checking-in weekly with the intent to get porn (or porn-like content) totally eliminated from their life. During this time, I’m not necessarily addressing the related matter of self-pleasure—I want him to simply reduce and eventually eliminate all new lustful images entering his head. On a mere physiological level, this begins to habituate him to avoid porn and breaks the linkage between porn-intake and pleasure.
  • Take back the Driver’s Seat: By the Spirit’s power and with the intake of porn now eliminated, we can begin pursuing holiness in the matter of how one responds to lustful thoughts. This matter is more intensely personal and internal, but at this point the brother or sister is in a far better position to maintain self-control and avoid being driven by passion and pseudo-pleasure.
  • Share the Victory: Those struggling with porn and lust need more examples of brothers who have gained victory in this area. As men and women gain victory in this area, they should be encouraged to begin sharing about their recovery in one-on-one environments with others. And through helping others recover from this habitual sin, they help maintain their own walk of purity for the long haul.

5. Give and Take.

For some of us, we can tend to be givers, to be disciplers, to constantly find ourselves pouring into relationships. And these can bring a measure of vitality, but they can also lead us to avoid growing in important areas or to ignore our own need for discipleship. We all need to find relationships where we are giving and relationships where we are receiving discipleship. There are few “balanced” discipleship relationships in this regard.

Find someone with whom you can be honest and open. Find someone who has time to engage with you for a season. Ask them if they would be willing to meet up in general or perhaps study a topic or book of the Bible with you. Communicate a frequency and time that is sustainable and enjoyable for you. And be discipled.

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