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9 Reasons to Prioritize One-on-One Discipleship

Few people in our local church shout “Amen!” when I preach which may be a testimony to the quality of the sermons. Yet every once in a while, I preach something decent. I know this because some of our members will grunt and nod their heads aggressively. This has become the telltale sign that I’ve said something helpful or convicting.

The easiest sermons to preach are sermons on discipleship, particularly the necessity of fulfilling the Great Commission. The grunt per person ratio is off the charts on those Sundays. One Sunday, the general tone of agreement led me to believe those to who heard me preach were particularly ready and willing to take personal ownership for the mission of disciple-making. My assumptions led me to seek out disciple-makers for young believers in our church actively—either those who came to faith through our church’s ministry or those who had only been walking with Jesus for a short time. It made sense to target those who had known Jesus for years and pair them with a younger believer so they could fulfill Jesus’ call to teach one another to do all things that Christ commands (Matt 28:18–20).

But the more I attempted to engage the church in discipleship, the more I found that far too many of the seasoned saints had no idea where to begin or what to do. They acknowledged their responsibility to make disciples and had a relationship with someone who needed investment of time and training, but the mature believers were unsure what disciple-making should look like. Though they had attended church for years, many had passively learned that disciple-making was something that the staff or structure of the church was supposed to accomplish. If someone needed to be taught the basics of the Christian life, they assumed that Sunday school, small groups, or sermons would do the trick—what those structures could not accomplish would be the work of the professional pastors or ministry leaders.

Over the years, the gap between the mission of disciple-making and the actual practice of most Christians grew wider and wider. Many knew they should be making disciples and wanted to do so, but they simply didn’t know how.

I’m convinced that a return to the practice of one-on-one, life-on-life discipleship is one of the most critical needs for today’s church.

Here’s why:

One-on-One Discipleship Allow Every Member of the Church to Carry Weight

We laughingly jest at the “80/20 rule” (20% of the people in the church do 80% of the work) and wonder why our churches lack the every-member ministry we know God desires. Many attendees, much less members, sit as bystanders to the life of the church. They show up, sing the songs, listen to the sermons, give an offering, and leave through the back door. Often those without meaningful investment in the work of the church are the first to complain when their needs are not met or the leaders do something they don’t like. So, how do we call these people out of passivity and into action? Giving out bulletins before a service is unlikely to do the trick. We need more. A culture of one-on-one discipleship among the members of the church would communicate that everyone has a vital role to play in the spiritual health of the body. Passive consummation and petty squabbles would likely be minimized if it was assumed that every member of a local church was going to meet with at least one other Christian on a regular basis for the sake of their spiritual growth and transformation.

One-on-One Discipleship Allows for Honest Conversation

We’d love to assume that believers are ruthlessly honest with each other at all times—be it the 5-minute conversation in the hallway of the church or sitting around in a living room during a weekly small group gathering. But we know this is not true. Nor is it reasonable. Most settings simply do not allow for the level of honesty we need to fight sin and pursue holiness. It would be unwise and unhelpful for a man to confess an ongoing battle with pornography in a mixed-gendered small group. Even if this man were bold enough to share with the men in the group, he will likely struggle to mine the depths of his sin in this setting. The men in the group may be able to listen, pray, and encourage him with the Scriptures, but he’ll need one or two men who are willing to meet with him and walk with him through what is likely to be a long process of repentance and change.

One-on-One Discipleship Allows for Personalized Application 

Consider the difficulty when a college student raises her hand during the typical Sunday morning sermon or even in a Sunday school class and saying, “Yeah, I understand that, but this just doesn’t make sense to me yet,” or “That may be true, but I’m not sure how it applies to my life.” These settings aren’t designed for personalized care. Most sermons and classes operate at the 30,000-foot level—trusting that God, by his Spirit and through his church, can apply the truth of his word to the needs of each person in attendance. This move from broad teaching to personalized application happens best in one-on-one discipleship settings.

One-on-One Discipleship Allows for Evangelism and Discipleship to Unite

Churches with a culture of one-on-one discipleship have no question with what to do with someone who comes to faith in their church. First, the person who was most instrumental in sharing the gospel with the new believer should be the go-to source for ongoing discipleship. Following baptism, these two can continue to fan into flame the good work that God has started. If the person came to faith apart from a relationship with a church member, such as through a Sunday sermon or big event, then the church has a farm system of ready, willing, and capable disciple-makers. Imagine the long-term fruit that could result if every church could say to new believers, “We have someone who would love to walk with you for the next year as you grow in your faith.”

One-on-One Discipleship Allows for Ongoing Accountability

Genuine change happens when someone brings sin out of the dark and into the light—both to God and to fellow brothers and sisters. Then the fight begins. Hard work must be done to put protective measures in place to aid in one’s pursuit of holiness. A man who finds his identity in his job and neglects his family needs to confess this sin to another brother and have this man hold him accountable to being home for dinner, putting his phone down at night, and playing with his children. These actions cannot change the human heart, but they are a means by which we can spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24).

One-On-One Discipleship Allows for Burden Bearing Relationships

In an age of incessant social media chatter, we assume that every believer is surrounded by people who will pray when they hurt, and love and support them when they suffer. A simple glance at your Facebook feed will almost certainly find another person asking for prayer. Yet, in an age of constant connectivity, people are as lonely as ever. While Facebook “friends” may like your post or offer prayers of support, it is impossible to bear another’s burdens in a meaningful way via technology. We need someone to sit with us, listen to our muddled conversation, make us something to eat, and pray while we cry. We need burden-bearing relationships. Those that know us know where we hurt, know where we are weak, and are willing to drop everything to be by our side (Gal 6:1–10).

One-on-One Discipleship Allows Other Ministries to Thrive

Discipleship relationships are not an alternative to small groups or Sunday school. In fact, they enhance the work that happens in these groups. One-on-one discipleship frees small groups from the pressure of assuming that they must accomplish all the heavy lifting of disciple-making. Most groups know that they can’t teach the Bible, apply the word to each group member, care for the wounded, make new guests feel welcome, live on mission to their neighborhood, promote passionate prayer, and practice biblical hospitality. The thought that all of these laudable goals must happen between 6–8 p.m. on a Tuesday night or 9–9:50 a.m. on a Sunday morning is a crushing burden. A church filled with a culture of disciple-making can trust that their groups don’t have to do it all, freeing these groups to do the very things they do best.

One-on-One Discipleship Allows for Mutual Growth

One-on-one discipleship is often explained as if it is only for the benefit of the younger Christian who is being discipled. Yet, ask one of the older women in our church who has engaged in this work and she will insist that the process of discipleship was as transformative for her as for the new believer she served. Do you want to grow in your hunger for God’s word? Meet with a younger Christian and have them ask you questions about the Bible. Do you want to see change in your prayer life? Meet with someone who doesn’t have it all together and is looking to you for help. Do you want to see change in your personal sin struggles? Invite someone into your life and say, like Paul, “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

One-on-One Discipleship Allows for Healthy Relationships

Biblical community is a buzzword in the church; however, like a mythical unicorn, biblical community can be easy to define, yet hard to find. Sunday services alone are unlikely to create the deep love we long to see among the people of God. But one-on-one discipleship can. Imagine what happens if, over the course of five years, a member of your church has met with five to seven people (one or two a year) for the purpose of intentional discipleship. In these relationships, they have cried and laughed, talked and prayed. They’ve seen God transform them both and they are better for it. Though they may no longer meet, the deep love they have for one another will be unmistakable. Now, assume that those with whom they’ve met are also meeting with others and doing the same thing. Multiply this process by the number of members of your church and imagine the love that would permeate your local church (Jn 13:35).

Discipleship relationships are not one of a host of options on the buffet line of spiritual formation alongside Sunday sermons, small groups, Sunday School, men’s or women’s ministry or a host of other good activities of the church. Certainly, people can’t do everything, and expecting a person to take part in every ministry the church has to offer is unreasonable and unhealthy. Yet, one-on-one discipleship relationships are not optional extras once the other ministry obligations have been fulfilled. Like the Sunday gathering of the entire church and some form of community group (either Sunday school or small group), those seeking to participate in the life of the church in a meaningful way should regularly be engaged in one-on-one discipleship—for the good of others, the good of the church, and their own good as well.

Matt Rogers is the pastor of The Church at Cherrydale in Greenville, South Carolina. He and his wife, Sarah, have three daughters, Corrie, Avery, and Willa and a son, Hudson. Matt holds a Master of Arts in counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as well as a Master of Divinity and a PhD  from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Matt writes and speaks for throughout the United States on discipleship, church planting, and missions. Find Matt online at www.mattrogers.bio or follow him on Twitter @mattrogers_