We sat around the crackling fire, waiting. We tried calling her. No answer. We ate s’mores. Still nothing from her.
We no longer typed her into the bowling alley scoreboard at our annual bowling trip. Surely she will be back, we thought, but seven months came and went. She had been part of our discipleship group for over a year. She never showed up again.
Then there’s one of the students in our youth ministry who no longer come to Bible study. Our hearts break for her. We miss her deeply. We pray for her. We hope for the day she joins us again.
It seems that blogs, bible studies, and resources speak far more about healthy discipleship than “failed” discipleship. But as anyone who has ever discipled someone knows, there will be times when you may invest months of gospel-conversations, meetings, and activities in a person’s life only to see them lose interest and disappear.
From the rebellious teenager who walks away to an elderly saint losing hope through suffering, what should you do when someone you have been discipling is not bearing fruit? What do you do when they walk away?
WHEN A DISCIPLE WALKS AWAY
I have experienced discipling relationships that didn’t go according to plan. I have struggled to make sense of disciples walking away or losing all semblance of hope. Thoughts of Why aren’t they listening? and Did I err in teaching? loop continuously through my mind.
In the parable of the Soils in Matthew 13, Jesus informs his listeners that different people have different responses to the gospel. Some hear the message of the gospel but are not spiritually awakened due to the work of the evil one (Matt. 13:19). Others become excited at the message of the gospel but they aren’t rooted firmly enough to withstand suffering (Matt. 13:21). Some may hear and grow in their understanding, but the world chokes them out (Matt. 13:22).
I had often heard this parable explained in terms of outreach. However, I began a process of studying the passage and realized it says more about discipleship than merely evangelism. Each of Jesus’ scenarios mentioned above includes the sharing of the gospel and possibly an extended period with the gospel. But each of them ends with an eventual departure from the gospel message.
Scripture is clear that discipleship will be hard. However, discipleship does not always fall apart because of the one discipling. You’re only responsible for your obedience, but some tough questions are still in order to ask ourselves about our failed discipling relationships, like:
How much effort did I invest in this person?
In what source did I rely upon to help this person grow in the faith?
How intentional was I to show them the commands of the Lord in connection with the grace of God?
Was I pointing them to Jesus?
Once we have asked these questions and can attest to our shortcomings, we can turn to a resting point that realigns our hearts and minds to a God-centered truth about making disciples.
CALLED TO BE FAITHFUL
Scripture never places the burden or responsibility on you to maintain the faith of those you are discipling. Scripture commands us to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), but it doesn’t assume that we keep the faith for one another! Obedience in disciple-making is not measured by how long someone you’re discipling sustains their faith in Christ, but by your faithfulness in teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.
In each season of relationship-building with those God has placed in our life, we are able to influence their fruitfulness to some extent. We should look for opportunities to call them into repentance or to affirm their faithfulness to the gospel. However, when someone rebels or leaves gospel community, we should not feel as if we have failed in the command given to us. Sometimes people just walk out.
The Parable of the Soils warns that there will be outside influences that turn some away from the gospel. You could be a faithful and gifted disciple-maker and yet have a disciple turn and run. Even Jesus had Judas!
We can rest assured that we are called to faithfulness in making disciples. Teach those God has given you. Pray for their perseverance in the faith. Rely on the Holy Spirit. This is our calling as disciple-makers.
THE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD
A key element of God’s character is his faithfulness (Deut. 7:9; 1 Tim. 2:13). If we make God’s faithfulness a major point in discipleship, then others will know the truth of God’s faithfulness even in rebellion or suffering. Whether we have a discipling relationship that brings great joy or one that ends in heartbreak, God is faithful to those he loves.
Whether we have faithfully poured into others as much as possible or we have fallen short in our disciple making, God is always faithful. We can rest assured that God cares for his people. Our attempts at faithfulness pale in comparison to the One who cannot help but be faithful. Even when we feel like we fumbled through a relationship, God will continue to be faithful.
At the end of the first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul trusts that God is faithful to bring about sanctification of the believers completely. He is sure of the coming of the Lord Jesus because of God’s faithfulness. That is why he is able to say, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24). Though there is no guarantee that everyone you disciple will become a fully-formed disciple of Jesus, be assured that Paul is correct. God is faithful, no matter what.
The clearest picture of God’s faithfulness is Jesus. Jesus never leaves a sheep behind (Luke 15:1-7); he rejoices over the salvation of a sinner (Luke 15:8-10); he rejoices at the return of a run-away child (Luke 15:11-32). These characteristics should cause us to rest in his faithfulness.
Keep making disciples in the confidence that even when you fail or they run, God remains faithful. When you lose contact or when you cannot speak into a person’s life like you once could, God will continue to reveal himself to his children. He doesn’t give up. There is not a single soul that belongs to God that can be taken from his grasp (John 10:27-28; Rom. 8:38-39).
Discipleship is costly and painful at times. Sometimes we feel like we’ve failed. But don’t be surprised when someone you’ve been discipling turns or folds under the pressures of the world. Continue to be faithful and intentional. Rely on the Holy Spirit to work in and through you to those who you are discipling.
We have the confidence through Scripture that we are not in this disciple-making process alone. God is faithful to you through Jesus. God is faithful to make disciples through you.