When I first began my pastoral ministry as a church planter, it was exciting to preach and see people come to Christ. There was and still is nothing greater to see sinners come to an altar and repent of their sins. But immediately in those days a sense of great responsibility would begin to overwhelm me when people were saved. Questions would haunt my mind like “What do I do with them (the new believers) now? How can I make sure they are growing and being nurtured properly? What resources do I use? What if I fail and they don’t grow in the faith?”
Honestly, early in my pastoral years, I knew very little about how to disciple anyone. Instead, I would call and visit new believers often encouraging them to come to church faithfully. I would pray for them too, but more than anything I constantly worried about them “staying saved.”
A few years later while pastoring a church in Terre Haute, Indiana, Pastor Terry Harris who pastored in Indianapolis passed on a discipleship program to me from a church located a few miles from his church. According to Pastor Harris, his church was using it and it was proving to be very effective in growing believers in his church.
The program consisted of a notebook divided into four nine-week quarters containing weekly lessons that covered the basics of the Christian faith. At the end of each lesson was an accountability log sheet. On the accountability log sheet, students were required to daily read assigned scriptures writing out applications, memorize the lesson text verse, and to pray with a prayer partner during that week. At the beginning of the course, students were asked to sign a commitment form agreeing to be faithful to the weekly meetings and to do the assignments throughout the week.
After looking through it for a few weeks, I finally rallied up enough courage to start a discipleship group in our church. Our first group was comprised of about four or five of us. As the pastor, I chose to lead and go through it too, doing all the assignments like everyone else. We held the class during the Sunday School hour. After nine weeks, we paused for a week or two and then continued through the second quarter and so on until we finished the entire 36 weeks (four quarters) of discipleship training.
By the time we finished the course, I was delighted at what I was seeing happen in me and in the others. A definite change was taking place in each of us seemingly on a week-by-week basis. After we graduated the group in front of the entire church during Sunday morning worship, a few of the graduates began discipleship classes of their own. In the years that followed, new believers along with many veteran believers in the church began and completed discipleship training. Later, we added quarters five through eight encouraging new believers to spend their first two years as a believer in discipleship training. The end result for our church was a “Culture of Discipleship.”
The journey of experiencing the formation of a discipleship culture in our church left me with some lessons that transformed my pastoral ministry forever. Now after taking hundreds of believers through discipleship training over a period of nearly thirty years, I am still amazed at how these truths learned still apply to believers today independent of church personality or generational differences. Here’s are the five ministry-altering lessons that I learned:
- True believers want to learn and grow in God’s word. Whether they are new coverts or veteran believers, the Holy Spirit implants inside us an appetite for the word of God and fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Is everyone in your church hungry for the word and willing to participate in a discipleship group? Unfortunately not, but God will give you a few to start with. From there patiently let the Holy Spirit birth and develop a culture of discipleship in your church.
- Spiritual growth and fruitfulness comes from internalizing the word of God. I am constantly blessed as I see believers mature in the faith and begin to learn, read, memorize, and apply the word of God into their lives. As a pastor, there is nothing that brings more joy and fulfillment than watching people grow and become fruitful in their faith. You see this best in small discipleship groups that serve as little greenhouses where believers’ faith is nourished, monitored, encouraged, and challenged on a weekly and even daily basis. Personally, I have never seen a believer fully participate in a discipleship group and not have their life transformed by the word of God.
- Accountability is crucial! We as believers need to make ourselves accountable one to another. Accountability is a powerful motivator. When we have to answer to someone especially for expectations that we have placed on ourselves – great results usually follow and disciples are made.
- Memorizing God’s word sharpens young and old minds. I wish I had a dime (really a $20 bill) for every time I have heard a senior adult tell me “I can’t memorize scripture or even remember where my car keys are.” But honestly, after the first six weeks of memorizing scripture, seniors usually memorize bible passages better than thirty somethings or even teens. It’s astonishing to watch the minds of seventy or even eighty somethings become sharpened as they memorize the word of God.
- The final lesson that I have learned is once God’s people get the word of God inside them while maturing in the faith they want to go to work for God. When we internalize God’s word, it naturally oozes out of us. Many of them will go on to become teachers and disciplers of others. Discipleship groups are incubators preparing and producing Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, outreach ministers, and eventually pastors, pastor’s wives, church staff ministers, missionaries, etc. Faithfulness truly leads to fruitfulness!
– Randy L Ballard