Polishing your Discipleship Path

It's exciting to see new people at church each weekend. The number of new guests play a vital role in church growth. While it is important for churches to be appealing to new people, it is equally important to make sure you have the right next steps so guests can find and follow Jesus. In Tony Morgan's book, The Unstuck Church, he talks about the importance of creating pathways instead of programs. Unlike programs, a path offers a relational journey where people can grow in their relationship with Jesus and other people. 

Here's the big question. Are you wanting to produce members or disciples? If membership is the end goal, you'll probably get a lot of names on the roster, but few people involved in ministry. Since Jesus made it clear that making disciples is the objective of the church (Matthew 28:19), we can't settle for a path that simply creates church members. 

At the end of the day, every church has some sort a pathway. Unfortunately, it isn't always a productive path. Here's an example of what I often see in churches.

  • First time guests are asked to fill out a card and take it to a welcome area, where they will receive a gift with a "thanks for attending letter" mailed a few days later. 
  • If they return, they are asked to mark "Returning Guest" on their card and/or prompted to a second location, that is sometimes baited with a second gift.
  • If they take the bait, the returning guest is usually asked to attend a class or program.
  • The hope is that people will discover Jesus, get baptized and eventually end up in a membership class, where they are asked to give their time, talent and treasure to the church. 
Classes and programs can provide learning, but seldom do they produce disciples. If they did, the average church attendance in the United States wouldn't be under 90 people each weekend.  I can assure you, there aren't any shortage of classes or programs in most of these churches. 

This is why building a path is more important than adding another program. A discipleship path must be more than a class; it must entail steps that make sense to the person you're trying to reach. If your target audience is the unchurched, I can assure you a classroom setting is a horrible early step and one people will most likely not take. 

So what should a discipleship path look like? Think about it this way. Imagine walking down a shallow stream on a hot sunny day. The stream has no obstacles and little current. It takes very little effort to move down the stream. As you continue to walk, the water becomes a little deeper. Eventually you come to a bend where another stream merges with the one you’re in. Now the current is swifter and there is more depth.  

This is how a discipleship path should flow. It begins with people taking simple, shallow steps; steps they can navigate on their own time and at their own pace. But eventually, the path must merge with relational opportunities. The further they go down the stream, the more depth and current they experience. This is the relational intentionality that helps guide people to follow Jesus more deeply.  

Here are three ways to polish your path:

  • Re-think your Language: Encouraging people to take next steps requires using the right language. Develop a communication strategy that makes sense to the person with little or no church background. Remove religious jargon and church words and replace them with phrases that makes sense to your target audience. 
  • Re-Think the Depth of Each Step: A discipleship path must be fluid because people are in different spiritual stages and life stages. However, there needs to be a linear path (first step to last step). Look at the early steps and ask, "Is this an easy step for an unchurched person?" Remember, the stream starts shallow and gradually becomes deep. Make sure relational opportunities happen later down the path. 
  • Leverage Relational Volunteerism: Too often, the only engine churches count on to make disciples is small groups. While a small group ministry is probably the number one engine to make disciples in the church, it's not the only engine. People serving alongside other Christians creates a great opportunity for discipleship  Gather your volunteer leaders and encourage them to build relationships with people (especially new people). Building relationships will result in the permission to speak into peoples lives...which is the stage for awesome discipleship. 


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