The First Step onto the Discipleship Path can be the Most Critical

I recently wrote an article on Polishing your Discipleship Path, where I shared three main ideas to make your path better. In this article, I want to drill into best practices around the first step onto the discipleship path. In my experience of working with many different churches (including my own church), the first step(s) onto the path can be the most critical and can determine retaining guests and making disciples. 

A discipleship path should be built and customized for returning guests who aren’t Christians and/or those who may be brand new to the faith. These are people who aren't church or Bible literate. They aren't sure what it means to have a spiritual gift and certainly don't want to be tested. This is why the first step(s) are super important. Here is a principle that I have seen hold true over and over. For every step someone takes, it gives them courage to take a (deeper) next step. At the end of the day, we want people to meet Jesus, grow in their faith and become connected to the church. However, it begins with that first step. 

For most churches, the first step for a returning guest is some sort of class that last three to six-weeks and uses a lot of church words like membership, doctrine, tithing and covenant. The class usually ends with an invitation to volunteer or show up at someone’s home for a Bible study.  A returning guest probably isn’t ready for a three week class. And even if they are, they certainly aren’t ready to show up at someone’s house to discuss the Bible that they know nothing about…unless of course that person is already a Christian. People who are unchurched or new to the faith need smaller steps and they need time to take those steps. 

See the chart below. If you’re familiar with Church of the Highlands, you’ll notice some of their language in the funnel. While we use their language, our steps and processes are much different. It’s not better, just different. Every discipleship path needs to be tweaked to fit into the context of your church and culture. Regardless of your path process, there are a few things that can help you create the right first steps on the path. Note the two scales on either side of the funnel. The scale on the left represents the number of weeks a person has attended church (which may not be consecutive attendance); the one on the right represents relational opportunities. Notice that relational opportunities are light in the beginning and slowly increase as people move down the path. 

We just recently launched our “first step” on the path at our church. On the funnel, it is the Returning Guests/New to Victory line. I asked our team, “What is an easy step people can take, that will encourage them to take next steps?” Our pastor’s last name is Oakes. In joking, I said, “What if we offer our returning guests to have a Coke with Pastor Oakes?” We all laughed, but then the idea begin to grow. 

We begin to contact returning guests. Here’s the sum of what was communicated...

Hi! I want to invite you to have a coke with Pastor Oakes! He would love to meet you and know your name, as well as give you an ice cold bottle of soda. On your way out this Sunday, stop by the Next Steps room and say hello. It will take you less than five minutes.” 

The most important words in that blurb are, “On your way out…” and “…less than five minutes.” It’s easy, it’s short and they leave with something.  We purchased a vintage looking cooler and iced down the old fashioned bottled coca-cola and sprite. We were not sure what to expect. At the end of the day, we had 22 returning guest families drop by and have a coke with Pastor Oakes and our team. It was short, sweet and effective. 

Before their five minute commitment ended, each person was given an invitation to their next step, which was Discover Victory. This happened at the same time and same place the following Sunday. The invite clearly communicated what to expect and that it would last less than thirty minutes. The following week, out of the 22 families, 13 took their next step. They showed up. At Discover, we built content that was user friendly and refrained from heavy church language. Some asked questions, while others just sat and listened. It was a great time of connecting with one another's story. 

At the end of Discover, each family was given an invite to Growth Track, which is our on-ramp to engagement. At this point most people are four to six weeks deep in church attendance. They have met people. They have an understanding of the church. Now, it's not so weird to take a deeper step. 

The Discipleship Path is a massive conversation with many moving parts. My hopes are that this article will help you assess the first step(s) onto your path and help more people meet Jesus. 

Here are some questions to start a good conversation as you and your team think about the very first steps on your discipleship path:

  1. Is the first step easy to take and does it require a low time commitment?
  2. Is this step communicated with clear, fun, inviting language?
  3. Does the first step take place in an easy-access, high visible location? 
  4. Do you have the next step ready to hand off after they complete the first step?
  5. Are you measuring participation/success for each step? 


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