Where do you begin when someone in your church tells you they struggle with sexual sin of some sort? What is the first thing you say? And after that, what specific help can you give? What if you have never done something like this before?

The answer is not a series of precise to-dos laid out in sequence. It first starts in your view of personal growth and change. And that brings up a much bigger question, the one you must begin with if you, and your church, will effectively help strugglers. It’s about discipleship.

How is the Church called to disciple its people? Not in terms of content, but of practice?  What does discipleship in the local church actually look like? What should it look like?

It can be difficult for churches to talk about discipleship because a precise definition is often a moving target. Some would say that discipleship encompasses everything that the church does to help people follow Jesus. Others would say that discipleship is one very specific educational model, counted as one of the many ministries of the church. If we look at the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the early church, one might find that both of those perspectives of discipleship can and should be valued. At the same time, there are some common shortcomings in practice that are often associated with both views.

For those who favor a broad definition of discipleship, it is common (though certainly not universal) that, in practice, discipleship looks like a speaker-to-listener monologue. From Sunday mornings to weekly classes, the primary means of growth is lecture. But while instructing God’s people in the truth of his Word is an essential aspect of discipleship, if we look at Jesus’ ministry, we can see that it is not the whole of discipleship.

For those who lean towards a more specific or precise understanding of discipleship—characterizing it as a unique educational model—there can often be a spoken or unspoken two-tiered classification of believers. In this case, there are the “regular” Christians, and there are the “real disciples” who are most committed to the faith. Historically, this perspective has led to discipling movements that can trend in high-pressure, legalistic directions.

It is amazing to think that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, would spend more time with twelve men than with the rest of the world combined.

This paradigm is completely contradictory to the New Testament model. The word Christian is only used three times in the New Testament. The word disciple is used far more often to refer to followers of Jesus. All of his followers are disciples. God’s forgiveness in Christ is complete and full of grace. Growth in grace is also just that: gracious. Our Father doesn’t look at his people in two categories: Christian and super-Christian. He looks at his people and sees beloved children.

So then, how do we define discipleship? Is it everything the church does that helps people grow more and more like Christ? Yes! But if we look at the ministry of Jesus, we can flesh that out a bit more. Should Jesus’ model and methods of ministry inform what we do as His church? I believe it should.

It is amazing to think that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, would spend more time with twelve men than with the rest of the world combined. In fact, the closer he got to the cross, the more time he spent with the twelve and the less time he spent with the crowds. If we’re honest, most of us would not consider that to be a top church-growth strategy for today. But this was Jesus’ plan for the world to hear the good news of His life, death, resurrection, ascension, reign, and return: a few ordinary, uneducated men who had been with him. This had been Jesus’ plan from the beginning of his earthly ministry.

“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” is an invitation into relationship and growth with a mission in mind. When Jesus calls the twelve in Mark 3:14, he calls them “so that they might be with him, and he might send them out to preach…” In Jesus’ discipling of the twelve, monologue or sermon-style content transfer was not his only means of transformation. At the heart of His discipleship was this “withness” and mission. We see this in Paul’s ministry as well in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (2.8).

There is both content delivery (the gospel) and deep relationship (“withness”) at the heart of this discipleship ministry. However we define discipleship, we cannot leave it devoid of personal relationship.

We believe that discipleship in the context of a group is important because of the need for interdependence within the body of Christ in Christian maturity and because Jesus did his discipling with the Twelve. 

I have the privilege of speaking with pastors each year in the US and abroad who believe that their church is doing well, but there is a missing piece that they just can’t put their finger on. They’ve got good preaching, good classes, and a sometimes great, sometimes frustrating small group structure, but they’re not seeing people mature in their faith the way they had hoped.  What I’ve found repeatedly as I listen is that they are longing for an intentional approach to help their people become mature and equipped followers of Christ, and they don’t know what that looks like.

We at Life on Life Ministries (a ministry of Perimeter Church) have a working definition for what we call life-on-life missional discipleship: laboring in the lives of a few with the intention of imparting one’s life, the gospel, and God’s Word in such a way as to see them become mature and equipped followers of Christ, committed to doing the same in the lives of others. We believe that discipleship in the context of a group is important because of the need for interdependence within the body of Christ in Christian maturity and because Jesus did his discipling with the Twelve.

Surely, it’s not a perfect definition, but it is a helpful one. As we work to build a discipling movement in our church and equip pastors of other churches to help them do the same, we want to focus primarily on what we see in the ministry of Jesus with his twelve men. Certainly, we are not asking anyone to become an itinerant preacher and recruit twelve people to spend all day together every day, but I do believe there are principles from Jesus’ life and ministry of discipling that we can apply to our context today.  And I think the definition of life-on-life missional discipleship captures some of those principles in ways that we can use in the church today.

It could also be helpful to think about life-on-life missional discipleship in terms of what it is not. It is NOT life on curriculum (though a good curriculum is certainly helpful). It is NOT life on knowledge (though understanding God’s Word is essential). It is NOT life on programs. It is NOT an event.

So, what might a healthy discipling culture look like in a church?  It’s one that’s rooted from beginning to end in the gospel. The goal of discipleship is not behavior modification; it is to be conformed into the image of Christ. That happens as we engage with Christ in the gospel day after day (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). As this kind of transformation happens, behaviors do change because the heart is changed. A healthy discipling culture is also built on intentional, accountable relationships that are mutually committed to growth. It also must be built with the mission of the church in mind: to seek and save the lost and to help others grow into Christ-likeness. A healthy movement should be holistic. Any sphere of life is on the table for growth: work, family, sexual struggles, joys, etc. Within relationships that reflect the heart of 1 Thessalonians 2:8, study of the Scriptures, equipping, accountability, prayer, and missional living bear fruit in lives, families, communities, and workplaces.

What do you specifically do when someone brings up a sexual sin struggle?

You listen.

Your reaction will speak volumes to someone who has just opened up about a struggle—maybe for the first time.

It starts by investing in just a few people, helping them move towards maturity in all areas of life. This kind of discipling relationship is not a quick fix, it’s messy, and it’s difficult. If you knew me personally, if you knew my heart, you would easily be able to verify that I am no “super-Christian” exception.

What would it look like, then, to disciple people who are just as messy and difficult as we are?  What if their messiness and difficulties look very different from our own? The key to developing intentional accountable relationships is a gospel-centered culture. Performance-based cultures promote pretense, not vulnerability. And within that environment, there will be no freedom to reveal, share, and confess our sin. No opportunity to ask for help.

So the first step is to create a safe space for people to be transparent in their need both for Jesus and for the support and encouragement of his body. Setting the expectations for the group before it begins meeting is vitally important. Before I invite someone to join my group, I tell them that I believe honesty and vulnerability are incredibly important for our group.  We are not doing this because we’ve got it all together, we are doing this because we are desperately in need of Jesus and each other to grow more towards maturity. That may be intimidating to hear, which is why I also emphasize that I don’t expect this will happen in the first week or month because it takes time to build trust, and trust will be the foundation of healthy accountability. This is one of the reasons that we have a discipleship covenant that members are asked to pray through and sign before joining the group. The second critical step, in my opinion, is that the leader of the group lead with vulnerability, modeling repentance, and asking for accountability.

With that established, I can circle back to how to help a sexual struggler. What do you specifically do when someone brings up a sexual sin struggle? You listen. Your reaction will speak volumes to someone who has just opened up about a struggle—maybe for the first time. Francis Schaeffer once said in his sermon, The Weakness of God’s Servants, “A Bible-believing Christian should have the experience of never being shocked; if we read our Bibles, we should never be shocked.” I love that.

From the beginning, this discipleship group has been a place for sinners in need of God’s grace for our growth, so when we confess our sins to one another and ask for help, this should be no surprise. I want this person to know two very important things: that no struggle with sin is beyond the reach of the gospel and we are not going to run away from you because of what you’ve just shared. You do not have to be a licensed counselor to listen and support someone.  Where you go from here varies from situation to situation. You will learn as you go. As a discipleship leader, you are not in a vacuum. Discipleship happens in the context of community.  You are a part of a local and global church that displays a variety of gifts for the building up of one another. Other godly men and women can come alongside that person and equip you as a leader along the way.

All of this will take time, and more importantly, it will take dependence on God to be the one who ultimately does the work of transformation. If you’ve never had someone invest in you in this way, that’s OK. Look at Jesus. Look at how he invested in those twelve men. See his relationships with them, his compassion and patience, how he challenged their wrong beliefs, how he equipped them, how he sent them out.

How do you start a discipling movement in your church? We have a simple motto that guides all of our training: Think Big, Start Small, Go Deep. We long to see the world transformed by people encountering the living God. We want to pray and plan and work hard for the gospel to go to places where it has not yet taken root. Discipleship is about following Jesus and pointing people to Jesus: let’s let him be our primary model.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.


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