Your Church Needs a Discipleship Map

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Where’s The Map?

Leadership guru Seth Godin tells a fascinating story about Dr. Jan Souman, whose concentration is biological cybernetics. This unique field of science examines what people do when they are lost in the woods or stumbling around the Sahara, with no north star, compass, or setting sun to guide them. It turns out they walk in circles. Godin’s simple assessment is this: “human nature is in need of a map. If you’re brave enough to draw one, people will follow.” Godin’s remarks expose one of the biggest challenges in the local church. People have no clue what the map is!  So what’s the map that the church has lost, continues to misplace, and sadly missed the mark on? Discipleship.

One modern-day voice who has brought clarity on why Jesus discipled the original twelve so well is Jim Putman. Putman reveals that Jesus’ model of discipleship can be easily understood when one considers this easy equation: An intentional leader + relational environment + reproducible process = infinite number of disciples. Putman explains: “Jesus was an intentional leader in every sense, who did His disciple making in a relational environment. He followed a process that can be learned and repeated, that in turn resulted in several disciples being born.”

The mapmaker showed his followers the map, and they experienced it! Jesus was clear though, what started with twelve was not supposed to end with those twelve. Discipleship is always about reproduction not about living in isolation.  Jesus commissioned his disciples as they were going, to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing and teaching new disciples to obey all the commands he gave us. The map is always discipleship, which means followers of Jesus better have a map that can be learned and replicated with others who are unreached.

As a discipleship pastor, one of my main responsibilities is training and equipping small group leaders to lead well. For quite some time, churches have designed discipleship environments that are what I call owner manual centric. Whether your context is small groups, Sunday school, etc. we have done an exceptional job at training people what it takes to keep the proverbial car from breaking down. The owner’s manual approach explains how your meetings should be facilitated. We’re great at telling people to organize who is bringing snacks, arranging childcare, picking a random bible study option, forgetting not to pray, etc.  If these routines are operating well then leaders should be assured that their group is fine, the operator’s manual can be trusted, and therefore their group is in no danger of breaking down.

But here’s the scary truth.  Owner manual centric groups still have no idea as to where they are heading.  There’s no map. Over time leaders have constructed relational environments that are predictable, comfortable, consumerstic, and not reproducing anything. Groups walk in circles regrettably never growing up and multiplying other disciples. Jesus never envisioned small group members just hanging out as the goal. Connection was simply the starting point to the movement of being commissioned to make disciples. Jesus is yearning for his followers to be outward, drawing others to the life-transforming message of the Gospel.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Discipleship is not sexy. How so? Jesus reveals that the path of discipleship is about turning from one’s selfish ways and taking up one’s cross daily. Dying daily means we submit to Jesus’ mission (i.e. discipleship), not our personal preference. This is not easy, and requires church leaders to take the time to evaluate your church discipleship ministry.

Be incarnational, run toward the mess, and begin to start asking hard questions. Does our primary discipleship environment have a map? Do our small groups have a clear understanding what a disciple of Jesus is all about so that when the occasion presents itself they naturally know how to begin discipling others? Are your people reproducing? In our ministry context we are always asking these types of questions. These questions have birthed a map for us, which we call the 4C’s.  This map challenges our small groups to be faithful followers of Jesus who are moving inward, upward, and outward.  Our map is always being critiqued and tweaked, because we want to continue to take discipleship seriously, because it’s the thing that Jesus takes most seriously.

The frightening bottom line is this. Neil Cole probably says it best: “if your disciples are weak and unengaged with Christ then your church is weak. Your church is only as good as your disciples.” May it be our prayer that we disciple well.  May we have the courage to draw the map and consistently point people to it!  I have a feeling that when we point others to the map they will follow and in time bring others along for the ride.

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Eric is the Discipleship Pastor of The Orchard United Methodist Church in Tupelo, Mississippi. He hails from Toledo, Ohio. Eric is married to Kendra and has two kids, Stanley and Clara. In his spare time Eric likes to read, run, drink too much coffee, and faithfully watch Ohio State sporting events even though he lives in SEC country.

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