Many pastors spend many hours rallying their congregations to participate in the Great Commission. They preach about the importance of mission and evangelism. They compel us to go, not stay. They dare us to leave our comfort zones and make disciples. I’m a pastor. I should know. This is what I did for many years with mixed results.
Then I read a quote from Steve Addison that changed my approach forever:
“We’ve spent too much time trying to motivate people to make disciples and not enough time training them. People know what they should do, but don’t know how to do it.”
For many Christians, the greatest barrier to making disciples is not “what” we need to do, or “why” we need to do it, but “how” we might start. We know that we are called to go into all the world and make disciples. We desire to share our faith with our unchurched friends. We are willing to help people look and act more like Jesus. But how? The problem is not purely motivational, but practical. Without effective training, many of us fall into analysis paralysis, leaving us prone to frustration and confusion about the next steps. In this confusion, we privatise our faith, conceptualise our calling, and outsource the so-called ‘complex’ task of disciple-making to the professionals, all because no one has taught us “how.”
How do I build relationships with unchurched people? How do I share my testimony? How do I pray with people who don’t yet know God? How do I share the Gospel? How do I invite my unchurched friends and neighbours to read the bible with me, or indeed, teach them to hear and follow the commands of Christ? See what I mean? These are “how” questions, not “why” questions, and are rarely addressed satisfactorily from the pulpit. Now of course, our heart still needs to be ready to submit to Jesus. We need a willingness to “take up our cross and follow Him” (Matthew 16:24), but in many cases, a bit of training and some practical advice can go a long way.
Which brings me to the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 19:20) In my mind, Jesus’ instructions are clear. While there is a cost to discipleship (remember that annoying teaching about dying to self), it isn’t complicated. The Greek word for disciple is mathetes, which is translated in English to mean student, pupil or learner. In my mind, “apprentice” is a better translation, reflecting the imperative to both hear and practice what one is learning (rather than emphasising head knowledge alone.) In this way, whenever we read “disciple” in the Gospels, we can accurately substitute the word “apprentice.” A disciple is an apprentice of Jesus — someone who learns to hear the words of God and put them into practice. Simple!
While the Great Commission will cost you everything, it’s not complicated. Go and make apprentices of all nations. Find people who don’t yet know Jesus, who are open to learning his stories. Show them how to read his words and apply his teachings in their lives. Equip them to practice his ways and invite them to put their trust in him. Dunk them in water in Jesus name. As they develop the mindset and habits of their new Lord and Saviour, provide simple tools to help them train others to do the same. Rinse and repeat. Not complicated!
Discipleship is apprenticeship to Jesus. It is less about accumulated knowledge and more about faithful action. It is less about what we know in our head, and more about what we do with our lives. As we read the scriptures, in community, practising the teachings of Jesus alongside others, we become more and more like Him. It’s a slow process, involving heart, mind and habit transformation, yet this is what it means to become an apprentice of Jesus.
Over years of watching people stagnate in their discipleship journey, I have become convinced that we need to get back to basics, by training people “how” to do the Great Commission. Our role as leaders is not only to motivate, but to simplify. This means providing practical tools to guide people’s next steps. One of the best ways to experience such a transformation is to join a small group of people who read the bible together and commit to practicing (not just talking about) what they are reading. There are many ways to do this, but one way is to start a Hope Group — a place where Christians read scripture in a conversational way with unchurched friends. Built on the principles of the Discovery Bible Study method, a Hope Group is a simple framework to introduces new or non-Christians to the habits of discipleship.
Here’s why I like this tool. We meet online or offline for about an hour each week, as friends. Typically, a Hope Group is made up of a two Christians and one or two unchurched people. It’s a safe and caring space where people can ask and answer questions, structured in a clear way. We ask (a) what are you thankful for? (b) what has been a challenge? (c) read and discuss a scripture of hope from the life of Jesus (d) make a plan to help others, and (e) say a short prayer. You don’t need to have expert bible knowledge or strong leadership skills to start a Hope Group. They are designed for ordinary Christians who want to disciple their friends towards a faith in Jesus.
In spite of its simplicity, each component of a Hope Group is well considered, embedding the logic of discipleship as an apprenticeship to Jesus. Here’s what I mean:
Thanks: As we share what we are thankful for, we prime for worship. We are training unchurched people to look for what is good, right and pure in our world. We are creating a culture of gratitude; a joyful community, who will eventually turn their thankfulness towards Jesus.
Challenge: To share honestly, from the heart, is to create a culture of authenticity and truth-telling. As we discover the prayer needs of others, it allows us to set a culture where hard things are brought before God, in community. This provides a foundation for deep and robust fellowship, which is a precursor for church.
Scripture: The Bible is the word of God, penetrating body and spirit (Hebrews 4:12). As we read the Gospels with people who don’t yet know Jesus, we allow the Holy Spirit to soften and convict their hearts in his timing. In line with the Discovery Bible Study method, we ask three open questions to stimulate action-oriented discussion: “What does this story tell us about God or Jesus?” “What does it say about people?” “How does this scripture speak to me personally; to my heart, not just my head?” It’s not about having the ‘right’ answer, but enabling spirit-filled conversations to happen around the teachings of Jesus.
Help: In the Western church, we struggle to turn our theological discussions into accountable actions. But action is part of an apprenticeship. In a Hope Group, we “help” by answering two questions: “Who will you help this week, and how will you help them?” We each make a plan to do something beneficial in another person’s life, and by doing so, create an association between “bible reading” and “committed action.” Over time, as participants begin to put their trust in Jesus, we shift our language to include the word obey: “How will you obey what we have read and discussed this week?” As we learn to hear and obey the words of Christ, we deepen our apprenticeship with Jesus.
Pray: When praying with unchurched people, we recommend being conversational and concise. To set a culture where non-believers feel comfortable with prayer, we suggest that you avoid using overly religious language. Keep your prayers short (less than a minute). Pray with your eyes open. Finish with “in Jesus’ name, Amen.” Our intention is to model a form prayer that others can imitate, without needing to know particular words and phrases. By keeping our prayers short, we make it easier for others to imitate us, and therefore, begin their own prayer life.
Bottom line, discipleship is an apprenticeship and requires a change in habits, not just mindset. Although costly, it should not be complicated. By training your people to master a few practical tools, you can unblock barriers that traditionally prevent people from making disciples in the real world. A Hope Group is one such structure — thanks, challenge, scripture, help and prayer. Simple! By using this framework, almost anyone can create a sense of community, read scripture, model prayer, and practice the teachings of Jesus with those who don’t yet know Him. By no means the only way, a Hope Group is an effective way to invite not-yet-believers to enter the discipleship journey.
“Go and make disciples” — but also show me “how.” Rather than motivate our congregations to engage in the Great Commission, let us also train them, equip them, and provide them with practical tools and frameworks to get the job done.
(If you are interested in knowing more about Hope Groups and how they work, watch this video or visit the Together Network. We provide free online training for any Christian who wants to reach out to their unchurched friends by starting a Hope Group).
Addison, S (2015) Pioneering Movements: Leadership That Multiplies Disciples and Churches, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, United States, p. 26.
[Photo by Cassidy Rowell