the shape of leadership

Discipleship During a Pandemic

Three lessons for our ‘new normal’

Chris Colvin on June 11, 2020

During the height of the pandemic, most churches closed in-person gatherings and moved to online services. Now, as states and cities ease restrictions and churches begin reopening, there are still some strict guidelines in place. Those include capping the number of people allowed in the building and limiting how members interact while gathering.

Discipleship has traditionally been an up-close activity. Meeting in groups or one-on-one, communication is often face-to-face. It may involve gathering around tables together while a leader works through a teaching. Discipleship can include holding hands while praying or offering an encouraging touch on the shoulder.

Social distancing guidelines, if strictly followed, don’t make room for such interaction. Online services are usually one-size-fits-all, not allowing for the mingling in a lobby, gathering over coffee, and attending classes like we were used to.

Sadly, because of these restrictions, many churches opted to suspend their discipleship pathways. While some churches still met virtually to help people grow spiritually through an online setting, it was often less fulfilling than before.

However, it is frequently in the midst of chaos and confusion that the best ideas come to the forefront. These challenging times may be an opportunity to rethink how and why we do discipleship the way it’s been done for the past couple of decades.

Below are some ideas for not only continuing discipling if and when the pandemic returns, but also moving forward in the new normal in ways that could be more effective.

Focus on Mentoring

Discipleship in a classroom setting is important. Our people need to know things about God, the Bible, salvation, the gifts of the Spirit, and their own salvation. That can easily and effectively be done in some sort of teaching environment.

But there can be a disconnect between what is learned and what is done. Once you close the booklet, it’s easy to set that part of our lives on the shelf as well. But mentoring is powerful in that it not only provides teaching, it also shows a person how it’s applied.

During a pandemic when it’s difficult to get people together for a group lesson, it’s actually easier for mentors and mentees to meet one-on-one. A lot of people confessed to having more free time. Instead of watching TV, they opted to go for walks or take up a hobby. It’s during these times that creating mentoring relationships can be key.

Simply assign each person who wants to be discipled a mentor. This can be a staff member or a volunteer from the church. Try to pair them up according to existing relationships or shared interests and personalities. Then, equip mentors to teach and train their disciples.

They could work through some material together, or they could just talk about how their lives in Christ are going. Whatever avenue you choose, the results will be maximized because of the personal nature of the process.

As people encourage one another to grow, they themselves grow.

Discipleship Drop-In

What happens when you can’t be with someone in person? A phone call might work, but people don’t always have time to answer. A text message is a standard way to communicate today, especially among younger generations.

When you can’t meet in person to disciple, why not try dropping in now and then via text? By sending out a text message, either personal and individual or through a group option, you are able to connect with people instantly and effectively.

Let’s say your sermon on Sunday was about the effectiveness of faith, and one of your points was on the prayer of faith for healing. A short text message might say, “This week, we saw how the prayer of faith can result in healing. Whom have you prayed for this week? Take a moment right now to pray for those around you.”

That type of disciple-making does several things at once. First, it connects the process to your weekly message. Second, it shows that being a disciple is not something that takes place in a classroom but in real life. And third, it meets them where they are, wherever that may be.

Discipleship drop-ins are so easy, you might doubt their effectiveness. But go ahead and give it a try. It can only increase the results of what you’re already doing.

Making Friends and Disciples

The Purpose Driven Church model was excellent at taking a scriptural approach to structuring church ministry. It was biblical in that it followed the example from the Book of Acts. It was accessible because it was easy to see how to get on and move through the different stages of growth.

The drawback, though, is that it compartmentalized the different areas of church ministry. Service was separated from evangelism, which was separated from fellowship. One of the biggest areas of discrepancy was how fellowship and discipleship were seen as different steps in a journey.

Today, the need for fellowship is at an all-time high. We are more connected through social media than ever before; yet most of us feel disconnected. We all need friends who can encourage and help us. Is there a possible discipleship aspect to this as well?

Though small groups are good at both connecting people and discipling believers, those things don’t always happen organically. Intentionally leveraging the relationships for spiritual growth is key.

As your church meets in various settings for fellowship, encourage congregants to become disciple makers. This isn’t about one person leading another, but about the group members leading one another. As they encourage one another to grow, they themselves grow — not only spiritually, but socially as well.

This requires intentionality on all levels. Empower your people to do this. Model it from the pulpit or in person. Let them know discipleship is not a happy accident of getting together. It’s the specific result you’re working toward. When they see the benefits, they will gladly join you in the process.

It’s important to remember the work of the minister is not to be a disciple maker. That should happen, of course. But the primary calling is to make disciple makers. The members of the church are the ones who do the work of the Church. Ministers lead, equip and empower them.

So give your people the tools they need, the courage they want, and the permission they may be waiting for to make disciples now.

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