The Disciple-Making Church
Helping new believers grow in the faith
In my days as an ESL (English as a second language) instructor, I discovered that teaching immigrants is about much more than just giving them a new set of words. I provided continuous linguistic development, guided students in the assimilation process, and nurtured their growth as they learned to navigate a new land.
Discipling new believers has some parallels. They have become part of a new family with a distinct culture, language and purpose. Each individual has a unique background, perspective, and rate of growth. But they all need people who are committed to their immediate and long-term success.
The ESL program ensured every student had a network to support them in their assimilation. Similarly, disciple-making churches have a disciple-making culture. I believe God plants the seeds of the gospel in hearts long before people come to our churches. But growth happens in the context of relationships, and through intentional investments of time and care.
Discipleship is not a cookie-cutter process. Yet when people take that step of faith in following Christ, we do need systems in place to help them find their next steps, from baptism in water to the lifelong journey of Bible learning. We need mentors and small group leaders who will walk alongside them — not just teaching them how to live out this new life, but modeling it.
New Christians will naturally have questions: How do I read the Bible? What is prayer? How do I pray? A new believers class can be a nurturing environment for exploring these issues. It also provides opportunity for teaching foundational truths, such as salvation, the supremacy of Christ, the Bible as the Word of God, the Trinity, and reasons to seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit, just to name a few. As people complete the class, they can transition to small groups that offer systematic Bible instruction.
Of course, no one learns to speak a new language simply by listening to lectures. Practice is vital. The same is true of spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and fasting. Reading books on prayer and talking about prayer won’t develop our prayer lives; we have to practice prayer.
Likewise, hearing from the Bible on Sunday isn’t enough. New believers should learn to engage Scripture throughout the week. This means setting aside time to practice private devotions, using a Bible reading plan, and discovering how to apply the text in everyday situations.
Nothing compares with the joy of seeing new believers grow and flourish in this exciting life of following Jesus.
Many new believers want to practice sharing their faith, which is great! The excitement of someone who has just discovered the transforming grace of Christ and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit can be palpable. It’s not uncommon for unbelieving friends and family members to ask, “What happened to you?”
As a result, new Christians often have opportunities to talk about Christ with people who are otherwise resistant to spiritual conversations. Offer them some basic guidelines for sharing faith with family members, friends and co-workers, and back them with prayer.
Even if they don’t have a lot of theological knowledge, don’t discount their potential as evangelists. The zeal in their testimony, the sparkle in their eyes, and the clear evidence of a life transformed powerfully affirm the truth of the gospel.
The woman at the well didn’t graduate from seminary before saying to her neighbors, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29). Her testimony led people to encounter Jesus for themselves, and many became believers (verses 39-42).
Discipleship is about replication — making disciples who make disciples. I am a disciple maker today because of the people who invested in me. Of course, discipleship also requires patience. Growth takes time, and maturity can be a moving target.
As pastors, my husband and I noticed each person’s spiritual growth chart was different. We realized we can’t rush God’s work in a person’s heart or compare one person’s experience with that of another. I never expected ESL students to become fluent overnight. I also understood the factors affecting their progress were as varied as their individual stories. Allow people to grow at their own rate in their newfound relationship with Christ.
An important part of the growth process is learning to serve. Talk about spiritual gifts, and help people explore and identify the gifts God has given them. Help them find places to practice using their gifts, providing plenty of encouragement and an appropriate level of guidance and oversight along the way. In time, many of them will likely be ministry leaders and mentors for others.
While an ESL teacher, it was exciting to help students gain the confidence and competence to succeed in the English-speaking world. But nothing compares with the joy of seeing new believers grow and flourish in this exciting life of following Jesus.
My prayer is that every congregation will seek to build a disciple-making culture — and that every person who walks the aisle to accept Jesus will also learn to “walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:6-7, ESV).
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Influence magazine.