the shape of leadership

What Is Your Discipleship Pathway?

Whatever it is, it should be strategic, comprehensive, and clear

John Davidson on January 7, 2016


None of us are sitting around asking, “Should we make disciples?” We know well Jesus’ command, “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), and we all want to do it. The question is how? As we begin 2016, I want to encourage you to make refining your discipleship pathway a primary goal for your ministry.

A discipleship pathway is simply your process for making disciples. It’s your GPS that shows directions for how to help individuals get from here (wherever they are now) to there (a closer relationship with Jesus). Ideally, that pathway should be strategic, comprehensive and clear

Many churches disciple by accident because they haven’t thought through their plan for moving people toward Christ. May that not be said of your church! No pathway is perfect, and each will be unique, so rest in that fact you can always add to, take away from, and reroute the pathway later. For now, just design and implement the best process you can. And remember, strategic does not equal linear. An individual’s growth toward Christ never happens in a straight line, so don’t expect people to follow your plan perfectly.

 Consider collaborating with your staff or volunteer team to define the following:

An individual’s growth toward Christ never happens in a straight line, so don’t expect people to follow your plan perfectly.

Current pathway components. New churches have the benefit of creating their ideal pathway from the outset. The challenge is, they have to start from scratch. On the other hand, every existing church already has a pathway of some kind. It might contain some valuable programs and processes, but it might also be overgrown with programs and events that don’t really produce disciples. The current pathway may require deconstruction before a new path can be created. The advantage is that existing churches often have more resources to work with than do new churches.

On-ramps. What are the on-ramps through which people in your church might start the discipleship journey? An altar call, a recovery class, a community outreach, invited by a believer in your church? How would one enter the pathway from these different on-ramps?

Potential barriers. Discipleship is, in part, the process of removing barriers that prevent people from becoming as Christ-like as God intends. The Holy Spirit draws people. We should be identifying and removing barriers that keep them from being drawn all the way to Him. What barriers, excuses, or reasons might keep people from jumping onto your discipleship pathway? Location, time constraints, childcare, and any other potential barrier should be considered.

Church and community context. It’s critical to understand the culture of your church and community. Do you have a learning culture where people are used to sitting in a classroom? Are the people of your community actively using technology in a way that you might be able to use technology as a discipleship tool? Are the people in your community averse to going to another’s home? Are certain days of the week off limits due to the rhythms of your community?

An effective discipleship pathway will be comprehensive in both scope and sequence. That is, it will make room for everyone on the spectrum of age and stage of life, and it will progress logically over time, leading the participant into an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus. Consider whether your pathway is comprehensive in the following areas:

Age and stage. Do you have a cradle to grave pathway? Does your pathway account for children, teens, young adults, singles, young families, empty nesters and seniors?

Holistic. Does your pathway include discipleship training that reaches into every area of an individual’s life? Marriage, parenting and other relationships, financial stewardship, ministry calling, spiritual formation, professional and work life, and service in the church and community. 

Knowing, being, doing. Discipleship isn’t all about what you know. It’s also about what you do and who you are. A comprehensive pathway should include teaching on doctrine and theology at some level but also opportunities to live out one’s faith in the world. This can happen through missions trips, fellowship gatherings, serving opportunities, marketplace ministry, outreach and evangelism, as well as commissioning believers into vocational ministry.

You can have the most strategic, comprehensive discipleship pathway in the history of the church, but if it’s not clear to those you intend to utilize it, it will fail. Think through these practical tips on pathway clarity:

Everyone should be able to clearly understand his or her next step. 

The napkin principle. You should be able to sketch the pathway on a napkin and explain it in a couple of minutes.

The power of one next step. Everyone should be able to clearly understand his or her next step. They don’t have to do everything, they just need to do the one next thing. This is often easier for new believers than for the veteran who has been in the church for years, but even seasoned saints need clear next steps.

Picture it. A picture is worth a thousand words, so turn your pathway into a visual image people can see. Consider having the image blown up and framed or painted on a wall in the church. 

Repetition. When you get to the point where you think your pathway is clear to everyone in your congregation, say it again. Chances are, most people still don’t understand it.


Ultimately, the goal of a discipleship pathway is to make disciples. So your pathway should be created by starting with your definition of a disciple and working backward to see what will produce that desired outcome.

Ed Stetzer’s latest research in The State of Church Planting in the U.S. showed that churches with clear discipleship pathways had nearly twice the number of conversions  as churches that didn’t. So you get what you prepare for. When you create capacity in your church for people to be discipled, God will likely send you more people to disciple. 

If you want to create the best possible pathway for your church, check out a couple of my favorite discipleship resources:

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