How to Build a Clear Discipleship Pathway
Many people are interested in how they can create a discipleship program. But I'm convinced that the better plan isn't a program, it's a pathway!
5 Key Action Steps for Church Leaders
Introduction: The power of a Discipleship Pathway
Step 1: Get Clear on What A Disciple Is
Step 2: Create a Crystal Clear Entrance to Discipleship
Step 3: How to Clarify Your Pathway
Step 4: How to Prepare to Multiply
Step 5: Find a Partner
Introduction: The power of a Discipleship Pathway
Why pathways and systems matter
On August 8, 1935, the prototype of the B-17 bomber rumbled down the runway in front of a crowd of military brass for its first public demonstration flight. The aircraft took off, but shortly after becoming airborne, it stalled and crashed, killing both test pilots.
The investigation into the crash found that the cause wasn’t mechanical problems – it was pilot error. You see, the B-17 was the most complex plane that had been designed up to that time. The B-17 demanded a symphony of actions from its pilots, each step vital to the plane’s successful flight. The pilots had forgotten to release a rudder locking mechanism on the tail… and it cost their lives.
The military moved on and awarded the contract to another plane manufacturer. But they bought a handful of B-17s to do test flights. Their test pilots consistently came back to them saying, “This plane is too good to just give up.”
A maverick pilot named Dr. Paul Tibbets was tasked with solving the problem. He believed in the power of systems: documenting expected actions in a way that was clear and simple.
He designed a 1-page checklist. With the checklist, the pilots no longer had to hold vital lists of actions in their minds, where they were subject to human forgetfulness.
The checklist became the grandparent of the modern pre-flight checklist -- and it saved the B-17 bomber.
The military flew the B-17 over 1 million miles with zero accidents caused by pilot forgetfulness. It went on to become one of the most iconic and successful aircraft of World War II.
The connection between systems and success
Let’s think for a moment about what the checklist accomplished:
When it was mission critical…
to reliably deliver the benefits of a great plane…
without everyone being the same level of expert…
they created a simple system…
that enabled any pilot to fly without needless errors.
How could we do the same thing with a discipleship pathway?
In other words:
When it is mission critical…
To reliably deliver the benefits of a life that imitates Jesus…
Without everyone in your church needing to be an expert…
Can we create a simple pathway…
That will let anyone in your church become a disciple-maker?
In this post, I’ll share how to make that happen.
Step 1: Get Clear on What A Disciple Is
“Undiscipleship is the dirty little secret of the American church.” - Dallas Willard
Does your church sometimes feels like a collection of people in spacesuits? Everyone is happy in their little bubble… but not really in community, not really being transformed by the Gospel?
Congratulations, that makes you a typical American church!
You’re not alone. In a recent Barna survey on discipleship, only 8% of pastors said their church was doing “very well in discipling new and young believers.”
Most pastors in America have never thought clearly about creating a clear discipleship pathway in their local church. The fact that your reading this makes you already an exception to the rule!
This post is a way to move away from “undiscipleship” and into a clear discipleship pathway.
How churches misunderstand discipleship
Churches frequently believe that a disciple is:
Someone who has learned a set of facts or taken a class
Someone separated from the world
Someone that’s an activist for morality, truth or justice
Someone that is engaged in spiritual disciplines
But each of these is only half true!
SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO PRODUCE A DISCIPLE?
Discipleship involves the whole person – head, heart, and hands – in Christian community.
The head for what we know (orthodoxy)
The heart for what we feel, believe, and commit to (orthopathy)
The hands for what we do (orthopraxy).
All in the context of a spiritual family
The word “disciple” (mathetes in Greek) means learner. But the learning that Jesus modeled was not primarily about information. It was:
Always in community, and
Always for the purpose of imitation.
Here are the 3 foundations of discipleship:
1. Disciples are developing habits that will continually transform them.
Spiritual disciplines, regular interaction with the Word & prayer… these are crucial components of real, Biblical discipleship.
2. Disciples are living in a community that supports their commitment to Jesus.
The dominant model of discipleship in the Scripture is a baby born into a family.
Born again / born of God (John 1:12-13, John 3:3)
“Like newborn babies, desire the milk of the Word” (1 Peter 2:2)
“Little children… young men… fathers” (1 John 2:13-14)
Babies in Christ (Hebrews 5:13, 1 Cor. 3:1)
Eating spiritual meat, instead of milk (1 Cor. 3:2)
No longer infants, but full grown (Eph. 3:13-16)
Sometimes we miss the most obvious things. For instance, have you ever noticed that not one of Jesus’ disciples had the option of following him solo? Jesus welcomed the Twelve into… well, the Twelve!
Jesus' discipleship pathway was never about just a personal relationship with him apart from the group of disciples. Yours shouldn’t be, either.
3. Disciples are imitating Jesus, and obeying his commands.
Jesus himself said, “Make disciples… teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19) Jesus defines discipleship as obedience to his commands! Any discipleship program has to ask “What did Jesus command us to do?”
Discipleship is learning for action, for obedience, for imitation… so we can suffer like he did, conquer temptation like He did, lay down our life like He did, and RISE like he did.
Discipleship programs shouldn’t be based primarily on classes, but on:
Mentoring relationships, helping us develop…
Daily learning and spiritual disciplines, for the purpose of…
Action and obedience, creating…
Character and holiness, which helps…
Spread the Kingdom by discipling the next generation.
How you can respond:
Action #1. Write out a list of characteristics of a mature disciple.
Action #2. Brainstorm habits that would create that person.
Now brainstorm: What habits and processes would create that kind of person? What kind of “Head” habits? “Heart” habits? “Hands” habits? How would I encourage the formation of those habits in my discipleship plans?
Action #3. Create a time slot for discipleship planning & action.
“There’s them that talk about it, and them that do it.” ~ Garrison Keillor
Create a 10 minute time slot each day to pray, think and act about discipleship in your church… and set an alarm on your phone for it. This kind of action is the difference between just reading about it, and those who actually make progress!
Want even more discipleship training?
A 10-session video course to guide you into creating a plan for discipleship in the local church:
Do you prefer to learn in a video workshop format? Purchase the workshop! Featuring:
an instantly downloadable 36-page workbook
print copies for other key leaders in your church
10 practical video coaching sessions
specific action items for each session
You can get it at www.thediscipleshipcoach.com.
Step 2: Create a Crystal Clear Entrance to Discipleship
How hard would it be to convince your family to take a trip if:
You had no clear destination.
You didn’t know anything about your route.
You had no idea what attractions you would see.
You didn’t know how you would measure your progress.
As weird as this seems, this is exactly the discipleship pathway some pastors are trying to pitch to their congregations!
How does someone enter discipleship at your church?
An altar call? A prayer by their bed? A class? A small group? Baptism? Joining the church? Joining a ministry?
In other words, what is the very next action step you want someone to take to enter your discipleship program?
If you aren’t really sure, I guarantee that your congregation isn’t either!
How to create your discipleship pathway entrance
1. Make it simple to enter.
This is the work you do before anyone ever sees it. You don’t want to introduce pointless complexity in your “doorway to discipleship.”
Remember, Jesus simply said, “Follow me,” to many of his disciples. In those days, everyone knew what it meant to follow a rabbi. It didn’t mean the journey would be easy. In fact, it was difficult. But they knew exactly how to do it.
You need to answer questions like:
How can someone indicate their interest?
How do they “sign up?”
What do I immediately give them?
2. Make it obvious.
You want to create an entrance to discipleship that is incredibly obvious, surrounded by giant flashing arrows. The best way is to think through:
Where: Create a space for it. (Do you have a kiosk, a discipleship resource table, a room that is where people can go to enter discipleship?)
When: Create a time slot for it. (Do you have a moment in your church’s schedule that is a designated time to respond?)
Who: Create a point-person for discipleship. (Who would they contact if they were interested? Is that the right person?)
How: Create a call to action. (Do you have a “do it right now” invitation, where you say specifically what you’re asking them to do?)
You’d be surprised how many churches do not have these things. It may be obvious to you, but is it obvious to the people that you’re inviting?
3. Make it compelling.
Think about the reasons your disciples should enter this discipleship pathway. How would you call them to it?
Greater intimacy with God?
More impact in their life?
Better likelihood of passing on their faith to their family?
More peace and joy in the Lord instead of just obligation?
Marketing experts will pay $20,000 for a sales script written by a professional, because they care about the mission of extracting dollars from their customers. Think through your words – much more than monetary gains are riding on your speech.
Of course, the Holy Spirit is the One who empowers us to call people into discipleship! I am not suggesting that we can make discipleship compelling without His power. But frequently the Spirit uses our words, in the proclamation of the Gospel, to create a compelling invitation to discipleship.
It’s appropriate that we think our words through, before it’s time to give them.
4. Make it relational right from the start.
You know how the best, highest-touch businesses have a concierge or host right inside the door? A person who is immediately helping you find what you need?
Think about your entrance this way. As soon as someone indicates interest, you want your people to be right there, saying “Hey, glad you’re here! Right this way.”
So how can you do that?
Finding a discipleship champion?
Putting a staff member in charge?
Arranging systematic follow-up?
Immediately scheduling coffee or lunch appointments?
Step 3: Create the steps of your discipleship pathway
Once you’ve got someone through your “doorway of discipleship,” it’s time to help them move forward. With care, you can create a pathway that will:
Make it flexible: Respect seasons in your disciples’ lives.
Remember, Jesus sent his disciples into intense seasons of ministry, but also called them to come with him to a “quiet place and rest.” Not all disciples are at the same season in their life. What if you’ve got a parent dealing with kids? A man struggling with pornography? Someone who is facing doubts or attacks on the evidence for their faith? Can your discipleship program adjust?
Make it relevant: Deal with the actual felt needs of your disciples.
Jesus responded to the felt needs, questions and requests of his disciples: (“Lord, teach us to pray.” “What does this parable mean?”)
Make it interesting: Create and respond to teachable moments.
Jesus frequently took stressful situations, and made them into teachable moments. Sometimes, he even created the stressful situation! (In a storm on a boat… Telling confusing stories... Sending them out to proclaim the Kingdom… “You feed them a meal!”)
How to think it through:
Action #1: Identify the steps you think MUST be on a discipleship pathway.
The habits and character that you identified in the first segment will be helpful here. Now, it’s time to arrange them in a naturally flowing order.
Action #2: Break down your discipleship pathway into manageable steps.
Don’t make your discipleship plan something that you give all at once. Don’t make it feel like, “Hey, welcome to the family of God, here's your copy of the Yellow Pages.” That's intimidating, and feels unconquerable.
Instead, develop a pathway that has simple, measurable steps. Make your steps substantive, but also doable. For instance, in my NewStart Discipleship plan, no module is longer than 90 days.
Action #3: Promise your presence on the discipleship pathway.
Journeys are better taken together, in most situations.Promise your presence and then follow through. Let them know that you'll be with them on this journey, or even when they start to disciple others.
Action #4: Introduce your disciples to others who can walk with them.
Introduce them to someone who will walk alongside them for the next six months to a year, and who will help them succeed because he's been trained.
“Bill, this is Jim. I’m going to have him be your mentor to walk with you every step for the next 6-12 months as you’re in discipleship training. Jim has been there, he’s done the pathway himself, and so he’s going to be a huge help to you while you’re getting started. You’re not alone!”
A sample discipleship pathway
It might be easiest to see what I mean by creating this pathway by look at an example. Here’s the discipleship pathway template I have designed for use at our church:
Step #1: NewStart Journal (50 days)
Habit: Bible reading - new Christian Bible reading plan
Habit: Interaction with God’s Word - journal space
Mentoring relationships - reminders to contact a mentor
Scripture-based prayers - daily sample prayers
Understand Scripture - 5-minute daily teaching videos
Download a free copy of the NewStart Discipleship Journal here.
Step #2: Obedience Challenge (90 days)
Habit of reading the Scriptures - 1 chapter of the Gospels daily.
“Teach them to observe all the things I have commanded you,” - with daily videos to teach what each command of Jesus means.
Habit of meditative prayer - 4 minute prayer experience video each day that teaches Praise, Repentance, Listening, and Asking
Valuing Christian Community - By including regular encouragement to reach out to a mentor to share how you’re obeying Christ’s commands.
Step #3: Baptism Challenge (21 days)
Obeying the command of Jesus to be baptized
Teaching the meaning of baptism - 7 Days
Write and share your testimony - 7 days
Basic Christian theology (Apostles Creed) - 7 Days
Evangelism habit: Prayer over and inviting of, unbelieving friends and family
Step #4: Moving From Me to We (40 days)
Habit: Christian community & connection
Study of the “one another” commands of the Bible: love, serve, submit, encourage, forgive, counsel, confront, confess to, etc.
The value of church membership
How to conquer temptation more effectively in community
Daily prayer & meditation experience
Put together, it looks like this:
Make your Discipleship Pathway customizable
NewStart also includes a lot of other modules, that deal with specific needs in your disciples’ lives.
Defending Your Faith: Learning the Foundation and evidence for Christianity
The Prayer Guidebook: Deepening your prayer life with a 30 day Prayer Journal
The Gospel Challenge: study on Romans, how to understand the Gospel
How to Pray the Psalms: 21 days- Praying the Scripture as a Spiritual discipline
40 Days of Holiness - a 40 day Bible study on holiness to understand God’s holiness and how he produces holiness in believers through the Holy Spirit’s power.
Discipleship In the Home - Family devotions, spiritual leadership in the home
“Plug and Play” Modules - Covering other things disciples will need to make it. These are pending development:
6 Levels of Victory over Pornography
Missional Living Challenge: 50 days to Understand and develop your mission in your neighborhood, to build intentional, Gospel-opportunity relationships
How to Deal with How Your Feel: 90 Days to Work Toward Emotional & Mental Health
How to Share Your Faith: 21 days to learn & practice sharing your faith (using the 3 Circles Method)
The Volunteer Challenge: 40 Days to find a personal ministry and give back to your church family.
Gospel of the Kingdom: 30 Days to a deeper understanding of God’s saving reign over my life and the world
The Mentor challenge - 30 Days to Find and start Making a disciple of your own
Fruit of the Spirit module: Understanding the presence & Developing the fruit of the Holy Spirit
This is what we're building at NewStart Discipleship.
10 Modules are available now, but we're building more at the rate of 2-3 per year. We believe that creating a discipleship pathway means making sure it takes the new believer on a journey that leads to maturity in Head, Heart and Hands!
What’s your discipleship pathway?
You may be able to build something better than what I’ve built! But the important thing is… are you building one?
Free 1 hour training, showing exactly how I use some of the tools above, and why they work!
Step 4: Prepare to Multiply Disciples
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” 2 Timothy 2:22
A plan to multiply disciples is at the core of a biblical discipleship strategy. To get the job done, you’re going to need to not just add disciples, but multiply them.
Action #1: Understand what it takes to multiply disciples.
Multiplication takes 2 things: clarity and simplicity.
When Henry Ford designed the assembly line, he decentralized expertise into its component parts. No longer did someone creating an automobile need to be an expert on every part of it; they only needed to know how to build one component.
What if you could design a discipleship plan that was more like an assembly line? What if your "disciples who make disciples" didn’t need to be experts in every area?
That’s clarity and simplicity.
Action #2: Share the vision for disciple multiplication.
Develop a sermon on 2 Timothy 2:22.
Plan to preach it once a year, and never preach it without asking for commitment from your people:
“We’re planning for a multiplying discipleship revolution. We’re not really planning to do just a little Sunday School program, we’re planning to make disciples who make disciples. I’m doing this with you for 12 months, then I’ll continue with you, but you have to go do it with someone else… and you’re going to do such a good job, they’re going to do it with someone else. That's what 2 Timothy 2:22 means.”
Will you join me in obeying this forgotten command to move beyond the 'basic Christian life' and into the Kingdom business of multiplying disciples? If so, come forward, and let's have a commissioning prayer!
Do you know how many years it would take to win the whole world, if we doubled disciples every year, all 8 billion people? 35 years! (Now, do your people know that? Tell them!)
Action #3: Design a discipleship plan that multiplies.
Here are a couple possibilities:
1. You could develop your own discipleship plan.
Using the principles in this booklet, I’m certain that you can develop a discipleship pathway that is both clear and simple. Set aside a week, identify characteristics and habits you want, and chart them out over a 1-2 year journey.
2. You could hire a discipleship pastor to develop a discipleship plan for you.
You could hire someone to come on staff at your church and ask them to develop it for you. They could do the graphic design, record the videos, build the web-based parts of your process.
Of course, this would mean that you’d need to search for someone, interview them, wait for them to be able to move, then pay their moving expenses, pay their salary and housing allowance. (Average staff member is what, now? $50,000/year?) I’m sure they could do it, too. How many years do you think they would need to spend in development?
3. You could hire me and use the discipleship pathway I’ve built.
I can give you a plan for making disciples who make disciples that’s:
Already clear and simple
Ready to multiply
Ready to take the load of development off of you
If that sounds like what you need, you can get all the details about a system that can make disciples who make disciples.
Step 5: Find a Partner
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. - Albert Einstein
One of the best books I have read on entrepreneurship is “Who Not How” - by Dan Sullivan and Dr. Benjamin Hardy.
Here’s the premise of the book:
Most entrepreneurs ask the wrong question when they run into a problem. They ask, “How can I solve this problem?” Sure, this positive attitude often helps solve problems. Entrepreneurs are driven, quick learners and achievers. But this question keeps new businesses stuck. The right question is, “Who can help me solve this problem?”
Let me give you an example of how this works in churches:
Suppose that you run into an issue at your small church, such as not having a bulletin for the upcoming Sunday service. So you think, "I'll just learn how to lay out a bulletin and print it every week." Great, now you’ve got a bulletin.
But the next week, you realize you need a website. Then you need graphics and photos. Now you might as well have some social media presence, too. Add in Google Business pages, church bookkeeping, running Facebook ads, music for worship, pastoral counseling… you’re overwhelmed, and we haven’t even gotten to discipleship yet!
“Who can help me create a discipleship pathway?”
If everything new in your church involves you taking time & energy to do it, you’ll waste energy & time living outside your strength zone.
I used to be the worst at this. When I first started, our church had very limited funds. I remember one Sunday night, my treasurer told me that all the bills were paid, but we only had $200 left in the church checking account and asked me not to spend any money that week. I understand how it feels to only have time and your own skills available to you.
However, if you continue to approach every problem by taking on the learning curve and doing tasks that you may not be good at or don't enjoy, it will drain your energy from things that you could and should be doing to make progress. This can be counterproductive and can prevent you from moving forward.
So how can we break free from “how can I solve this problem?” and move to a “who” mindset?
Here are two mindset shifts you need to make to find a good disciple making partner for any area of your church (even beyond discipleship):
Mindset switch #1: Reject the “messiah complex.”
Pastor, please hear me: It’s OK to use someone else’s stuff. You don't have to do everything yourself. Don't feel guilty about using someone else's work or ideas. Embrace the fact that you can collaborate with others and utilize their expertise.
Here’s a helpful rule of thumb: If someone else can do it 70% as well as you can, they should!
Set yourself free: There are things you’re really good at – better than anyone else. Go do them!
Mindset switch #2: Get over the fear of using other people’s stuff.
When I was in Bible college preaching class, my instructor told me he used to struggle using any outline from other preachers. Then, one day he heard Billy Graham preach a sermon and thought “That’s a great outline! I need to remember that one and maybe I’ll use it some day.” A few weeks later, he was reading a book by Clovis Chappell. He came across exactly the same outline!
There you go. If Billy Graham can do it, then you can do it, too!
One important aspect of using someone else's material for disciple making is getting over the emotional fear and guilt associated with it. Listen: It’s not a shame, it doesn’t make you less of a “real” pastor… and honestly, people don’t mind. They want to be well-fed and well-led. Don’t steal, cite when appropriate, but remember – most sheep don’t care where the grass came from.
10 Reasons to choose me as your Disciple Making Partner
1. NewStart Discipleship can deliver excellence in less time.
An unexpected benefit of using a “who”: Excellence in less time. “Excellence honors God and inspires people,” as one pastor said. But excellence takes hours of work. Every single one of my discipleship tools works, and is quality. You don’t have to be ashamed of any of it.
2. NewStart is way cheaper than hiring a discipleship pastor.
Skip the search, the salary and housing allowance. I can deliver for pennies per day.
3. I’m a pastor, not a theorist.
I’m actually a pastor at a smaller church in Oklahoma City. I spent years frustrated with discipleship, but not really knowing how to break out of that frustration. Now I’m committed to starting a multi-decade disciple-multiplying movement here.
4. I’m still developing disciple making tools.
I’m actively developing tools for the next 3-4 years, one module at a time. As I develop, I just add the tools I create to NewStart members area – for FREE. No additional cost.
5. All my materials for making disciples are customizable, AND work out-of-the-box.
I have some churches who want to customize – they want to put their own logo on it, or let their own pastor do the “Welcome to the Family of God” intro for their new Christians. Great, you can do that! Other pastors don’t have the time or the technical know-how. All they want is to get started with some good quality discipleship materials by THIS SUNDAY.
6. “Feel free not to quote me.”
If you use something from my system, you don't have to mention the author's name. Just make it yours, tweak it, and adapt it to create something unique and feed your disciples!
7. I’m orthodox and biblical.
You don’t have to worry about what your disciples are going to see. “Is he going to suggest that Jesus didn't really die for our sins? Is he going to do mostly shallow psychology? Is he going to suggest that we should unhitch our faith from the Old Testament? Is he going to cast doubt on the Bible, or badmouth a traditional sexual ethic?” Nope. None of that.
I’m creedal, orthodox, biblical, and traditional.
8. I leave the controversial issues to you.
The first year of discipleship is not a time to tackle modes of baptism, “women speaking in church,” etc. I have beliefs on those kinds of issues, but I’m not treating it like it’s the Trinity or The Deity of Christ. I’m not going to go political, either.
Bottom line, I know there’s disagreement on that kind of stuff, and I’m going to let you handle it however you want.
9. NewStart easily adapts to any size church.
Some churches that use my strategy for making disciples are churches of 20 people. Some are upwards of 500. Here's how I deal with that:
A subscription to NewStart includes an unlimited printing license for all of the tools that I create. This creates incredible flexibility. If you suddenly discover on Sunday morning that you are preaching a gospel-oriented message and don't have any more NewStart discipleship journals, just go to your computer and push print! Et voila'! More disciple-making materials.
Or, you can order several of the tools from me, at cost. I print 500 or 1000 of them at a time, so I wind up with a significant discount. I have a special members only printing link that you receive when you sign up. Every member church is able to order at a price that you could never get at a local printer, printing 10 or 20 copies at a time.
Whether you have one disciple, or 100 disciples to work with, this is a solution that grows along with you!
10. Robust support for your launch process.
One nice feature of NewStart Discipleship is that it includes plenty of resources to lift the load of launching it with excellence at your church:
Sermons (most with handouts and powerpoints)
Sermon graphics for promotion & social media use
Sermon video bumpers
When I launched NewStart, I printed 100 copies of the Journal, and passed them out at my church. I told the congregation, “I know you may have been a Christian for years, but I want everyone to be familiar with this tool. Guess why? Because I’m going to come to you someday, and say, ‘Hey, Bill – this is Bob. Bob just became a follower of Jesus. I want YOU to take him through the NewStart Journal that we went through!’”
It's time to take the leap into disciple making!
I'm going to make it easier. Here's a significant discount for you:
50% OFF Special for NewStart Discipleship
If you’ve made it this far, you’re one of those rare people who finishes things. I want to reward you, by giving you a special deal.
Watch this FREE 1-hourdiscipleship training, and at the end, there’s a special link that only exists there. When you use it, it will give you an annual price that is 50% off the regular rate. (That’s a $300 savings!)