One summer afternoon Bill came into the church looking to speak with a pastor. He sat down in my office, pulled a sheet of lined paper from his back pocket, unfolded it, smoothed it out over his knee, cleared his throat, and without any introduction began to read a list of his week’s sins. When finished, he looked up from behind the paper expectantly.
I began to think: What would lead a thirty-something, well put together guy, into a church to confess to a total stranger?
It turned out that he had been converted seven years previously. But his Christian life since then had been a roller coaster ride of falling into chaos, repenting and feeling better—only to return to chaos, repentance, and relief once more. His confession was the only thing that got him through. I could sense his yearning for some deeper transformation in his life of faith. So I asked: “Has anyone ever discipled you? Walked with you to engage you in the life of following Jesus?” I did not know what it might look like, but I knew I could not let him leave without giving him a next step.
His “no” response led us to meet the following week at Starbucks. For the next year we met regularly for coffee, and to read through the Sermon on the Mount together. During this time, God got ahold of his heart, transformed his patterns of chaos, and to joy, his wanderings turned to conviction, his identity once resting in such things as career and salary, home and women, now rested in who he was in Jesus.
The British evangelist David Watson once compared corporate teaching and discipleship with one-to-one Christian discipleship this way: the former is like trying to fill a tray of bottles by spraying water at them from a hose, while the latter is like sticking the end of the hose in the bottles one at a time. My experience with Bill certainly bore this out.
Helping Bill in his discipleship gave me a deep thirst to continue this kind of one-to-one relationship with others, and soon I was meeting regularly with at least six people each year.
The format has not changed much since that first coffee with Bill. We spend a few minutes catching up on life, we pray, and then we open up the Bible where we left off last time, and continue reading. After reading each section, we stop, and I simply ask, “What stands out, moves you, or disturbs you? “ Or I will ask, “In this text, who do we see God to be? Who do we see ourselves to be?”
Although the simplicity of the process has not changed over the years, there are some things I have found helpful in navigating this kind of disciple-making. It begins with:
The first meeting
My goal in the first meeting with a person is to get a sense of what brings them to this place in their life of faith. To uncover this I ask question after question. I want to get a sense of God’s trajectory through their lives. This learning helps me to ask them the right questions as we read the Bible together.
Not only is asking good specific questions important, but so is listening. In each relationship, I find myself listening for three things in particular:
Sometimes, progress hits a wall. The person will go no further until a question, a concern, or an idea is addressed. It may be a theological question or a practical one. Or they may be beginning to sense that God is convicting them of a sinful pattern or way of thinking. The path to continued growth in one to one discipleship is to sit with this person in front of whatever the wall is and helping them break through it.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the affirmation that we were made to worship, to have God at the very center of our lives, and to find our joy, identity, and worth in God alone. If God is not at the center something else will be—and that something will be an idol. One particular individual didn’t want to grow in his faith too far because he was afraid of what others would think of him. His center was human approval. So together we began to explore the fact that there was nothing he could do to make God love him more, or to make God love him less. He did not need the approval of others. Once his idol of approval was addressed by God’s full acceptance of him in Jesus, his desire to grow as a disciple returned.
Everyone is given a gift of ministry
I believe firmly that God gives everyone a gift to build his kingdom, so I always have my ears open to hear what it might be. One young woman whom I began to disciple even before her conversion expressed her concern for her friends and relatives who did not know Jesus. Giving her opportunities to express this gift, and to debrief during our times of meeting, allowed us to cultivate and refine this budding gift of evangelism.
The Last Meeting
It is just as important to end a one to one relationship well as it is to begin one well. In that last meeting, I focus on three things: praise, affirmation, and challenge.
Praise: In preparation for the last meeting I spend some time in prayer, reflecting on where I have seen God at work in this person’s life over the year. As I share what I have seen in them, they often begin to share things I did not even know, and it becomes a wonderful time of praise together.
Affirmation: I will name the gifts I have seen God shape in their lives. I will encourage them to continue to express and exercise that gift. If appropriate, I will try to set up opportunities for them to use those gifts in Christian ministry.
This could be a challenge particular to the individual themselves. One person, whenever they encountered something they didn’t like in the Bible reading, just skipped over it to get to the “good” bits. The challenge was: “You will probably grow more in your faith through sitting with the difficult passages than by skipping them to be affirmed in what you already believe. Sit with the difficulties.”
One-to-one discipleship has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life as a follower of Jesus. The opportunity to get front row seats to watching God work in a person’s life is a distinct privilege. It begins as simply as sitting down across the table from another person to read the Bible together and to ask of one another: Who do you see God to be in this passage? And who do you see yourself to be?
Who could you invite to coffee, to begin the journey—and joy—of one to one discipleship?
Tim Haughton is the Sr. Pastor of Little Trinity Church in Toronto.