Mentoring vs. Disciplemaking: What’s the Difference?

“What’s the difference?” When I taught English in Asia I learned that motivated students have lots of these questions. “What’s the difference between affect and effect? Or between than and then? Or farther and further? Occasionally the question made me, the teacher, realize that I didn’t fully understand.

The power of this profound little question isn’t limited to language learning. “What’s the difference?” can also unearth new insights about disciplemaking. As I work with pastors and church leaders, I’ve learned there are some discipleship terms that people confuse, misuse, and abuse. Thus I’ve been asked, “What’s the difference between mentoring and disciplemaking?” Is mentoring the same as discipling? Or is disciplemaking simply religious language for mentoring?

There’s clearly a lot of similarity between mentoring and disciplemaking. Both a mentor and a disciplemaker seek to help another grow, both function within the framework of a relationship, and both desire to see the other person succeed at something. In both cases the influencer is typically older and more experienced than the one they are influencing. With all these commonalities, you may be wondering, What’s the big deal if they are used interchangeably?

The difference between the two lies at their root. Let me illustrate the difference by comparing two fishing analogies. A familiar adage says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Jesus taught, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Though both statements use fishing as a symbol of helping others, their essential message is very different.

The message of the first is that it’s better to give someone a hand up than a handout. Mentoring is excellent at this. Mentoring is focused on helping a person develop in a specific area. Most often it’s related to a career field or a defined skill. The mentor is a guide who brings his career- or skill-based knowledge and experience to help the mentee. The objective is to help the mentee grow in that area. Both the destination and the agenda are set by the mentee. Conversations are framed around the mentee’s questions and struggles. The mentor only plays defense. In other words, mentoring focuses on just a slice of the mentee’s life and its entire purpose is to benefit the mentee.

To be clear, mentoring is beneficial in many contexts. I’m not anti-mentoring! Mentoring has great merit! But Jesus did something different. Jesus made disciples.

When Jesus taught about fishing he said, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Jesus didn’t come to help them do better what they were already doing, He came to alter the very purpose of their lives. Jesus’ essential message is to follow Him, to become like Him, to trade in our purpose for His purpose, to exchange the temporal for the eternal.

Disciplemaking is very different from mentoring in at least four ways:

1. A disciplemaking relationship must be holistic. It’s not limited to a slice of life or specific skill but rather seeks to impact every aspect of life. It must be this way because who we are impacts everything: our attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions.

2. The discipler puts herself forward as the model. She echoes what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” She doesn’t say, “Be who I used to be,” or “Do what I used to do,” but rather “Be who I am. Do what I do.” This requires the discipler to be mature enough to live a life worthy of reproduction and humble enough to share where she falls short. This posture is risky because a discipler offers herself and may be rejected. If a mentor’s knowledge or experience is rejected it doesn’t create such personal wounding.

3. Disciplemakers play both offense and defense. On the offensive side, they have a destination in mind. They have an agenda that’s known and agreed upon. A disciplemaker intentionally looks at the needs of those he disciples and develops a plan to help them grow. Many times the person being discipled doesn’t see these needs, so it’s the job of the discipler to help him develop vision. Like a mentor, the disciplemaker also plays defense, but he doesn’t let it take over the process. (I wrote more about offense and defense here.)

4. Disciplemaking is generational. One of the primary reasons Jesus wanted to help the disciples was so that they would “fish for men.” In other words, He helped them so they’d help others. The focus didn’t end with them! Jesus was focused on multiplication, not addition. In fact, the success of disciplemaking relationships should be measured by whether the disciples go on to disciple others who then go on to disciple others. I often tell guys I’m discipling that I haven’t made a disciple until they have made a disciple. The fruit disciples are to bear is other disciples.

Do you see the difference? Disciplemaking and mentoring are not the same. This is essential for us to understand because many good-hearted Christians end up making mentors, not disciples. Again, mentoring is good, admirable, and beneficial. But it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t demand enough from either side of the relationship. Disciplemaking demands that both lay down their lives and in faith trust God to produce many.

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