Oops! Five Disciplemaking Missteps

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You know those missionary letters and updates you receive from people like me? We follow a simple formula describing a dramatic ministry success story that encourages you to keep praying and giving. 

While it’s important to celebrate God’s successes, we seldom talk about our missteps or failures, our OOPS. After all, who wants to give to a ministry that broadcasts failures?

Fifty years of experience has taught me that failures lead to wisdom. In fact, people enjoy reading about ministry missteps because that’s often the reality of their lives. So, I want to let you in on five disciplemaking OOPS — missteps and failures — I’ve made and what I’ve learned from them.

OOPS #1: Disciplemaking is cloning someone to be like me. It’s easy to turn disciplemaking into a cloning process where people live out my preferences and convictions. Disciplemaking is not passing on what I prefer about worship music, a particular Bible translation, standards for movies to watch, how to memorize Scripture, ways to meet with God, or how to vote. The list could go on. How do you remedy this OOPS?

I engage people in a first-hand discovery of the Scriptures and assist them in applying what’s relevant to their situations. Asking questions about the Bible lets Jesus do the talking. We discuss possible applications rather than prescribing what someone should do. Prescribing how people should live is Jesus’ business, not mine. Manipulating application to my behavioral preferences runs the risk of cloning people in my image. Jesus is the one to be conformed to, not me!

OOPS #2: Performance is enough. I’m thrilled when people’s actions change. The Holy Spirit is at work when people read the Bible, take steps to serve, or separate from sin. For new believers these amazing steps need affirmation. I must be careful, however, about assuming that performance, or outer behavior, is enough.

Christian cultures, like all cultures, affirm and discourage certain attitudes and behaviors. People quickly pick up what performance is acceptable and what is not. We all desire to please others and sometimes performance can be a strategy to win acceptance in a Christian culture. How do you build heart conviction and not performance?

I ask heart and head questions such as: “What excites you about the Scriptures?” “What biblical reasons shape why you serve?” I also watch and listen to what’s revealed in someone’s life when faced with daily challenges. Challenges reveal real convictions. How do people respond to God’s priorities when pressured by work, school, or marriage? Do they still seek Him? Real life reveals whether something is a conviction or a performance. Performance is not enough—deep-rooted and heart-felt convictions is the aim.

OOPS #3: It’s about telling. I love to talk, encourage, and exhort. I do this in small groups or one-to-one. It’s easy for me to do all the talking! I assume that if a little information is good then more must be better. I forget the wisdom of the adage, “Telling is not teaching and listening is not learning.”

Disciplemaking is not like pouring information from a big pitcher of water (me) into a smaller glass of water (person I’m discipling). What’s the alternative? I must be curious and listen so I can target biblical truth to life.

Curiosity starts with a question. I want to discover the backstories of people, to explore their values and life assumptions so I can help them connect the word of God to life. After asking a question I must pause to listen. Listening is the ultimate act of respect. Like Mark Twain said, “If God wanted us to talk more, he would have given us two mouths instead of two ears!”  Curiosity and listening leads to understanding and understanding helps me target biblical truth to life.

OOPS #4: But he or she needs to be discipled!  Selection is the heart of disciplemaking. Jesus excluded more people than he included, wisely choosing only twelve to live life “with him” (Mark 3:13). Too often selection has been based on a person’s need rather than their “want.” I may think that someone “needs” to be discipled but do they “want” to be discipled? My observation of a need may not equal a want. I’ve learned to seek out eager people who want to grow as disciples.

OOPS #5: They know what to do. I quickly assume that people have some how-tos in areas like money management, practicing a daily time with God, or sharing their faith. I’m surprised when I discover that practical how-tos are often absent. We love the information but fail in the practice. 

Author Dallas Willard writes that “Our most serious failure today is the inability to provide effective practical guidance as to how to live the life of Jesus.” How do I remedy the mistake of thinking that people know what to do? I have to ask them!

I could ask: “What helps you experience a meaningful time with God?” “Tell me about how the Bible helps you manage money.” “What helps you start faith conversations with your neighbor?” Questions help people discover gaps in their practice of biblical principles. I can’t assume that people know what to do.

Did you observe two simple remedies to most of my OOPS? It’s asking questions and building relationships. Asking questions is a good way to die to self—I choose to let another talk. As people talk, I listen. I hear their backstories and discover their assumptions, values, and experiences. In other words, I get to know people. A lot of disciplemaking missteps can be avoided by asking questions and building relationships. These simple steps help us connect Jesus to life.

Don’t be discouraged about the OOPS you make in discipling others. Ask the Holy Spirit to overcome your inexperience or failures. After all, He’s more concerned about the person you’re discipling than you are. Take time to step back and learn from your mistakes. I have five decades worth of lessons learned from my OOPS.

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