MATT SMETHURST|10:00 PM CT
The Difficult Task of Disciple Making
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," Jesus announced. "Go therefore and make disciples." When it comes to the mission of believers in this world, few would question the importance of these marching orders. Carrying them out, however, isn't so easy. Consider two scenarios:
1. A middle-aged woman is approached by a young single mom with a full-time job and two kids. The busy mom has been a Christian for decades and is solid on biblical doctrine, but she's currently struggling with personal issues and wants someone to help walk her through this season of life. Because of her work schedule, she can only meet for the summer.2. A Christian college student is trying to invest in a group of high school athletes. Most of them are brand-new believers, struggling with typical high school issues, and can meet for at least the next year.
Would you recommend taking these people from different backgrounds---with different needs and time commitments---and handing them the same discipleship curriculum?
Consider Downline Builder, a customizable curriculum designed to meet people where they are and foster spiritual maturity in the context of real relationships. In contrast to a one-size-fits-all format, the Downline Builder enables users to personalize scriptural content to fit their specific needs. I corresponded with Downline Ministries director of resources Jason Seville [Twitter | email] about their promising new disciple-making tool.
Downline Ministries has trained thousands of disciple-makers in the past five years through your institute program and summit weekends. What do you find people struggle with most when it comes to making disciples?
There are many reasons people struggle, but the biggest one in our experience is that they either lack a clear understanding of what it looks like to disciple someone, or they have an image of discipleship that is far too shallow. For instance, many people think of discipleship merely in terms of Christian education---going to a coffee shop every Wednesday morning to read the Bible or a Christian book together. This lack of a clear picture of true discipleship results in not feeling qualified or competent to make disciples. Around Downline, we like to speak of discipleship as "truth and life transference in the context of real relationships," which is something almost anyone can do.
So the short answer to this question is "competency." In general, people won't gravitate toward what they feel incompetent to do. We think we have some training (and a new tool) to help with this weakness, but it is still the most common problem we encounter.
Discipleship has always been valued and talked about in the church, but it currently seems to be even more of a trending topic. Why do you think this is the case?
Downline works closely with hundreds of local churches, and the majority of the leaders we talk to say that discipleship is a glaring weakness in their church (and the same is true of our interaction with parachurch leaders). This is no secret, as the recent influx of studies, books, articles, and blogs on discipleship will attest. Discipleship is "trending" because everyone's recognizing it as a huge need.
Perhaps more importantly, we attribute this to the sovereign grace of God as he guides his church. He has raised up some incredible pastors, elders, and leaders around the world, and when they all have a common word on their hearts, at the risk of sounding cliché, it's a God thing. We feel that he is graciously leading his flock toward a return to biblical discipleship. If Downline were the only group talking about discipleship, we'd be very discouraged. But we feel like we're part of a huge movement of churches and believers who want to see a restoration of biblical discipleship.
In your opinion, what does the current world of discipleship curriculum get right and get wrong?
After extensive research on discipleship curricula, I am greatly encouraged by the sheer volume of rich theological and practical content on the market. I also rejoice at some of the stalwart resources that have been out for decades and stood the test of time.
However, there are two things that I can't help but see as huge oversights. First, there aren't any easily accessible avenues to train disciple-makers to use this rich content to, as we say, "meet people where they are." Most resources seem very cookie-cutter to me, as if I should use the same ten lessons with a 22-year old New York urbanite that I would with a 37-year-old small business owner. Second, the problem with most---if not all---curriculum is that it doesn't force, or even provide accountability for, authentic relationships. Any curriculum should complement the relationship, not replace it. The relationship has to drive true discipleship in order for it to be truly transformative.
What led you to develop the Downline Builder?
Ironically, for the reasons listed above, I've always been anti-curriculum, because I never found a resource that easily allowed for contextualization and majored on relationship. So the genesis of the Builder was really the weight that culminated from the first three questions above.
When Downline asked me to work on a new curriculum, my previous experience and research led me to the following conclusions: (1) it had to be based on Scripture; (2) it had to somehow have a major focus on both truth and life transference: it couldn't be a "let's just sit down and study systematic theology" curriculum, and it couldn't be a "let's just share about our feelings" curriculum; and (3) it had to somehow allow the user to customize it to meet the specific needs of the folks they were pouring into. The only way we could conceptualize a curriculum that would do these things was to move away from printed material and make it a web-based tool.
What makes this resource unique in the vast world of discipleship curricula?
First, the ability to customize the Builder equips you to do contextual ministry. Once you log in, you have to fill out a page on the person you are discipling or group you are leading. Based on that information, we'll give you a blank table of contents and list of suggested lessons to cover.
Second, it requires relationship building. When you build a curriculum, you must plan what we call a "life on life" session after every two lessons that you put in your table of contents. You can't download or print your curriculum unless you include these fields. These will be things like working out together, running errands, sharing a meal, doing evangelism, engaging in a service project, and so on.
Third, the process equips you to be a disciple-maker as much as the product does. Thinking through various growth areas for each person you're discipling and personalizing a plan will hopefully train you to think more intentionally about what the next spiritual growth steps are for brothers and sisters in your areas of influence.
A fourth uniqueness is the ever-expanding library of doctrinal and practical lessons. You will never have to pay for a "volume two" of the Builder. We'll keep adding lessons (even ones that you suggest) and as long as you have access, you can use the new lessons we add.
Finally, we feel that our payment philosophy is rare, as evidenced by the fact that we've driven our marketing consultants crazy. Our primary objective has always been to have a tool that could help equip and ignite a movement of biblical discipleship across the globe. For this reason, we went with a subscription model that allows you annual access for a very affordable price. If you buy an annual subscription, it's "all you can eat" for the whole year. We could have gone with a pay-per-lesson model, but we didn't like the idea of people trying to see how little they could do and still be effective.
This affordable price meshes well with our desire to get the Builder in other languages as quickly as possible. We have a fairly aggressive translation strategy that will attempt four new languages every year.
We truly hope that God would use this tool to equip pastors, elders, missionaries, and laymen/women worldwide.
Downline has decided to give the TGC family a 40% off coupon code up through April. Go to builder.downlineministries.com and sign up. Enter the code "TGCdiscount" at checkout to receive your discount.
Matt Smethurst is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.