When I first began trying to help others spiritually—about a dozen men at the University of Minnesota—I didn’t know what I was doing with any of them. I didn’t have a plan, and generally speaking we got nowhere. I dreaded the times I was to meet with them, and hoped they wouldn’t show up.
I was getting desperate, but then I encountered others who had the same concern. We decided to try to figure out together how we could train men. One thing we did that was particularly helpful for me was making a list of everything we wanted to build into a young Christian’s life. As a basic outline for this list we used the “wheel” illustration from The Navigators—emphasizing Christ at the center, obedience, the Scriptures, prayer, fellowship, and witnessing. Initially I spent about eight or nine hours studying each of these topics in the Bible, finding out all I could about each one, and asking myself questions like these: Why is this subject important? What is it really all about? How should I apply it personally in my own life? How can I communicate this to others?
After this I knew that the things I wanted to pass on to others were my own personal convictions. They were not someone else’s ideas, or merely my own opinions. They came from my study of God’s word.
I suggest you do the same thing if you seriously want to disciple men and women. Spend several hours putting together what you consider to be the essentials for spiritual survival, drawing your conclusions from the Scriptures and from your own experiences. Once you’ve done your homework and have crystallized your convictions, you’ll have something to share with others that springs from your own life.
Learn the art of being transparent
My struggle didn’t end with my preparation of this list. After doing my homework I had more confidence, but something was still wrong. The men I wanted to help still weren’t catching on. I had to learn what a powerful resource a close personal relationship is. I had great content, but without close relationships my words fell on deaf ears.
Not until I began to master the art of transparency could I easily pass on my convictions to others. Transparency in personal relationships is a powerful tool in follow-up, but it is not so much something I do as it is the way I feel about my privacy. It means I am willing to reveal to others both the positive and negative aspects of my character. I let them see my faults, and how I cope with circumstances in weakness as well as in strength.
As a result, the person I am helping can identify with me. He doesn’t think I’m so great that it would be impossible for him to become the kind of Christian I am. This identification is essential to his motivation. Transparency also makes it easier for him where he is hurting, and I must know this to effectively help him. There is nothing worse than bandaging someone’s knee when he really needs a tourniquet on his arm. But in an atmosphere of fiefdom and openness where personal concerns can be shared, there will also be opportunities to talk about how the Bible addresses these concerns.
A missionary friend of mine once asked me to help him learn how to follow up other men to help them become disciples. So I began to work with him, but one day while talking with his wife I found out why it had been difficult for him to make disciples. She told me that for fourteen years her husband had never once told her that he was tired or hungry or not feeling well. He was not transparent. The people he was helping could not identify with him because he would never communicate with them on a personal level. I realized his chances for being effective at follow-up were remote.
Expose them to truth
Along with transparent relationships, using the Scriptures is also a vital force in follow-up. God’s word is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Something happens when it gets into our lives, like a seed planted in soil.
It isn’t critical, however, that the person you are helping have the same convictions about the Scriptures that you have. It may be a long time before he respects the full authority of the Bible, but this does not prevent the Holy Spirit from using it to change his life as he is exposed to its truth. Initially, he need only be willing to understand what the Bible teaches.
I have also found that Bible study is not the only means in follow-up for communicating God’s truth. Another avenue is the example of your own way of life. But communicating in this manner does not come without a price tag. The cost is a commitment to let God’s word wash over your life continually, affecting and transforming everything you do. As a result, those who get close to you will inevitably encounter the word of God as it is modeled in your life.
Get your cues from God
Creative timing is another important factor in passing on our convictions. I have a friend who did his homework by preparing a list of several follow-up essentials. Then he started to put his system to work with another person. The first time they met together, they covered Topic A. The next week they met again and went over Topic B. Next came C and then D.
But soon the younger Christian began to miss their appointments. He no longer seemed interested.
My friend was making a crucial mistake, not realizing that each person has a unique sequence to his needs. We can’t operate with preconceived notions about what to give the person next Instead, we must get our cues from God.
The way I have done this is to take an extended time at least once a month to pray about the people God has allowed me to work with spiritually. To discern what I need to do next with each one, I consider these four questions and write down my thoughts regarding each one:
Where is he now? At what point is he, in his spiritual development? What has he already learned, and what progress has he made? What does he have going for him in his Christian life?
What is he ready for? Jesus said, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12). Here he modeled the principle of waiting for the right time to teach.
What is most urgent? Some problems can be lived with for a long time without seriously impeding growth, while others are more urgent. What will help him go on to the next level of maturity, or break a logjam and get him moving again?
How can I help him? What can I do to help him meet the need which is most urgent? There are a number of ways I can do this imaginatively. Maybe we need to spend time together reading and praying over the Scriptures. Or perhaps I should give him a certain responsibility, or ask him to help me with something.
I’ve found that God consistently gives me answers to these questions as I spend this extended time in prayer for someone These answers he gives are the basis for what I do next to help him.
Within this process I find it very important to approach the person positively. I try to help him be successful in the area in which he is talented. I try to get him moving in a direction in which he can experience success.
As problems come along, I can remind him, “Look, you are really doing well. God is blessing your life.” This maintains his confidence. Then I say, “You know, you can be even more successful by taking care of this problem.” This positive approach allows him to receive help without feeling discouraged or threatened.