I think for most of my life as a Christian there has been a strong chorus of voices championing one-on-one discipleship. The idea is that an individual (Person A) helps another individual (Person B) grow in the faith for a certain period of time. Once Person B has matured to a certain degree, he or she is expected find a Person C to disciple. Often the supporting rubric for this kind of relationship is tied to Paul’s relationship to Timothy.* Indeed, over the years I’ve been asked, “Yancey, who’s your Timothy?” In other words, who is the one individual I’m pouring into in order they mature enough spiritually to disciple others? This is a very popular philosophy of discipleship that has birthed programs, books, and parachurch ministries promoting the virtues of spiritual formation via discipler to disciple.
Let me very clear, I think one-on-one discipleship is a legitimate, beneficial avenue of discipleship. I’ve done it and will do it in some fashion in the future. However, I would argue that more than merely one-on-one ratios, most discipleship is found in a network of relationships.
To walk through the New Testament is to see believers exposed to the ministries of not a solitary disciplemaker but a series of gifted men and women who, in totum, contribute to the discipleship of individuals. In other words, it seems Person A is taught by teachers, preached to by preachers, exhorted by prophets, not to mention the “regular” ministry of those in the church community who bear burdens, use their gifts, intercede in prayer, and do “life on life” with Person A. Now, which of these individual’s is Person A‘s discipler? Which person is helping Person A become a fully devoted follower of Jesus?
It begs the question: Who is my discipler?
- Is it the pastor who taught from the Gospel of John last Sunday?
- Is it the music leader who introduced “In Christ Alone” for the congregation this week?
- Is it the community group leader who lovingly pulled me aside last Monday to ask me how I was doing with my struggles and how he could pray for me?
- Is it the people in that group who encouraged me to be on mission and held me accountable to make sure I’m finding my identity in Christ and not idolatries?
The entire church, when using their gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ, is a network of relationships that produces disciples. Far from needing to discover everyone’s Person A for their all-in-all for spiritual formation, the church is to be a veritable village of discipleship where different individuals bring different strengths, passions, and gifts helping move everyone toward Christlikeness. To look at Eph. 4:11-19 (among other passages) is to see that not only do all believers need to be under teaching, in community, and serving the Body, but that this is a team effort! Put another way, Persons A, B, C are to use their unique contributions within the local church to grow Persons A, B, and C. Some will do that through teachings, others through serving, others through community, etc. While the contributions come in various and sundry ways, everyone disciples. Everyone.
A “village” approach (a.k.a., local church approach) frees up people to serve more toward their giftedness/passion without the guilty feeling they are out of the spiritual formation pipeline simply because they’re not “Paul’s” or even small group leaders for that matter. That’s okay, there’s room at the discipleship table for the Barnabas’s, Mary’s, Martha’s, Priscilla & Aquila’s, Apollos’s, Lydia’s…as well.
Discipleship is found in a network of relationships.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
- Ephesians 4:11-16
*Paul wouldn’t be Timothy’s only discipler. Timothy was initially a product of his mother and grandmother’s discipling (2 Tim. 1:5) and it appears possibly others over time, including Paul (2 Tim. 3:14; “whom” is plural). Additionally, one could argue that 1 and 2 Timothy are primarily words not from discipler to disciple but from senior church leader (apostle/church planter) to young church leader (pastor/elder). Indeed, 2 Timothy 2:2, the textus classicus often used to promote one-on-one discipleship, seems contextually to actually be a call to leadership reproduction (elders?) than disciplemaking. Nevertheless, even if Paul is giving Timothy a general prescription to discipleship, it’s worth noting “entrust to faithful men” likely speaks of something other than a one-on-one approach.