by Sam O’Neal
Giving birth is hard work.
That’s a truth every mother knows from hard-won experience. Quite a few fathers know it, too—especially if they were in the room for the long, slow, painful miracle that brings a new life into the world. (I’m not proud of it, but I fell into a deep and impenetrable sleep after each of my sons was born. I was exhausted just from watching everything my wife endured!)
Giving birth is also hard work in the kingdom of God. Disciples of Jesus can spend countless hours studying the basic doctrines of our faith, learning methods for evangelism, engaging in meaningful conversations, serving to meet people’s needs, and more—all for the privilege of witnessing the miracle of those who are spiritually dead in their sins becoming born again through the power of Christ.
That isn’t the end of the process, however—far from it. Like a new mother cradling her baby, we aren’t finished with our work when someone we care about experiences the joy of new life in Christ. In fact, our work has just begun.
To that end, here are two key principles for helping new disciples of Jesus grow toward maturity.
Teach basic disciplines
It’s important for new disciples to understand they cannot work their way into a relationship with God. Salvation is a gift offered through God’s grace—something we can receive but never earn.
Still, new believers have a lot of work to do. Like all Christians, they must invest in their own spiritual growth.
The following disciplines are especially beneficial for helping new disciples work toward spiritual maturity:
Teach them to submit to God’s Word. Most Christians understand they’re supposed to read the Bible. But reading is easy. And as countless textbooks have proven, reading usually doesn’t lead to transformation.
New disciples will benefit most when they approach the Bible not as a source of information in their lives but as the foundation for their lives.
We must teach them to go beyond asking, “What can I learn from this text?” The more important question is, “What can I obey?”
Teach them to converse with God. Most Christians know they’re supposed to pray. However, many Christians haven’t been taught how to pray. For them, prayer is a combination of ritual (“Thank you, Father, for this food”) and urgent requests when something has gone wrong.
We give new disciples a tremendous advantage when we teach them to view prayer as an ongoing conversation with God—a conversation in which listening is just as important as speaking.
Prayer can (and should) happen throughout the day. Ultimately, new disciples should view prayer as a way to remain focused on God’s will, not as a means of expressing our will to Him.
Teach them to love others and live on mission. We do new believers a disservice when we imply (or directly state) that only mature believers should go on mission for Christ, or that new Christians should focus on their own spiritual development before taking steps to serve.
It is by obeying Jesus’ command to love God and love others that new disciples will experience spiritual growth. This is a lifestyle they should adopt as quickly as possible.
Teach basic disciplines in community
We can help new believers grow in their faith by teaching them to submit to God’s Word, teaching them to converse with God, and teaching them to love others.
The next logical question is a big one: How? How do we go about teaching new disciples these things in a way that will spur them toward growth and maturity?
The answer is community.
New believers unquestionably can benefit by hearing about what it means to follow Jesus from sermons, books, Bible studies, podcasts, and so on. These are valuable tools.
However, we will help new disciples maximize any information they learn about following Jesus if we allow them to receive and process that information in the context of relationships with other disciples—especially in the context of relationships with mature disciples.
In the modern church, such relationships are typically found through small groups, Sunday school classes, and intentional mentoring relationships.
One of the best things about spiritual growth in the context of community is the opportunity to ask questions. When new believers have relationships with mature believers, they can benefit from the experiences of those mature believers.
They can actively ask questions about specific issues in their lives, rather than passively receiving information from a speaker or a book.
Growing in community also gives believers the chance to take part in modeling or mentoring relationships. When new believers observe mature disciples, they gain a living template for what it looks like to think and behave as members of God’s kingdom.
They can watch how mature disciples submit to God’s Word, converse with Him in prayer, and seek out opportunities to serve those around them—all of which provides new disciples with a better understanding of how they can follow suit.
Ideally, new disciples will develop relationships with mature believers that allow for an apprenticeship style of learning with leaders modeling:
- I do. You watch.
- I do. You help.
- You do. I help.
- You do. I watch.
People in many different cultures have used this model for thousands of years as a way of transferring a lifetime’s worth of skills from one person to another—fishermen, farmers, carpenters, bankers, and more.
It also works great as a way to help new members of God’s kingdom find their footing, walk in God’s presence, and run toward Jesus.
SAM O’NEAL (@SamTONeal) is content editor for Lifeway’s adult ministry team.