First, the backdrop: It seems like 1-on-1 discipleship has been getting a lot of abuse lately, and from people who really ought to know better. The arguments inevitably go on to advocate small-group ministry and/or more missional/outward-focused ministry. Now, I’ve been a small-group leader for most of the past 25 years, and have no problems with missional/outward-focused ministry (aside from its current faddishness, but I’ve already complained here about what a “duh, salt and light, people” thing that is, so I’ll leave it at that). So on to our present context….
The first conversation was an online discussion with a publisher I do a decent chunk of work for, regarding yet another recent post making the “we need to move away from 1-on-1 discipleship” argument. My counterargument was this: I think it’s more like G.K. Chesterton’s famous ”Christianity ideal” quote — i.e., 1-on-1 discipleship has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. It requires a long-term commitment, the willingness to listen, and the willingness to shut up until it’s time to speak—and then, the willingness to “speak the truth in love.” As Americans, we’re not very good at any of these things as a rule.
And there’s that other American obsession that’s completely antithetical to 1-on-1 discipleship: the numbers game. Even earnest pastors and would-be mentors can fall into the trap of ”the church is falling behind and we need to make up for lost time.” Thus, small groups and more group-oriented missional activities outside the church seem to fit the bill. And they do—just not all the time.
The thing is, when faced with the choice between 1-on-1 or group, the correct answer is “yes.” It all depends on the context, and on the people involved, rather than on one approach being inherently better than the other.
One-on-one discipleship seems inefficient to us (or at least to its critics), because it’s “only” one person. (Think about that before moving on….) But to change one person deeply ultimately results in changing many others significantly, in those other contexts of ministry, small groups, etc. We need both the deeply personal/intensive (1-on-1/triads) and to be engaged publicly in missionality and/or character-building in the form of small groups. The personal is tested and developed in the communal, and the communal is prepared for (and debriefed) in the personal. There’s no conflict here—or at least, there shouldn’t be. Move along, people.
Which brings us to the self-defense part. During my pastoral days in Jersey (hey, Living Word), I did a ton of 1-on-1 discipleship—sometimes with developing leaders, sometimes with people struggling with their faith or obedience. At the time, it really was just me doing what I knew I needed to do. But the stories I heard as we prepared to move to Colorado or even years after showed the outward fruits of that more intensive private discipleship. One guy cried when he found out we were leaving, because our time together was the first time he’d felt like someone had actually listened to him; another who I’d spent a lot time with walking through his personal struggles emerged a couple years later, wanting to do the same thing with others that I’d done with him, and to become more involved with small-group development; another emerging leader whom I’d had myriad theological headbuttings with (and who I usually “lost” against, in fact) later experienced the downside of such airtight theology—and as a result, the grace he really needed in order to keep growing. And so on.
Out here in Colorado, it’s been a different story, much of which is best left untold (or at least unretold) at this point. In reflecting now, I’m not sure I ever properly expressed my appreciation for Pastor Tim Barnes and the atmosphere of grace he created, which in turn made the stuff I did far more useful (not to mention the 1-on-1 discipling he had to do with me the first two years he was there, as I recovered from the abject failure and frustration that was the first year of LWAC, during which time both original pastors and the entire rest of original church-plant team had bolted….). And that issue of atmosphere brings me to the second conversation, which also contains a pretty good analogy for my main argument….
Again, a bit of background: In this current season of my life, there’s really only one “I know God’s called me to do this” thing I’m engaged in, and have been for more than four years now—and it’s not inside a church. Twice a week, I go to the Center for Adult Learning in Loveland to help pre-GED students ages 17 to 70 with their math. Like discipleship, math is very individualized, and thus can’t really done in a group like English/history/science can. Each person is working anywhere between multiplication and Algebra (and as many have learning disabilities, might well have troubling remembering the one while doing the other). Therefore, my role/forte is to meet them each where they’re at, help them understand what they’re learning/”wrestling with” right now, connect it to what they already know/”obey” (because math is very interrelated, even if you don’t think of it that way)… in short, show them how they can do it, and that they can do it—and most critically, help them to believe that, too. And they all know that I’m a Christian/former pastor/Christian writer, not least of all because said teacher regularly “outs” me, so there’s that more overtly “missional” aspect to it, too.
Now, for that conversation: Astute readers know that I’ve been searching for full-time employment for close to 2 1/2 years now—and that 11:59 is almost upon us. Thus, it was suggested that in light of our experience of the past four years, maybe I should consider getting back into teaching. Yes, I did teach back in the late ’80s—remember the movie Lean on Me? You know, Joe Clark, baseball bat, chaining the doors so students couldn’t get out? Yeah, well, the kids he didn’t want at Paterson Eastside he sent up the hill to Passaic County Tech—where I taught. Four years of that beat the desire to be a classroom teacher out of me better than Joe’s bat ever could. Still, Colorado isn’t Jersey, let alone Paterson.
Thus, when posed with this idea that naturally seemed perfectly sensible to her, I hemmed and hawed and in general tried not to act like the jerk I was totally feeling like as I tried not to reject the idea out of hand. And then—as longtime friends will also guess—I went home and processed (obsessed?), ’cause that’s what I do (far better than I react on the spot).
And a couple days later, all the conversations/thoughts you’ve just read coalesced. And again I realized, just as with Pastor Tim, I’m doing the right thing and in the right context—and it works because someone else had used her gifts to already create that right context. Because an atmosphere of mercy and acceptance and encouragement already exists for the entire class, I’m free to get in there and do the 1-on-1 stuff—push not to give up/be lazy when needed; swallow hard, be patient and re-explain when that’s needed; or my personal favorite: bust their chops until they see it’s not as difficult as they’ve made it in their own heads, and they now see that.
If I were the guy up front, it wouldn’t be like that—and it wouldn’t be easily the most rewarding thing I do every week. Choosing between doing what I do for free and being a teacher for pay—it’s beyond a no-brainer for me, even as crunch time approaches.
So, you see, it’s not just that the world needs more disciplers—it’s that some of us need to be that 1-on-1 guy. It’s our lifeblood. So, ministry “experts,” don’t take that away from us—or from the people who need us to be there, too.