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What's the Difference: Mentoring vs. Disciple Making?

“What’s the difference?” It’s the question of a learner, a thinker, a person who’s comparing two not-quite-the-same concepts.

When I taught English in Asia I realized that motivated students have lots of these questions. I remember being asked, “What’s the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’? Or between ‘than’ and ‘then’? Or ‘farther’ and ‘further’?” Most of the time I knew, but occasionally the question itself caused me, the teacher, to realize that I didn’t understand clearly. The power of this profound little question isn’t limited to language learning. “What’s the difference?” can also unearth new insights about disciple making.

As I work with pastors and church leaders, I’ve learned there are some discipleship terms that people confuse, misuse, and abuse. Today we begin a new series entitled, “What’s the Difference.” This series will provide greater clarity and definition around similar, yet divergent disciple making terms.

Today we’ll consider, “What’s the difference between mentoring and disciple making?”

Is mentoring is the same as discipling? Or is disciple making simply religious language for mentoring? Or is it the other way around – mentoring is corporate speak for disciple making?

There’s clearly a lot of similarity between these two. Both a mentor and a disciple maker seek to help another grow, both function within the framework of a relationship, and both desire to see the other person succeed at something. Additionally, in both instances, the influencer is typically older and more experienced than the one they are influencing. With all these commonalities, you may be wondering what’s the big deal if they are used interchangeably?

The problem of confusing the two lies at their root. Let me illustrate the difference by comparing what a famous adage says about fishing and what Jesus taught about fishing.

The adage says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Jesus taught, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Though both teach about fishing and both are interested in helping others their essential message is very different.

The message of the first is that it’s better to give someone a hand up than a handout. Mentoring is excellent at this. Mentoring historically began with and continues to be focused on helping a person develop in a specific area. Most often it’s related to a career-field or a defined skill. The mentor is a guide who brings his career/skill based knowledge and experience to help the mentee. The objective is to help the mentee grow in that area. Both the destination and the agenda is set by the mentee. Conversations are framed around the questions and struggles of the mentee. The mentor only plays defense. In other words, the root of mentoring is focused on just a slice of the mentees life and its entire purpose is to benefit the mentee.

To be clear, mentoring is beneficial in many contexts. I’m not anti-mentoring! Mentoring has great merit! But Jesus did something different. Jesus made disciples.

When Jesus taught about fishing he said, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4:19).” Jesus didn’t come to help them do what they were already doing better, he came to change the very purpose of their lives. Jesus’ essential message is to follow me to become like me, to trade in their purpose for His purpose, to exchange the temporal for the eternal.

Disciple making is very different from mentoring in at least four ways:

1. A disciple making relationship must be holistic. It’s not limited to a slice of life or specific skill but rather seeks to impact every aspect of life. It must be this way because who we are impacts everything – our attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions.

2. The discipler puts herself forward as the model. She echoes what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” She doesn’t say, “Be who I used to be,” or “Do what I used to do,” but rather “Be who I am. Do what I do.” It requires the discipler to be mature enough to live a life worthy of reproduction and humble enough to share where she falls short. This posture is risky because a discipler offers herself and may be rejected. If a mentor’s knowledge or experience is rejected it doesn’t create such personal wounding.

3. Disciple makers play both offense and defense. On the offensive side, they have a destination in mind. They have an agenda that’s known and agreed upon. A disciple maker intentionally looks at the needs of those he disciples and develops a plan to help him grow. Many times the person being discipled doesn’t see or appreciate these needs, but it’s the job of the discipler to help him develop vision. Like a mentor, the disciple maker also plays defense, but he doesn’t let it take over the process. I wrote expansively about offense and defense HERE.

4. Disciple making is generational. One of the primary reasons Jesus wanted to help the disciples was so that they would “fish for men.” In other words, He helped them so they’d help others. The focus wasn’t them! Jesus was focused on multiplication, not addition. In fact, the success of disciple making relationships should be measured by whether or not they go on to disciple others who then go on to disciple others. I often tell guys I’m discipling that I haven’t made a disciple until they have made a disciple. Yes, it may be slightly overstated but they need to see the fruit disciples are to bear are other disciples.

Do you see the difference? Disciple making and mentoring are not the same. This is essential for us to understand because many good-hearted Christians end up making mentors not disciples. Again, mentoring is good, admirable, and beneficial, but it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t demand enough from either side of the relationship.

Disciple making demands both sides lay down their lives and in faith trust God to produce many.

Justin Gravitt is Dayton (Ohio) Area Director for Navigator Church Ministries. Read more from Justin at his blog, One Disciple to Another.

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