When I was a very new Christian, the world of Sunday school classes, small groups, and Christian camps introduced me to the importance of learning all the facts about God. In fact, Christian knowledge felt equivalent to Christian growth. A leader even told me seminary was just “Christian high school”—implying it should be a prerequisite for any Christian desiring to grow.
Exposure to non-Christian things, I believed, would be adverse to my holiness unless I was safely nestled in evangelical theology.
But then came Christian mentors who smoked, drank, and seemed at least mildly debaucherous to my naive, young-believer eyes. Still—they were the ones starting Bible studies with bikers, flinging open their homes to at-risk pregnant youth. And somehow, underneath the surface, showing themselves to be godly men.
I felt perplexed. They ditched Michael W. Smith or Chris Tomlin for Earth, Wind, and Fire or Bruno Mars. They displayed devotional lives of meditation in prayer as opposed to the deep theological study in which I’d been trained.
By simply modeling life to me, these men broke all my categories for what being a Christian could mean. I found all of their behavior biblical as I examined it. And their honesty about who they were allowed me to see discipleship apart from Christian culture. Discipleship was about real life. As a new Christian, that’s what I needed.
But as all that knowledge gleaning can tell you, in the original Greek, the word disciple simply means learner. Get this: In the ancient Near East, learning wasn’t just about knowledge, but a whole life engagement—mind, body, and spirit.
A new Christian just needs to see what integrated Christianity looks like.
Neither Christianity nor discipleship are about perfection. They’re about living out an embodied story of the pursuit of God.
Learning includes both knowledge and wisdom. We might consider knowledge the foundational understanding of our faith: Bible study, theology, history. But wisdom is the application of that knowledge.
I did end up going to seminary and loved it. But instead of just providing a stout knowledge base, seminary ultimately, rightly created critical questions of what to do with that knowledge. Discipleship powerfully combines wisdom and knowledge into, “How should we then live?”
Here are a few critical lessons I’ve found helpful for the discipleship of a new Christian.
Discipleship lesson #1: a life filled by the Holy Spirit
Before my eyes, my older brother became a Christian and graduated from Harvard Law School–only to realize the Lord called him to go to China as a missionary. He stayed there for about a year and later continued to be a successful lawyer. His life showed me a Christian can have terrific plans for their career, but God may interrupt those plans.
I watched my brother wrestle with the Lord about who would be in the driver’s seat of his life and then witnessed him surrendering his plans to God. He taught me discomfort would be natural, painful, and beautiful to the Christian life.
With younger men, I’ve been able to share my own God’s interruption stories which changed the trajectory of my life for the better. What’s been amazing? Watching those men take similar steps when they surrender to Christ.
Ideas to teach it
One of the most unmissable lessons I’ve ever learned: Coming to Christ is just the beginning.
Like most of us who’ve come to life in Christ, did you start with a sense that self-sufficiency is the way to grow into maturity? The new Christian lacks the knowledge to shift from self-sufficiency to Spirit-dependency.
- The Spirit-filled life is the true foundation for Christian life (Ephesians 5:18).
- Jesus is the Lord of every aspect of their life.
- Confession is a lifestyle.
- Dependence on a dynamic relationship with God provides the true framework they need to grow in the Christ-centered journey.
Discipleship lesson #2: a powerful presence
I sat at the hotel lobby bar at the end of a conference, head down, stare vacant. I’d just been told I was not receiving a promotion I truly thought I deserved.
One of my Christian mentors must have noticed my morose self-isolation. He took the barstool next to me, listening to my anger and grief for the next 20 minutes.
I felt emotionally safe with him to share my honest opinion over the injustice, over why I deserved the job. He’d already shown in previous conversations that he’d receive the pain of what I was experiencing without judgment.
He did pose a poignant question: “What about this promotion means so much to you?”
That question launched a three-month journey revealing a deeper wound surrounding my self-worth. That wound demanded God’s healing to move forward. I am forever grateful for the growth and freedom catalyzed by that raw conversation.
Ideas to teach it
As someone whose assessments indicate I am inherently unempathetic and task-oriented, my highest praise has come from men and women I’ve discipled who have told me I’m a good listener; they feel like I’m “in it with them.” That sort of safety gives them strength to find their own godly solutions.
Their affirmations remind me that discipleship does not always require my knowledge, but it does require my presence.
See, the days of having all the right answers are over. An unintended consequence of focusing on theological rightness can actually lead to arrogance. Non-Christians and new Christians can sniff out posturing and condescension instantaneously.
Philippians 2:6-8 shows us that even though Jesus was fully aware of His power and station, He used that to live in the same situation as those He served:
…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant… He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Theologians call this concept incarnation. The rest of us might call it empathy.
Becoming a trusted friend—and simply being present—can act as our most powerful teaching tools for discipleship.
Discipleship lesson #3: Model bold mission
Early in my discipleship, when our small group prayed every week, the majority of prayer requests were about health, job transitions, and family problems. I don’t want to diminish these prayers, but a missionary in my group prayed for very different things.
The qualitative difference was palpable as she prayed for friends with whom she was sharing the gospel, for her family members to come to Christ, and for revival. She updated us on how she was sharing with these people, and we felt like we were with her on the mission. She filled her prayers with pangs from the injustice of the hurting, and she taught me to pray differently. Her prayers sparked boldness in me toward speaking to my friends about faith, getting involved with outward initiatives in my city, and definitely to pray.
Discipleship can happen anywhere at any time. For decades, I’d prayed for my parents’ salvation. But then, I started praying for my parents … with my kids. During dinner while on vacation with them, my 7-year-old tugged at me to whisper in my ear, “Dad, I think we should share with grandpa about Jesus right now.”
I was so impressed with his boldness that I did indeed share with my dad again that night. My dad came to Christ later that year, and, thereafter, I’ve been able to disciple my dad via my own life.
Ideas to teach it
Remember: We did not become Christ-followers to keep it to ourselves.
Matthew 5:13-16 reminds us saltless salt is useless; we’re not meant to put the light of Jesus under a container. Matthew 28:19 echoes this in Jesus’ command to “Go and make disciples.”
Biblical discipleship operates as an extension of evangelism as we motivate Christians and non-Christians to take steps to move toward Christ.
Discipleship and evangelism function as two sides of the same coin. Both move others toward Christ.
Discipleship: what we have in common
We are all learners on the journey of moving toward Christ: of learning to hear and respond to the Holy Spirit in us, to offer authentic presence to others, and to lean into a bold outwardness of our belief and love for Jesus.
Discipleship doesn’t start with intense theological knowledge, but a life lived all-in, from the inside out.
Copyright © 2023 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Tony Wee serves as the Executive Director of Field Expansion for FamilyLife. He received a Masters of Divinity from Talbot School of Theology and has been a missionary with Cru for nearly two decades. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Steph, and their three kids.