03 Discipleship Models

Discipleship Models


Group vs. One-on-One vs. Individual

Christian adults are split on their preferences when it comes to models of discipleship: small group, one-on-one or individual (solitary) format.

Among the nine out of 10 Christians who say spiritual growth is important (90%), it’s notable that more than one-third say they prefer to pursue spiritual growth on their own (37%). Similarly, two in five of all Christian adults consider their spiritual life “entirely private” (41%). This is a greater proportion—though only slightly—than Christians who believe their faith, rather than being private, has an impact on relatives (37%), friends (36%) and their community (33%).

The pluralities that prefer solitary spiritual pursuit are worrisome for long-term spiritual health. Exemplar testimony and data presented elsewhere in this study show the centrality of relationships to transformational discipleship.

Navigators alumni believe discipleship is relational. They prefer small group (49%) and a mix of the models (45%). Accordingly, half are engaged in a mentoring relationship: 51 percent are discipling others and 43 percent are being discipled.

Thirty-five percent of Christian adults who say spiritual growth is important report that their church recommends meeting with a spiritual mentor; 50 percent of their churches recommend studying the Bible with a group; and 50 percent recommend studying the Bible independently. These are not exclusive preferences but, generally speaking, the proportions align with Christians’ preferences for discipleship methods.

Among the 90 percent of Christian adults who believe spiritual growth is important, one-quarter prefers a small-group setting for discipleship (25%). Another one in five prefers a combination of group and one-on-one discipleship (21%) and 16 percent prefer one-on-one only. Thus, in total, about one-third of those pursuing spiritual growth like to include some element of one-on-one discipleship.

Not all of those who prefer discipleship “pairs” are currently involved in a one-on-one discipleship relationship: Out of the nine in 10 Christian adults who believe spiritual growth is important, 23 percent are currently being discipled by somone (29% of practicing vs. 12% of non-practicing Christians), and 19 percent are discipling someone else (25% of practicing vs. 9% of non-practicing Christians).

Interestingly, Christian adults who have previously been involved in a college ministry (32%) are more likely to currently be in a one-on-one discipleship relationship. Forty percent of those currently being discipled were once in a college ministry. By comparison, 31 percent of those not being discipled were in a college ministry. Forty-five percent of those currently discipling someone else were once in a college ministry, compared with 30 percent of those not currently discipling someone part of a college ministry.

One-on-one discipleship relationships are established in various ways: Of those currently being discipled by another person, one quarter say that person invited them (27%); one in five invited their mentor (20%); and about one quarter were paired by the church (23%)—but the largest proportion, 28 percent, were matched “some other way.”

Attitudes towards relationships that impact spiritual journeys suggest that family, people at church, small groups, friends and mentors are most valuable to Christians’ spiritual growth. Online social networks have the least (but some) impact.

When forced to choose the single method of discipleship they believe is most effective, church leaders select small group formats (52%) nearly two-to-one over discipleship pairs (29%). Mainline pastors (71%) are even more likely than non-mainline pastors (47%) to consider small groups most effective, and non-mainline leaders place a higher priority on one-on-one discipleship relationships compared with mainline leaders (32% vs. 16%, respectively). However, fewer non-mainline leaders prefer discipleship pairs than small groups.

When considering the proportion of Christian adults who prefer a mix of group and one-on-one discipleship, the overall split between these two methods is comparable to that of church leaders. However, the greatest disconnect between leaders and their congregants is the perceived utility of solitary study for spiritual growth. Just one in nine leaders considers this method most effective (11%), compared with 37 percent of Christian adults who prefer private study.

Preferences are similar among exemplar churches. A portion of exemplar leaders prefers the mature-to-new believer relationship, usually one-on-one. More use both this approach and the peer-to-peer/ small group model, which is believed to be more appealing to members. Exemplars widely consider a one-on-one component—whether Bible study or just conversation—essential to fruitful discipleship. Only two among 37 exemplar respondents report using the peer/small group format on its own.

Do church leaders take their own advice when it comes to discipleship? Somewhat. Fully 94 percent are currently discipling at least one other Christian. However, only six in 10 are being discipled themselves (62%). Discipleship leaders (72%) are somewhat more likely than senior pastors (59%) to have a spiritual mentor, and these relationships are more common in larger churches: Eight out of 10 church leaders of 500+ member churches are being discipled (78%), compared with 64 percent of those with 100 to 499 members and 55 percent of those who lead in churches with fewer than 100 members.

Spiritual Disciplines & Activities

According to pastors, the most critical elements of discipleship are matters of the heart rather than of structure. Aside from prayer and time with God, the top three spiritual disciplines pastors believe are essential to discipleship are “personal commitment to grow in Christlikeness” (94%), “attending a local church” (91%) and “a deep love for God” (90%). Having “a comprehensive discipleship curriculum” is by far the least important element of effective discipleship according to pastors, 44 percent of whom select it as essential.

Christian adults, by contrast, say the basics—prayer and attending church services—have been most helpful in their own spiritual journey. Among Christian adults who report ever having used these methods, 59 percent say “regular prayer” and 55 percent say “attending church worship services” have been most helpful. In contrast, three in 10 Christians have been part of a Bible study small group and consider it most helpful in their spiritual development (31%), and one-quarter have had a spiritual mentor and consider this relationship most helpful (24%).

The disparity between church leaders’ and Christian adults’ perceptions of what is most effective for spiritual growth may represent the tension between the ideal approach and what actually occurs in practice. Alternately or additionally, some Christians may be simply less self-aware about their spiritual condition.

Personal Bible study (92%), small group Bible study (88%) and one-on-one discussions with mature believers (83%) are considered by church leaders to have the most significant impact on developing disciples. Listening to media is considered least effective (45%).

Among Christian adults, 35 percent are currently only using some sort of non-personal discipleship (podcasts or listening to music).

Q&A with Lindy Black

Lindy Black has been on staff with the Navigators for 34 years. She currently serves as the Associate U.S. Director, with a focus on bringing support and leadership capacity to the U.S. Director, Doug Nuenke, and the three U.S. Field Directors. She also oversees staff development teams. Lindy has served as a member of the National Leadership Team since October 2010. She lives in Colorado Springs with her husband of 37 years.

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