One on one with Deb Sugars.
One of my great joys in ministry is meeting one to one with new or young believers. My focus in this article is on discipling new and young believers, often a much-neglected area of ministry. We work hard to bring people into the kingdom—for them to hear the gospel, and respond. It is vital that we continue to work hard to help them become established believers, who have deep roots in Jesus, as their Lord and saviour. What does this look like?
A ‘disciple’ is someone who knows Jesus, and follows Him, someone who has a relationship with Him, has responded to his offer of forgiveness, and has received his grace. Discipling includes people hearing and responding to the gospel, and people growing in faith for the rest of their lives, through these stages. The time frame is different for each person.
New believers are particularly helped to grow In Christ by being discipled. Those who may not be ‘new’ believers, but who have had little exposure to the Bible, and need some help to read and understand it for themselves are also greatly helped.
What goals are we aiming for, as we disciple a new, or young believer? These three Bible passages give us some core ideas:
It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)
The goal: New believers growing towards maturity in Christ.
We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped … promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4: 15–16)
The goal: New believers grow, by receiving ministry, to become loving, active and servant-hearted members of the body of Christ. We will unpack some of these specifics in this article.
And what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well. (2 Timothy 2:2)
The goal: To transfer ministry from one person to the next.
We are aiming to present people mature in Christ, who become loving, active and servant hearted members of the body of Christ, and who will eventually disciple others, so transferring ministry from one person to the next.
‘Mature’ in Colossians 1:28 above means ‘complete’, ‘fully developed’ in Christ. We are more familiar with its use in relation to wine, or cheese, but for our purposes here, we are talking about maturing people. When we first turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, the Holy Spirit begins the work of growing us toward maturity in him. It takes a lifetime, and isn’t a straightforward or smooth exponential growth curve! Instead it has many dips and troughs, ups and downs. And, we will never be fully mature, until we are resurrected, so ‘maturing’ is more accurate.
What does discipling a new believer actually look like?
The gospels give us a very clear picture of how Jesus teaches and disciples. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1–12 we see discipling made very plain. Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians, reminding them how they turned from serving idols, to serve the true and living God, and how they grew as followers of Jesus.
“We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:7–12 NRSV)
Paul’s image in verse 7 is of a nurse or mother caring for newborn babies. Let’s unpack Paul’s analogy further. Often in the New Testament we see young or new believers referred to as babies, needing milk, not meat, just as a newborn does (needing help in everything). Why is this analogy used? What is the role of the parent or the nurse? It is to provide all a newborn baby needs. It sounds fairly obvious and simple. But perhaps the implications are not so obvious. Parenting is a constant act of selflessness. Nowhere else do you subvert your own needs for that of another human being for twenty-four hours a day. If in doubt, ask any new parent. We can heave a sigh of relief though—discipling a new believer is not quite as intense as this! But it does make the point that we will encounter some hard work, that requires us to be gentle, as with a new baby, yet as we shall see later, also bringing in discipline and challenge too. It is a parent-like commitment. Parenting includes being responsible for the direction of a child’s life. Disciplining involves establishing what the limits are, and helping the child to live in the reality of these limits.
To add further to our task as disciplers, Paul talks in verse eight of his determination to share with the Christians at Thessalonika, ‘the gospel of God, and also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us’. His genuine love for them shines through. Paul is willing to be spent for their sake, so that they grow in their relationship with Jesus.
What does showing genuine love look like, as we disciple a new or young believers? Initially, a new Christian needs plenty of help. They need a safe place to ask questions, free from ridicule. They need help to learn how to read the Bible with someone who can simply answer their questions, address areas of confusion, and encourage them to a gutsy application of what they read. Someone who will keep asking them ‘what does this passage say’ and ‘how do you need to live, as a follower of Jesus, because of it’? And to do so in a way that both challenges and encourages. For the discipler this takes love, committed prayer, thought, time and preparation. We also need to recognize both the reality of sin and God’s power to deal with sin in the life of the new believer.
I find that new believers often don’t know how to take the next steps in their new life in Christ. They can be unsure or confused by many of the aspects of living as a follower of Jesus. By meeting regularly with someone who they get to know and trust they can receive help. Those of us who have been believers for longer can take this for granted.
A new Christian may have little or no experience of praying, reading the Bible, or belonging to a church. They have no experience of what it feels like to be a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is completely new for them to have God’s Spirit at work turning their life upside down and completely reshaping their being. This involves some huge challenges; many of which we have forgotten about.
As we disciple one-to-one we can address the individual needs of a new believer and be patient when they stumble, lose sight of God or experience set-backs.
Back to 1 Thessalonians 2:10. Paul says: ‘You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers.’ Paul is keenly aware of his relationship with the new believers and that the way he lives matters. He is fully aware of the huge impact his behaviour has on others and especially new believers. How he lives out his faith and trust in God will inevitably shape these people. Paul realizes that he will be imitated.
We too, will be imitated by new believers. As they seek to follow Jesus they will use our efforts to follow Jesus as a model. As our life is exposed, both the good and the bad, God will use us to help others to grow in maturity.
Back to the parenting analogy. Children learn by imitating their parents in all aspects of life; from how they walk to how they talk. As they grow they imitate less and develop the ability to think, act and make choices for themselves. This is part of maturing; moving from dependence to independence. As we disciple, our goal is to encourage the new believer to become independent from our initial discipling relationship to the point where they are able to disciple another new believer. They must become independent from us without becoming independent from God.
Paul moves back to the parent analogy, in 1 Thessalonians 2:11–12: ‘As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.’ Paul’s great desire is to see these new believers leading lives worthy of our great God. This involves urging, encouraging and pleading.
This is beginning to look like meeting with a new believer regularly; maybe for an hour weekly or fortnightly, to pray, read, and talk.
As we disciple, here are some clear lessons to be learnt from Paul’s dealings with the Thessalonians. We need to imitate Paul.
Ask God for a genuine love for the person we are discipling. We need ro pray for their ongoing growth and trust that God will enable them to put down firm foundations of faith.
Be willing to give time and energy to pray for them and with them, to read the Bible with them, and discuss gutsy application.
Continue to help them to understand the fullness of the gospel, urging, encouraging and pleading so that they can be sure of their salvation, learn how to pray, understand what it means to belong to the family of believers, and be an active part of the church.
Recognize that we will be imitated. Our lives will be scrutinized. How we live matters.
Take into account the cost of the parental role in time, preparation, energy, prayer, and thought.
Be aware of the individual needs of new believers.
Help the person to be accountable. Firstly to God, and also to us, the church.
This isn’t a formula. Different people grow at different rates and in different ways. Our approach must be attentive and personal.
What specific changes would we pray for and hope to see in the life of a person we are discipling?
That the new believer develops:
1. A firm trust in God, assurance of salvation and a big understanding of God’s grace
2. An active prayer life, reading and grappling with the Bible, becoming an active member of a church.
3. A changed life—the Spirit at work bringing growth in godliness.
4. A growing desire to serve others (See 2 Timothy 2:2). Transfer of ministry from one person to the next.
How can we make sure new believers receive continued help beyond immediate follow-up?
1. Continue to meet with them but with decreasing frequency.
2. Arrange for others to also meet with them.
3. Encourage them to join a small group Bible study.
4. Make sure they attend a church where the Bible is clearly taught and ensure they get connected there.
How would you help a new believer choose and relate to a new church?
1. As above, help the new believer to look for a church where the Bible is clearly taught and where there are people their own age.
2. If you live in different areas and the new believer can’t easily attend your church, go with them to their new church.
3. Introduce them to the minister and the people. Encourage them to let others know that they are a new believer.
Some suggestions for meeting with a new believer
1. Read through a Gospel together and discuss.
2. Use studies you write yourself.
3. Just for Starters studies (Matthias Media).
4. Studies in Assurance (Navigators)
5. Bible studies, especially the Gospels (Matthias Media)
6. Give the new believer a book to read and discuss with you: Hanging in There by John Dickson (Matthias Media) or Mere Christianity by C S Lewis.
1. Mentoring to Develop Leaders by John Mallison (Scripture Union & Open Book). Revised edition available with study notes and new material. Accompanying Mentoring Trainer’s Pack with an extensive range of resources.
2. The Making of a Leader by Robert Clinton (Navpress)
3. A Discipleship Handbook by Sophie De Witt (Authentic) focuses on mentoring and discipleship in universities. She helps the discipler to work with new or young Christians to establish strong foundations, persevere in faith and serve in leadership.
5. One to One by David Helm (Matthias Media).
Deb Sugars is a pastoral worker at St Jude’s Carlton.