4 Characteristics of Good Discipling Relationships


Phil Maynard and Eddie Pipkin say education-based approaches to spiritual formation often fail to form disciples committed to Christlike living. They suggest doing what Jesus did focusing intentionally on spiritual growth and development within a context of relationality and accountability. 

Despite the significant investment of time, financial resources, and amazing educational options over the past few decades, research indicates that the Church is not doing all that well at creating transformed lives. The Church is struggling to produce disciples who behave like Jesus. Researcher George Barna analyzed the data in his book, Growing True Disciples. He found little to no statistical difference between the way “born again believers” and “non-believers” conduct themselves. Apparently, our highly developed spiritual formation strategies have not been making much of a difference when it comes to real-world behaviors. 

For decades, the Church, in keeping with the understanding of disciples being learners and following the cultural approach of classroom learning experiences, has approached discipleship as a programmatic ministry. There is, of course, nothing wrong with offering classes. It is good for people to learn about God and Jesus and the Church and theology and the many related topics. It’s just not sufficient to only learn about them. This isn’t discipleship. It’s Christian Education, and while Christian Education serves a noble and valuable purpose, this approach to individual spiritual development isn’t creating disciples who live like Jesus. Discipleship isn’t just about information. It’s about transformation. Discipleship isn’t just about knowledge. It’s about behaviors. 

So, if the current models are struggling (either in concept or execution) and if what we have been doing has been less than successful in helping people actually become like Jesus, where can we turn for a better way? We suggest doing what Jesus did and developing an approach to discipling people that embodies these characteristics: 

1. Relationships 

Discipleship happens in relationships. It’s a “contact sport.” When we want to help someone grow as a disciple, our first impulse should not be to give them a book or training guide (although these may be helpful resources) and send them off to a corner to process what they’re reading. We get them into a relationship with someone who is further along the path of discipleship.  

This discipler (partner) walks alongside the disciple. When the junior partner doesn’t understand something, the discipler explains it. When they stumble, the discipler helps them up and dusts them off. When they start off on a “rabbit trail,” the discipler brings them back to focus. When they need a helping hand, the discipler reaches out. When they experience success, the discipler celebrates with them and for them! 

Good disciplers help people see the end goal of the process (becoming like Jesus). They help the disciple keep their eyes on the target. In Matthew 14, Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water toward Jesus. Everything goes great until he gets distracted by the wind and waves. When he takes his eyes off Jesus, he begins to sink. In the same way, the disciple must keep their eyes on Jesus. A disciple must stay focused to become like Jesus. 

2. Intentionality 

If we are in pursuit of a clear goal, it just makes sense to do specific things that will support movement toward that goal. This is intentional discipleship. It may be a great thing to have disciples engage in the newest “talking head” video study of the Bible with lots of available choices for your favorite popular preacher/teacher of the moment. But, if the goal is to encourage a specific waypoint — say, a life of generosity, as an example — perhaps the training should be intentionally focused on biblical financial management. If the goal is developing a growing awareness of the presence of God, perhaps the training should introduce the breadth of spiritual practices that help develop this awareness. You get the idea. This is not to say that we shouldn’t use “talking head” video series, just that we should be intentional about how we guide people toward their goals.  

3. Development 

Discipleship is about growth. It’s about movement toward something (an important distinction since, after all, even “backsliding” is a form of movement). This developmental aspect is not limited to behaviors which are considered official “spiritual practices.” We cannot separate our spiritual lives from our physical lives or our emotional lives. Jesus emphasized this in the Great Commandment, which he said summaries all the teaching and the law: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Matthew 22:37). Good discipleship is holistic. It is about developing our entire being. 

4. Accountability 

Good discipleship includes an element of accountability. Jesus didn’t just tell his disciples how Kingdom life was done or even just demonstrate how Kingdom life was done. He held the twelve disciples accountable for developing a Kingdom perspective and practices. However, remembering that we are not Jesus, this role of holding folks accountable has practical limitations. The discipler is not the disciple’s mother, supervisor, or boss. The discipler is the disciple’s partner. The disciple is not accountable to the discipler as an individual. They are ultimately accountable to God and to themselves.  

To the extent that we enter into accountability partnerships with anyone (discipler, disciple, mentor, coach, or small group partners), it is a voluntary, free will, noncompulsory relationship. It is fed by honesty, trust, compassion, and love. We may ask an accountability partner how something is working, what they are learning, where they are in the process, all of which are ways of providing accountability. But they are accountable to God and to themselves. We are not issuing grades. We are not giving final exams. Poorly executed accountability arrangements have destroyed many discipling relationships. Accountability is important, but it must be structured wholesomely and humbly.  

Expectations are important because people aspire to live into expectations. Expectations, however, must always be anchored in love because love is not a shackle. Love is a bridge. 

Disciple Like JesusAdapted from Disciple Like Jesus: Making Disciples Like Jesus Who Make Disciples Like Jesus by Phil Maynard and Eddie Pipkin, Market Square Books, 2020. Used by permission.  The book is available at Market Square, Cokesbury, and Amazon. 

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About Author

Dr. Phil Maynard serves as Director of Excellence in Ministry Coaching and Director of Coach Training for Leaders. Before taking an early retirement to enter a full-time ministry of coaching, consulting, and training, Phil served as Director of Congregational Excellence for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Phil is a Certified (ICF) and Endorsed (UMEA) Coach. He is the author of eight books and a wide variety of training guides.

Eddie Pipkin has 30 years in ministry experience at churches in Georgia and Florida, primarily in the United Methodist Church. His ministry leadership includes stints in youth and children’s ministry, creative worship design, outreach and missions, communications, special event coordination, and leadership development.

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