By Suzi Steele
Blearily, I reached for my phone as the ring tone rudely disrupted my sleep. First, I noticed the time was 2:45 a.m. Second, the caller’s name showed that it was a 20-year-old I knew well. Dread started to swell in my gut because nothing good happens at 2:45 a.m. for a student at a major university, where bars outnumber all other businesses combined. I answered, and a tearful request followed. “Can I come over to your house right now?” I didn’t hesitate to reply, “Of course, you can. I’ll make some coffee and see you soon.”
What ensued was not surprising. It was the third “middle of the night” visit in just two weeks with different young women. My years as a campus minister were dotted with occurrences like this: too much drinking, too little self-control, too high emotions, and too low self-worth. I remember the cycle well in my attempts to mentor and disciple young women in college – mountain-top experiences at a spiritual retreat, enthusiasm to pursue a deeper relationship with Christ, promises to “live life differently,” then the crash and burn when outside pressures and temptations proved too weighty to overcome. Discipleship was a messy business, but I clung to hope that their story would not end there.
What ensued was not surprising. It was the third “middle of the night” visit in just two weeks with different young women.
Looking back, I can see my pitfalls in discipling others, especially during those campus ministry years. Even though I had 15 years of experience before stepping into that position, the huge identity swings that 18 to 24-year-olds experience were a challenge to my previous methods. The onslaught of clashing world views, questions about identity and purpose, and pondering the relevancy of God in today’s culture (if there indeed was a God) had me off-kilter, to put it mildly.
Through those years, I interchanged my leadership role in the person’s life to meet their needs instead of staying true to Jesus’ method of discipleship. Sometimes I was a mentor, other times a coach. I was their cheerleader on the sidelines or the “bad cop” when confronting their sin. I was undoubtedly their campus “mom” but without the benefit of a lifelong relationship to help guide them. Yes, discipleship was messy, and as I look back on those days, I see where I could have used a different perspective. Here are three of my biggest mistakes:
#1 – Not letting the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting
In the book “Shifting with a Purpose” (Relational Discipleship Network), a lead pastor relates his missteps in discipleship. “I want things done yesterday, so I’ve had to continue to learn to be very patient.” He describes how change is challenging for most people, so those who disciple others should do it in bite-sized pieces. The Holy Spirit is the one that convicts, transforms, and renews. Our job is to shepherd others faithfully in step with the Spirit. When we take it upon ourselves to produce results or expect change to happen in our timing, we shortchange (or even disrupt) the godly process of Spirit-led transformation.
When we take it upon ourselves to produce results or expect change to happen in our timing, we shortchange (or even disrupt) the godly process of Spirit-led transformation.
#2 – Thinking hanging out is the same as intentional discipleship
When we meet with others, especially as we are building a relationship, we tend to spend the time hanging out and having great conversations without intentionality in our words. We get stuck on the surface without diving deeper spiritually, and most of the time, no one is keeping us accountable that our time with others is well-spent. It’s a rarity to have a conversation move beyond a transfer of information, but we’re called to steward others toward and into a life-changing relationship with Christ. Uncomfortable or not, intentional discipleship calls for deeply meaningful time spent with others.
#3 – Discipling with an end goal of spiritual maturity instead of multiplication
If we help others grow in their faith and take positive steps in following Jesus, we might think we’ve successfully led a discipling relationship to fulfillment. Indeed, it’s a wonderful thing to see others mature, but we often stop there instead of teaching them to go and make disciples. Joel Owen, a pastor in Kingsport, TN, states, “Jesus didn’t just spend time with His disciples so they would personally be closer to God and have a more mature spiritual life.” Jesus poured his time into people who would use the methods he taught them to disciple others. He used a teacher and apprentice model to empower his followers to take the reins of leadership in discipling others by using the same DNA.
Jesus poured his time into people who would use the methods he taught them to disciple others. He used a teacher and apprentice model to empower his followers to take the reins of leadership in discipling others by using the same DNA.
While I made other mistakes along the way, these were the top ones I identified. Perhaps you can recognize different ones in your life when discipling others. Self-evaluation can be difficult, but it can lead to a closer alignment with Jesus’ model of discipleship. Beyond those years of campus ministry, I discovered a few key practices to guide me toward healthy discipling leadership that I’ll address in another blog post, Messy Discipleship: Part 2.
But before I go, let me share the rest of my campus ministry story.
I now have the perspective to see the results of those campus ministry days that happened over ten years ago. Some women have walked away from God completely, and others have chosen to keep one toe dipped in Christianity but to live life largely by their own power. The Lord is never too far to reach, and I pray for other relationships in their lives to point them back to Him.
I also see how God used my faithful but imperfect obedience to disciple young women. Out of the females I met with, some have gone on to be missionaries, Christian counselors, ministry leaders, and nonprofit champions that serve in Christ’s name. There are engineers, university professors, doctors, nurses, and school teachers who have spread out to other communities, states, and countries. I see healthy marriages and parenting, and they are instilling their love of Christ into new generations. I am but one person who poured into their lives, but I’m grateful that Christ used my imperfect, messy discipleship as an invitation for life transformation in Him.
You can contact Suzi at: Suzi@95Network.org
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