Basic Discipleship: Holding New Believers' Hands Through First Steps 7th Essential for a TRULY Evangelistic Church


By Wayne Haston

This article is part of the series Essentials for a TRULY Evangelistic Church.

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If your church doesn’t provide “first steps” hand-holding with baby Christians, it’s likely that many or most of them will stumble right out the back door.

If you are a parent, you know how exciting is to see your baby take his or her first steps. Inevitably there are going to be some stumbles along the way, but first steps indicate that your child is maturing properly. One crucial step in learning to walk is the “hand holding” stage, in which parents provide physical support and balance, protection from falls, and the encouragement that helps the child gain the skills and confidence needed to walk

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Some of you probably placed your trust in Jesus as a young child and may not remember what it was like to be a new believer. I was saved at age 17 while a senior in high school, so I vividly remember how much “hand holding” I needed to begin my walk with Jesus. My spiritual legs were weak and wobbly, and I stumbled and fell more than I like to remember.

If you can think back to when you were a new Christian, which of these “helps” did you need to walk worthy of the Lord? Mentally check all that apply.

  • Help in having the assurance that I was a child of God and was secure in His hands.
  • Help learning why and how to pray.
  • Help knowing how to deal with sins that kept occurring in my life.
  • Help in learning how to read the Bible and where to start.
  • Help in understanding the Bible well enough for it to make sense to me.
  • Help in knowing how to tell people that Jesus had changed my life.
  • Help in understanding why I needed to be in a good church—what a church could do for me and what and how I could contribute to my church.
  • Help in understanding who the “Holy Spirit” is and what He does in and for me.
  • Help in understanding baptism and why I should obey Jesus by being baptized.

I don’t know about you, but I needed all of these—I REALLY did! And I suspect that the needs-list is pretty much the same for all of us, especially those of us who, at best, might have been exposed to “churchianity” but never experienced true “Christianity.”

The theology of Good Soil Evangelism and Discipleship begins with the three accounts of the Parable of the Soils:

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The first step to Christian discipleship is a genuine conversion—unbelievers must clearly understand the gospel, then sincerely embrace it.

If a person clearly understands the gospel of Jesus Christ and genuinely embraces Him as Savior, from the heart, we believe—based on Luke 8:15—this new believer will cling tightly to the word he or she has understood and embraced.

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But just as we are to cooperate with God in evangelism—a divine-human process, God also uses more-mature believers to help baby Christians in their new life journey with Jesus. That’s what we call “first steps discipleship” and we see it in the New Testament.

For example, Paul and Peter encouraged their readers:

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And Paul worked with them to stabilize them:

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What “First Steps Discipleship” Means for YOU and YOUR Church

In a recent Barna Group survey, only 1% of church leaders said, “today’s churches are doing ‘very well’ at discipling new and young believers.” When looking at their own churches, 8% said they were doing “very well.” It’s just a guess on my part, but the 8% might be wishful thinking.

A TRULY evangelistic church, in the New Testament sense, will be concerned about more than evangelistic decisions—it will be equally passionate about and committed to nurturing new believers to experience a joyful and fruitful life-long walk with Jesus.

Here’s how that can happen in your church

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Congregational Discipleship: Your local church can and should be a “family” that warmly adopts new believers and lovingly nurtures them to maturity.

You have heard the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it takes a local church to raise a child of God effectively, but not just any kind of church.

As a 17-year-old baby believer, I began attending a small country church and joined a family of about 60 church members. They accepted me; they loved me; they taught me; they helped train me; and sometimes they lovingly rebuked me when I needed it. I knew I belonged! I was fed spiritually from my pastor’s sermons and Bible lessons and soon developed a desire to learn more about the Bible. That little congregation discipled me!

As I read the Book of Acts, it appears that most of what we now call discipleship was done in the context of church gatherings, especially in the earlier phases of the Church in Acts. No doubt the intimacy of assembling in house churches created a nurturing environment that was ideal for the assimilation and spiritual growth of new believers.

But church smallness doesn’t automatically mean warmth and a welcome mat for new Christians. The median size of a church in the United States is about 70 members or less, with 40% of churches seeing 49 or fewer people attending their worship services. Most of these are small for a reason—they are declining congregations, declining because they have no vision, no outreach, and no motivation to improve or receive new members.

If you are a member or a pastor of a small congregation, you have a unique opportunity to build what, a few decades ago, was affectionately called “body life”—healthy New Testament congregational life. But you will have to make “smallness” work for you to achieve that and sometimes that means reversing years of complacency.

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Group Discipleship: Assimilation into a “Small Group” can provide a nurturing family context.

I have never seen any statistics on this, but I’m guessing that it is more difficult for a new believer to survive and thrive in a large church than a small congregation. As churches grow and become more institutionalized, the need for internal small groups increases. Properly organized and led, small groups can replace the loss of spiritual intimacy every believer needs somewhere in life, the family feeling of a house church.

To address the unique needs of new believers, some churches offer new convert classes periodically. That works best in congregations that are large enough to have enough young Christians to fill those classes on a regular basis. But when the class comes to an end, it is essential that these new Christians become assimilated into a fellowship where their journeys with Jesus can continue to be enriched.

Sensing the need to replace what gets lost in church growth, many medium-to-large size churches offer small groups. The foci of these churches vary, along with their names: Life Groups, Fellowship Groups, Cell Groups, Care Groups, Discipleship Groups, Bible Study Groups, and Home Bible Studies.

Unfortunately, these groups often become “closed groups,” by design or by cliquishness—closed so tightly that new Christians cannot penetrate. And sometimes new believers join groups where the Christianese is so thick they can’t decode the “foreign language.” These kinds of small groups can do more harm than good.

Small groups require oversight to be sure they are staying on track, continuing to be warmly receptive and spiritually productive.

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Personal Discipleship: Often, it’s the PERSONAL touch that makes the deepest and most permanent impression.

Unfortunately, there are group discipleship devotees who pooh-pooh personal discipleship. Some will argue that discipling one person at a time is too slow and group discipleship is better because it produces more disciples in the same amount of time.

Your choice of discipling methodology shouldn’t be based on devotion to one method or another but based on the 1needs in the 2context of circumstances and the 3best way to meet those needs. When it comes to discipleship, quality is more important than quantity or speed. If the need is only for the acquisition of basic Bible knowledge, the development of spiritual disciplines, and fellowship, properly-focused small groups work well. But mentoring—the other side of discipleship—is best accomplished one on one.

I mentioned the “discipleship” I experienced by being in a small church “where everybody knew my name and they were always glad I came, where the troubles were all the same.” No, it wasn’t a bar—it was a Bible believing country church.

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But I didn’t tell you about the deep and lasting impression my first pastor made on my life by mentoring me. Once he saw that I was committed to following Jesus, he met with me in his office and showed me which books would be most helpful to me as a young student of God’s Word. He even drove me to the closest Christian bookstore, nearly 100 miles away, and helped me pick out a few basic Bible study resources. He opened the Bible with me and showed me how to “rightly handle the word of truth.” He took me with him to make evangelistic visits with him, so that I could learn first-hand how to lead a person to faith in Jesus. When I began to preach, he sat down with me and explained how to outline a sermon, how to illustrate it, and gave me tips on how to present the message.

Mentoring—that’s the other (and often neglected) important part of personal discipleship and it can definitely best be done one-on-one.

If you were asked, “How well is your church doing in discipling new and young Christians?,” on a scale of 1 (poor) to 10 (great) what would you say?

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Here’s a look back and a look forward to the entire set of articles in this “Twelve Essentials to a TRULY Evangelistic Church” series:

Twelve Essentials: Overview

  1. Evangelistic Pastor
  2. E-Team
  3. THE Mission
  4. Local Focus
  5. Congregational Warmth
  6. Equipped Congregation
  7. Basic Discipleship
  8. Peer Accountability
  9. Evangelistic Praying
  10. Shared Rejoicing
  11. Strategic Simplicity
  12. Persistent Pursuit

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