My Discipleship Story

Hello my name is Matt and I am wrestling with discipleship. I grew up in church. My mom and dad made that a big priority growing up. They took my brother and I to church every week and taught us about God, Jesus, the Bible, and how to live the Christian life.

I suspect many of you started off on a very similar note. Maybe you came to Christianity later in life or maybe you aren’t all in yet yourself but I suspect many of you were brought up in church. Maybe you, like me, are looking for something deeper than our churches have seemed to offer. More on that in a moment.

I had a number of great Bible class teachers. I heard from some solid preachers. It was my desire to live for God and do what was right and please God with my life from a very early age.

One of the things that has been a struggle for me but also a blessing is being an introvert. When I knew I wanted to be baptized I didn’t want to do it in front of everyone. That was far too frightening. My parents and I talked it over. They called the church office and arranged for the preacher, Stan Webb, to baptize me in the middle of the week with just my family and him present at our church the Lafayette Church of Christ in Ballwin, MO.

It seems like just yesterday I came out of that water with an overwhelming desire to not sin. To not mess up the cleaning that Jesus had just done to my soul. When people heard I had been baptized they told me what a great decision I had made. They were right. They told me how proud they were of me. And they were. No one told me at the ripe young age of 11 that when you pick Jesus the devil comes at you harder than ever. I knew it was a commitment and I meant the promise I was making. I had no idea how difficult it would be to keep. Because no one talks about their problems it is easy to feel like you are the only one who finds it difficult. More on that another day.

I continued to learn and grow and my parents got me in a good youth group and continued to encourage me in my faith when we moved from Saint Louis to North Alabama when I was in the 8th grade.

At this point I was surrounded by godly influences. I had great Christian parents who were encouraging me in the right ways. But if you had asked me what a disciple was I think I would have said the 12 men who followed Jesus. Maybe you felt the same way. Maybe you still do.

Discipleship was a foreign concept. Baptism and conversion was front and center but how you go and grow from there was not. The idea, I think, was that you keep going to church, read your Bible and pray and you will get there. Attendance was pretty much the mark of faithfulness. It is what was expected.

From that point in my teenage years into my mid 20s I had a number of people influence my faith. There were undergrad professors at Harding that had a profound influence on me: Dale Manor, Dr. Thomas in the psychology department, Ken Hobby, and many others. When I went off to grad school at the University of Florida there were people at the University City Church of Christ who supported and encouraged me. When I dropped out of the doctoral program in 2002 and moved to Memphis to attend Harding School of Theology I had grad school professors who stretched my faith: Evertt Huffard, Allen Black, Mark Powell, Dave Bland and so many others. I had friends who were far more mature than I was who challenged my walk. I knew older people who I appreciated their faithfulness and their example more from a distance. Of course I always had my parents and I knew faith was important to them.

But I didn’t have anyone to disciple me intentionally. I cannot say there has been a single moment in my life where (outside my parents) a more mature Christian paired up with me to show me how to do life the Jesus way. Never an elder, professor, older/wiser church member, etc. Not once.

Can you say the same?

I bet you can because the more Christians I ask about the more I get the same answer – they weren’t discipled either.

It is time to change all of that. In one generation we can change our church culture from “church culture” to a “discipleship culture.” I plan to help make that happen.

It starts with telling our stories. Then we listen for the commonality. We engage in prayer asking for guidance because for most of doing life as a disciple and not just as a nominal Christian is a new way of living, doing and most importantly being. We don’t have good models because we never got it ourselves. The good news is we do have the perfect model and discipler – Jesus. He is always available but we do need others in our lives to help us with this and we need to help others ourselves.

We need each other on this. I need you on this.

So here is how you can help out right now. Let us all know in the comments if you were ever intentionally discipled by someone other than your parents. Who was it? How did they do it?

Let us know if you never were as well and what you think about that.

19 Responses to My Discipleship Story

  1. Matt, you said you want to see commonality. Your story is my story, with the details changed. I, too, was born into a Christian family, baptized at an early age, had a Christian education from 1st grade through graduate school with 2 years at Sunset thrown in. I preached most of my life. But no one ever taught me how to be a soul-winner, though I served as a missionary for 7 years. No one ever taught me how to turn a convert into a disciple. No one ever helped me to become a disciple of Jesus.

    Our congregation in struggling with this right now. The problem is put before us constantly. But we are feeling our way gingerly. I am part of the process, and we are making some progress – but it is slow.

    I look forward to what develops in this series. Like you I desire much participation and pray that it will not all be sharing the same story that you and I have both told – with only the details being different.

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      This is powerful Jerry. It confirms what I believe and motivates me further to push in this direction. I really hope that we can get people in our churches in this conversation. More on that in the next post.

  2. With respect, I cannot answer your question because I do not think you have yet defined “discipleship.” Does being a disciple mean living a good moral life, including service to others? If so, yes, I have been discipled by the examples of many wonderful Christians. Does being a disciple mean acquiring a deeper understanding of God’s word. Yes, I have been discipled by many excellent books and commentaries. Does being a disciple mean engaging in persistent personal evangelism? Yes, I have been taught to be evangelistic by books and classes. Does being a disciple mean being constrained or pressured by some other person to practice certain “spiritual disciplines”? No, I have not sought to be discipled in that way because I find no real evidence for such spiritual life coaching in scripture. Does being a disciple mean being pressured to conduct x number of evangelistic Bible studies per month? No, I have not been discipled in that way and would find it cult-like. What exactly do you mean by discipleship? Some of these things? All of these things? None of these things? Does discipleship always mean submitting oneself to some wiser spiritual mentor? Please explain more clearly.

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      Great thoughts and questions John. I am working my way through this one step at a time so please be patient with me! I will assure you that I do not mean a hierarchical model that is pushing for numbers. These questions will be addressed in this discussion and then some. More soon.

  3. Michael D Hopper says:

    I have had many men influence me growing up. Particularly in my teen years. I cannot say that I was intentionally discipled. First off, I grew up in a different tradition than the COC. However, it seems though there were a lot of similarities. My father was a great example for me growing up. A man of strong faith and conviction. He taught me by example. We never really talked about living a Christian life, but I always had him in front of me as an example. It was as common to see him with a Bible in his hands , as it was to see him with the newspaper. I never saw him take a drink or heard him swear. There was my youth minister in my junior high years. He probably has one of the strongest influences on my belief system. But it was through the youth group not one on one. As an adult I have had a couple of elders and friends guiding me, but not as a conscious discipleship. I would have to say that the men that have discipled me the most did not do it intentionally but rather more as an organic process. It was just who they were with everyone.

  4. Matt Dabbs says:

    What you wrote is something I can relate to. We have may examples and role models that get us over the hump. It isn’t overt. You have to pay attention and catch on to what is happening and not everyone will. I can relate to you saying your dad didn’t talk with you directly about the Christian life. My dad led by example as well. I do wish we had had more of those conversations when I was younger though. We had more when I was in my 30s but few when I was a kid. What would it look like for fathers to disciple their kids overtly. How might parents train their children in the way of Jesus? We can teach our kids how to make godly decisions – not just by making godly decisions but by equipping them and teaching them what goes into those kinds of decisions and then allow them to make some on their own instead of micromanaging them. We (the parents) get to pick the decisions we let them make and some we make for them – this is all appropriate discipleship. That would be one example of what I am talking about but I do think it should expand beyond our parents. These are all things we will be talking about more in the near future!

  5. Keith Stefanko says:

    Matt, I came to know Jesus in my late teens (19) after growing up in mostly south Florida. I had come from the Detroit area as a kid (age 8-9), but spent 9-18 in the Palm Beach & Broward counties, until I moved to Tampa in 1985 to attend college for my first degree. My parents (mostly mom) brought me up in the Lutheran church, and there was a smattering of Catholic influence from my dad’s kin along the way too.

    When I moved from Deerfield Beach, I came to Tampa with two other guys I went to high school with, so we could all room together and go to the same school. There happened to be a Bible study group in our apartment complex, made up of mostly singles and college-age folks that were all rooming together in a few apartments in the complex. These were mainly USF students and graduates, who had been converted while attending the old Sunrise COC, made up of mostly old Crossroad COC folks that had settled here.

    One of my roommates met the group and became a Christian first. After a couple weeks, he never told the other guy and me that he’d become a Christian, but had a few of the older guys in the group come by to invite us to one of the small group studies downstairs from us. They got me while I was at home alone playing my electric guitar very loudly with the windows open. They beat on the door until I heard them and invited them in. We had a nice chat, and we all ended up going to study later. When they talked to me after the group study, they asked if I’d like to study more one-on-one, which was the old Crossroad’s way of doing things. They ended up studying with both the other roomie and me, but intended to leave off for another set study in a few days, since the study guide was several studies long, and meant to lead you along to a point of decision – BUT – I knew they were hinting at something. Something like, I might not be 100% okay with the Lord. I told them they weren’t leaving the apartment until I knew better about what they were getting at (ultimately repentance and baptism). Later that next morning in the wee hours of about 2 a.m., we were both baptized in the apartment’s pool, and then stayed awake until we had to get ready to go to school that day.

    The group back then was very unified in discipling the people who were baptized…not perfectly…but, certainly there was mentoring and teaching and outreach efforts that you tagged along to learn how, etc. The church in Gainesville and Tampa had all of the same materials for how we did that stuff, and both churches followed each other’s example in how to keep the ball rolling along (for a couple decades).

    Ultimately, the Gainesville church launched what became known at the time as the Boston Movement (later the ICOC). It was all well and good to a young Christian like me who didn’t know or understand a lot of the bigger picture stuff that ended up causing the split between the COC & ICOC…and it wasn’t all evil like a lot of the brotherhood painted it to be. Discipleship was VERY important to the Boston Movement gang, but it began to show its darker side in late 1987, when you were paired with a discipleship partner who was older than you, and then a new Christian for you to disciple, who was young than you in the Lord. This still wasn’t bad, but it was a forced “friendship” and partnership, instead of the old roommate-friendship way I was used to doing. The entire time I was a young Christian (0-4 or so), I had brothers who were discipling me into my walk with Jesus – I didn’t know any other way!

    About November of 1987, Kelly and I were getting married, and the Boston church had split our congregation apart, which lead to a very dark age of NO DISCIPLESHIP what-so-ever. I still had some brothers who I would talk to and challenge each other a bit, but nothing like the pre-split days where we were really hardcore in several areas…all the time. The COC was soooooo afraid they might look like an ICOC church, that discipleship became a very bad word to use in the brotherhood here, and i many places around the country that we visited.

    I really missed those days, and eventually, I decided that I would seek out brother-friends who we could do more discipleship with one-on-one, or in small groups, no matter what anyone else thought about it. That played itself out until the present age, where I am now hearing a resurgence from all around the USA where COC members are wanting to disciple again, but hopefully, get it right this time.

    When I saw your efforts towards this formulating – I was stoked!!! I pray intently that the brotherhood around the globe will begin to embrace the value and need for this very thing. We can attend any church in the land and get something of value…but deep discipleship and friendships born of this relationship building is unique and life-long in depth and love. May God bless our steps in this effort, and may the COC all over the globe begin to plug into ways to make this happen that glorify God and edify the body of believers everywhere to make disciples, baptizing THEM into Jesus…and then keeping up with them for years after they dry off from the dunking. There really is no better way. It allows the Holy Spirit to resonate inside of you, and between you, as you boldly go where no person has gone before in their walk with Christ. God bless you, bro!!!

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      Keith, I don’t have time at the moment to respond like I want to but I want to say thank you for sharing all of this. I am going to think on this a bit more and respond more thoroughly later…hopefully later this evening. Blessings to you brother!

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      Thank you Keith. You need to meet Eddie O and Angel who commented below. You would get along great. I also think that there is a resurngence coming on discipleship and our hesitancy of repeating the mistakes of the past can be put to rest by better models that are less hierarchical and more mutual.

  6. Angel says:

    As you know, Eddie and I were converted in a Church of Christ that was founded on discipling relationships. It’s how we grew spiritually and held each other accountable. We generally prayed together, confided in each other and just became great friends. There were good experiences and there were not so great experiences. Overall though I think it’s a beautiful practice when implemented with love and maturity as is shown in scriptures.

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      Thank you for sharing. I appreciate you and Eddie. We need to make sure we go about this following Jesus and that means following his way of raising us and training disciples.

  7. eorantes says:

    My family and I have been a part of the ICOC discipling movement, COC, Brethren in Christ, Embrace Church, and other non-denominational churches. We have visited various other churches and denominations. I have studied church history and early church father writings. We have served many groups, mentored teens, and daily work out our salvation as a family. Discipling at it’s core is to be a pupil, student and adherent follower of the doctrine of Christ and His kingdon, the church. Throughout the ages men and women have been in a love/faith journey with God and he has taught, guided, disciplined, and developed his disciples. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul, Timothy, Silas, and the list goes on. We are in a journey that comes with directions, a training manual and trainers that help us along the way. I am a discliple of Christ. All of God’s household, those that make up his body, are called to one another relationships that serve the purpose of edifying, growing and spurring the active goal of perfect love and obedience. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” – that’s what Christ empowered us to do. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – covenant relationship, a new birth, a new life, a new commitment. “and teaching to obey everything I have commanded you” – there are teachers and there are students, discipling.

    Matt, I am thrilled that you are engaging us with this this topic. Your journey is not meant to be walked alone. We are here to do this together, that’s the script, the Way is shared, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

    Each church we have been in wrestled with this topic. They were seeking intimate, relevant relationships that would continue to draw them closer to their creator. Some did a better job than others. This blog is great opportunity to share best practices and possible insights into modeling a healthy discipling culture.

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      This is such a breath of fresh air. You are speaking my language and I cannot wait to discuss further much of what you just shared. This is who we are. This is what we do. We just need to make sure Jesus is in the lead, not us! More to come very soon!

  8. Wes Woodell says:

    Hi Keith 🙂

    Glad to see the new focus, Matt. If there’s anything we can do to help you holler.

  9. Matt, I relate a lot to your story. I was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses from my youth through my collegiate years (which extended well into my 20’s). They were there to support and guide me through their example, their advice, through classroom instruction and on the mission field. I feel like I was discipled through the ethos of the world I was raised in. It was not part of an intentional program of discipleship and more often than not the specific instruction came in a classroom or small group and not in a one-to-one setting. I think my experience is increasingly rare. It felt like it just “happened” by virtue of being raised in the setting in which I was raised. Of course, I chose to follow Christ and make Him the chief pursuit of my life, but He was always right there before me in attractive ways through the examples I was surrounded by.

    As a father living on the west coast, I’m praying that my girls will choose the path of discipleship. I’m trying to model that, but they are not growing up in the kind of culture that I was raised in. It’s not going to “just happen” any longer.

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      You are on to something here Doug. Our inclination is to just let it happen for our kids because it happened for us but like you said, things have changed. We have to change our approach. The good news is the answer is right up our alley – found right in the pages of the New Testament! But because we don’t find Paul teaching on it we missed it.

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