Study: Creating and Sustaining a Discipling Culture

By Micah Cobb

I first learned about discipling and discipleship from a conversation with Gailyn Van Rheenan, Mission Alive’s former Executive Director. In my first conversation with him, he told me about Mike Breen and 3DM’s approach to ministry. 

I studied Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture over the following weekend. The framework and insights contained in Breen’s writings excited me. Discipling was a way to further invigorate my ministry, providing a channel for spiritual formation, leadership development, and evangelism. 

Of course, any ministry would be blessed by a strong discipling culture. But anyone who tries to create and nurture one – something that multiplies beyond your own individual discipling-making efforts – knows that a discipling culture is more elusive than it appears in the books. 

For nearly eight years, I’ve been discipling college students as a part of my college ministry efforts. Alongside teaching the Word of God at our weekly gatherings, it’s my favorite part of my job. And I have seen tremendous fruit from it. Most of the students in our ministry are involved in discipling groups. And many would say that their discipling group is the most formative part of our college ministry. 

But creating and sustaining a discipling culture is difficult, and I imagine that each ministry will have its own unique difficulties. When I initially tried to implement Mike Breen’s ideas into my ministry, I ran into many difficulties. 

First, the timelines are different. Breen’s material, and a lot of material from other sources, is built around a full year. In college ministry, though, the timeframes are compressed. Each semester is about fifteen weeks long, most students are enrolled for two semesters a year, and most students spend four years in college. So, a discipleship curriculum that lasts a whole year won’t work well in college ministry; it’d take two academic years to get through the material. 

Second, student leaders are still immature. In college ministry, what passes for a wise and mature leader is a twenty-two year old. Of course, I love working with college students, but even the best student leaders have little experience and are still developing wisdom. Immature leaders slow down discipling group multiplication. 

Third, students come from diverse church backgrounds. In many cases, the student body of a campus ministry attends different congregations around town. The campus minister cannot assume a shared theological vision or even shared ministry practices, other than what the ministry can teach and practice itself. Discipling within campus ministries often has to worth in the midst of great theological diversity. 

Finally, working with emerging adults is challenging. Maybe it is not harder than working with other demographics, but it is still hard. Social media use distorts real flesh-and-blood relationships. Social anxiety is on the rise. Financial pressures are increasing faster than student debt load. And let’s not even talk about the polarization and confusion on political and social topics! So fostering discipleship among emerging adults often feels like an uphill battle. 

For all these reasons and more, creating and sustaining a discipling culture has been difficult. My ministry has switched approaches, structure, meeting frequency, and curriculum many times. But the college environment is so different from that assumed in many books on discipling that it is hard to find an effective approach. 

And so, I am grateful for the leadership and vision of people at Mission Alive like Tod Vogt and Steve Shaeffer. A few months ago, they gathered several campus ministers together and facilitated a discussion about our discipling efforts and the challenges we are facing. Since then, several of us have partnered with Mission Alive to do qualitative research on discipling in the context of a campus ministry. Each of us is coming up with a hypothesis to test, and Mission Alive is helping us construct an experiment this year to see how that hypothesis goes. 

My hypothesis is simple: I have noticed that the social networks of the girls in our ministry seem to be narrower but deeper than the social network of the guys. My hypothesis is that the discipling groups amongst the women would be improved if the size of the groups were smaller. Right now, our discipling groups tend to be four to six people. That has worked well for our guys. This fall we will experiment with our discipling groups for our women to be two to four people. We’ll see if our discipling groups work better when they are smaller. 

I am excited about this opportunity to be guided by Mission Alive in testing out new approaches to discipling. In my opinion, every ministry and ministry context is different enough that any structure or system that works somewhere else has to be adapted to the current context. And I suspect that other campus ministers will have different challenges with building and sustaining a discipleship culture than I currently face. But the goal is to foster relationships like Paul encouraged in Philippians 3:17: “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.” And if those of us in leadership continue to contextualize our approaches to discipleship within our own unique situations, we will do a better job of building such relationships. 

For more information, you can reach out to me (micah@au4jesus.org) or Steve Shaffer, one of Mission Alive’s Mission Specialists (steve@missionalive.org). 

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