Three Practical Approaches to Helping People Grow as Disciples
What follows are three concrete activities that can help relationships bear fruit and encourage spiritual growth. These might still feel scary, especially at first, but they are concrete places to start.
Read and Discuss the Bible Together
While formal Bible studies are wonderful, I don’t have them in mind. One of the issues with a weekly or monthly Bible study is that it creates false expectations of what reading God’s Word looks like in daily personal faith. We want people to spend time in Scripture because it is powerful and formative; the idea that one needs a guidebook and a teacher and a bunch of prepared questions can actually detract from such informal, daily life in the Word.
The solution, if you are comfortable in Scripture, is simply to spend some time reading the Bible with someone who doesn't have that same level of comfort. Start with a gospel or one of Paul’s letters. Read it out loud if you’re both okay with that, or quietly at the same time if not. Then just ask what struck the person, what they learned about God or life, and follow those rabbit trails. Do your best to keep it anchored in the text ("what in this passage makes you think that?"), and make sure to share your own thoughts as well.
If you want something a bit more intense, let me suggest working them through the process of inductive Bible study. Some are acquainted with a particular, highly intense form of this study that involves ten different highlighters and dozens of little symbols; I’m not suggesting that. But the basic process of observe—> interpret—> apply is still the framework I use when I’m reading God’s Word even after seminary and ten years of ministry, and it is incredibly helpful for new believers to discover. One other benefit of this process is that you can do it without preparation, and when helping someone grow spiritually, I think that is actually ideal. Your friend can see you studying with them and learn from your process.
Have Intentional Spiritual Conversations
Another approach is making a point to have intentional spiritual conversations. It's easy to have even our relationships with other Christians never veer into the territory of shared faith; I'm suggesting making a plan to have such discussions. If that feels overly broad, let me offer a concrete way to do it.
I was helped some years ago by hearing an author (Dallas Willard) suggest that the life of a Christ-follower is separated into two categories: the heart and habits. Any growth happens either by addressing heart beliefs and attitudes or by concrete, practical steps to put obedience into action. The heart must always drive true habits (lest we fall into empty religion), but habits are also necessary to plan and develop and over time will shape the heart. Our problem is that we often discuss discipleship without either getting deep enough to connect with the heart or being practical enough to actually shape habits.
Another way to put this is that discipleship is almost never about “what to do." Such information is necessary but is not helpful by itself. I’ve known hundreds of Christians who know they should pray and evangelize and develop virtues and that they should not lose their temper with their kids or look at porn or love money, but who for years have failed to actually see growth in any of those areas. This stuckness is a result of knowing the “what” without the “why” (the heart) or the “how” (habits).
So what should we do? First, choose a spiritual topic. I’ve included a list below if you need a place to start. Then intentionally ask your friend either “why” or “how” questions. For instance, let’s say you feel called to talk wabout prayer. You might ask, “Do you think prayer does anything?” Or even something as simple as, “Why do you think we pray?” That provides space to examine the heart of prayer. Alternately, you might ask, “Do you spend time daily in prayer? When and how?” Listen well and ask follow-up questions. Be ready to share your own answers—including your own struggles—as you proceed. And be seeking to keep things focused on the how and why.
Some topics of Spiritual Conversations: God (His love, His justice, His glory, His kindness, etc.), Jesus (His humanity, His work on the cross, our present experience of Him), the Holy Spirit (His work), worship, prayer, reading Scripture, work, rest, parenting, marriage, a particular sin (greed, pride, lust, etc.), a particular virtue (love, hope, faith, the fruit of the spirit, etc.), doubts, values, stewardship, evangelism, friendship, generosity and care for others.
Read and Discuss a Book Together
One of the best ways to help someone grow (and to grow alongside them!) is to read good books written by great saints. You might have a book club where you meet once to discuss the whole thing, or you might sit down weekly and talk over a chapter or two. I don’t have a lot of practical advice on this one, other than just making sure you have a plan and accountability together to actually get the reading done, but I will offer some suggestions for spiritually helpful books you might try.
Ten spiritually formative, relatively accessible books:
- The Prodigal God by Tim Keller
- Knowing God by J.I. Packer
- The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul
- The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer
- The Cross of Christ by John Stott
- Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund
- The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
- A Praying Life by Paul Miller
- Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Habits of Grace by Dave Mathis
- Confessions (read books 1-8) by St. Augustine
- The Mortification of Sin by John Owen
- The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs
- The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes
- The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan