Over the years, a question that has come up a lot in ministry is, “How do I know who to disciple?” It's a great question, coming from those who have a conviction that they should disciple others, but not sure how to start or who to start with. I remember initiating personal discipling relationships in the past that resulted in frustration rather than fruit because while I knew I should disciple someone, I didn't consider the question, “Should I really disciple this person?” While everyone should be discipled, not everyone is actually ready or willing to be discipled, and the book of Proverbs gives us some guidance on this:
“Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov. 9:7-10)
Discipling someone means teaching them to love and follow Jesus through your words and example, and therefore it inherently involves instruction and correction. In light of that, we can look to this passage in Proverbs for direction in our decision on who to disciple. In this passage, we learn that there is a kind of person who receives instruction and correction, resulting in increased love, wisdom, and learning. There is also another kind of person who rejects instruction and correction, resulting in hatred, frustration, and a damaged relationship.
So, here are a few questions to ask before initiating a discipling relationship:
Are they a Christian? (v. 9, 10)
Are they pursuing a righteous life? (v. 9)
Are they marked by a desire for wisdom? (v. 8, 9)
Are they marked by humility? (v. 10)
If the person you are thinking about is not a Christian, then it doesn't make sense to teach them to obey Christ, since it is impossible to do so apart from faith. Continue building a friendship with them and sharing the gospel with them, and wait on discipling until they come to faith in Jesus. You can (and should!) still read the Bible and talk about Jesus with them if they're willing, but discipling someone requires them believing in Christ and desiring to follow him. They need a “fear of the Lord” (Prov. 9:10). If the person is a Christian, but they are walking in pride for the time being, marked by stubbornness, with little or no interest in God's word, or no real desire for holiness then it is not the right time to disciple them. While it may be clear to you that they need it, they would not receive it, and it will most likely end up damaging your relationship with them, leaving you both feeling hurt (see Prov. 9:7, mentioned above). To try and force discipleship on someone will not end well.
On the other hand, if the person you are thinking about is a Christian who is (imperfectly) pursuing a righteous life in Christ, desiring to grow in wisdom and fear of the Lord, then go invite them to coffee and bring your Bible! A helpful way to think about the kind of person who is ripe for discipleship is the phrase, “Faithful, Available, and Teachable” (FAT). The practical and logistical question of availability (schedules lining up, where to meet, etc.) is important and necessary, but is still only secondary to the first set of questions about the spiritual disposition of that person. If they are faithful and teachable (according to Proverbs 9:7-10), then see if they're available and make plans to start meeting! If you are following Jesus ahead of them, invite them to follow you as you follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). There will still be challenges, but the fruit of a healthy discipling relationship is more than worth it, and Jesus promised to be with us in this disciple-making mission he called us to (Matt. 28:20).
Meeting once a week for prayer, time in the word, confession, and gospel-centered encouragement toward holiness and mission is a great starting place. Aim for more though, pursuing a deep investment into that person's life, to help them love and follow Jesus with you in the everyday, up-and-down rhythms of your life. Jesus commanded his disciples to go make disciples after modeling it for them and embodying it with them for 3 years of patient, loving, daily investment. Grab someone and go deep with them for the glory of God.
-Holland Greig, Lead Pastor, Eastside Community Church