Hint: Mentorship is the Key to Church Growth

Dynamic discipleship training is possible for every church, regardless of size or location. The most proven, time-tested, successful method of all is a process that Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church used — a process called mentoring. | by Karl Vaters

Pastoring a small church is not for the timid.

Even the tools that are supposed to help us can leave us feeling more discouraged.

Discipleship curriculum, for instance. Whether it’s designed for kids, youth, or adults, most of it seems to target bigger churches. Small churches often don’t have the space, the money, or the minimum number of students and workers to do the program right.

The good news is that discipleship is possible in any size of church by using the most proven, time-tested, successful discipling process of all. The process Jesus, Paul, and the early church used.

A process called mentoring.

But mentoring has been replaced by curriculum for several generations in the Western church. It’s been so long since mentoring was a normal part of many churches’ lives that many of us have forgotten how to do it. In fact, many of us have forgotten that we can do it at all.

Consider the following steps as you lead your church into the future.

We Get To Mentor!

Yes, we need curriculum that’s better adapted to smaller churches. But curriculum should be used to supplement mentoring, not replace it.

We need a serious attitude adjustment about the value of mentoring.

Small churches don’t have to mentor, we get to mentor!

Jesus didn’t use curriculum. And teaching big crowds was not his preferred discipleship method. In fact, he never discipled people in large groups.

Because you can’t disciple people that way. Yes, you read that right. Even Jesus couldn’t disciple people in large crowds.

The biggest group Jesus ever put serious time into was 70. But he focused on 12. And even those 12 were often narrowed down to three.

Yes, Jesus taught crowds. And he loved them. He even had pity on them. But he mentored The Twelve. He walked with them. He explained “why” to them.

Jesus never gave us a point-by-point list of how his mentoring process worked. He didn’t need to. That had already been done thousands of years before he was born in the advice given to Moses from his father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 18).

The following seven points combine Jethro’s advice and Jesus’ teaching into a simple process I have followed in our congregation.

  1. Start Small … No, Smaller!

When Jethro saw Moses answering all the disputes for a nation of 2 million people (600,000 men plus women and children), he told him, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.”

So, Jethro proposed an ingenious plan. Put others in charge of groups of 10, 50, 100 and 1,000, leaving Moses to deal with the Level 1,000 issues (Ex 18:17-26).

This plan is often referenced by megachurch pastors when they talk about how to organize a church in “rancher mode.” But those references usually leave us small church pastors feeling left out. We don’t need Level 1,000 Leaders. Many of our churches don’t even need Level 100 or Level 50 leaders.

But every church needs — and can — disciple a Level 10 Leader.

So, start there. With one. Find one person who has exhibited the smallest seeds of an ability to lead 5-10 people. Like a good parent or grandparent. Parenting is Level 10 leadership, after all. Or look for that teenager the other teens follow.

Don’t be intimidated or discouraged by the lack of Level 50 or Level 100 Leaders — or even the need for it in a church of 25 people. Start with one person who can become a Level 10 Leader. Every church has one. Even yours.

  1. Mentors are listeners.

Maybe the biggest mistake we make in mentoring is trying to get people to become like us, instead of like Jesus.

Helping someone become like Jesus doesn’t start by talking at them, but listening to them.

Notice how many conversations Jesus had. If anyone ever had the excuse to say, “I don’t need to hear what they want; I have the answers,” it was Jesus. But he never did that.

Jesus did what we need to do. He had conversations. Conversations in which he listened to people’s ideas, preferences, fears, and hopes.

When we listen, we learn things. Like what gifts, skills and personality traits God gave them. Then we can use one of the primary advantages mentoring has over curriculum — personalizing it.

  1. There are no lone-wolf mentors.

Mentors don’t spend a lot of time alone.

If you’re an introvert, that last sentence just gave you the creepy-crawlies. I know. I’m one, too. I need serious alone time to be able to function.

But even introverts like us can pull this off.

Jesus did this with the disciples. After teaching crowds in parables, he’d gather the disciples around, answer their questions, explain deeper truths, and even tell them why he taught the way he did. Then he’d go off to a private place to spend time with the Father.

Mentoring has no shortcuts. It takes relationships. And relationships take time. Time spent together.

  1. HOW is not enough. They need to know WHY.

If all we want to do is relay information, we can rely on curriculum. Or an app. But discipleship is not an information dump.

Disciples-in-training need to know the why.

“God said it, I believe it, that settles it” isn’t enough anymore. It never was. It’s not disobedient, stubborn, or nosy of people to ask us why we do what we do, or believe what we believe. It’s smart.

In fact, if someone follows my lead blindly without asking why, it sends up a ton of red flags.

Remember, we’re training disciples of Jesus, not clones of ourselves. If they don’t know why they’re doing things, they’ll never be able to adapt and improve on it when needed.

We need an army of believers who can adapt, adjust, and do things better than we did them.

  1. The hard part — Trust

At some point you have to send them off all by themselves.

They won’t do it exactly like you did it. They’re not supposed to.

The hardest part of mentoring is trusting. But at some point in our mentoring — and it needs to happen earlier, rather than later — we need to trust. Trust them, trust our mentoring, and trust God that they can do it without us.

But don’t end the mentoring here. Thinking we’re done at this stage is one of the great danger zones of mentoring. Instead, we need to do what Jesus did. Send them off so they can come back for Step 6.

  1. Review and resend.

Jesus sent off the 72 in pairs, but he didn’t leave them there. He had them report back, then he gave them further instruction on how to do it better the next time (Luke 10).

  1. Pay it forward.

Discipling that first person is the hardest part. It’s likely to take a few false starts before you find someone who will really follow through with it.

In every step of this process, the student should be reminded that they will eventually be the mentor for someone else. Knowing this helps them focus on their own training and it helps them keep their eyes open for who the next student might be.

This is where it starts getting fun. The second student almost always comes along because the original student finds them. And it’s almost always before you think they’re ready to start mentoring.

Don’t wait. We need to turn disciples into mentors as soon as possible. Often while they’re still in the middle of their own mentoring process.

Disciples mentoring other disciples. That’s when you know it’s working.

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