3 Reasons Why You Should Stop Doing 1-On-1 Discipleship

I’ve quit doing one-on-one discipleship and so should you. Let me tell you why.Stop

First, let me explain that I used to love doing one-on-one discipleship and I did it for years. I’ve taught on how to do it across the United States and in other countries. I even co-authored a great one-on-one discipleship book that has sold over 100,000 copies and been translated into a few other languages. (I’m not slamming this as an outsider!)

But then something unexpected happened. I invited a friend of mine named Mark into a one-on-one discipleship relationship. We met for coffee at Barnes and Noble’s and began working through the book Beginning the Journey which Ralph Neighbour and I wrote. It was going great and we were both enjoying it and he said, “Could I invite my friend Brian to join us? He could really use this.” I said, “Sure.” So the next week Brian joined us. Brian loved it and asked if he could invite someone else.

Before I knew it, my one-on-one relationship with Mark had morphed into a mini-group of four and I was startled by how much better everything went. Interaction improved, encouragement multiplied, and learning went to a new level. The group which had been great, got even better. I’m a slow learner and it took me a while to figure it out, but about ten years ago I ditched one-on-one discipleship to do small discipleship groups and have never looked back. Here are three reasons why you should do the same:

  1. One-on-one discipleship is unbiblical. For some reason when most of us hear “discipleship” we picture a one-on-one relationship. I’m not sure why because it is not the dominate Biblical model. You don’t see Jesus investing significant one-on-one time in a follower. His core group was three people—Peter, James, and John. “But what about Paul and Timothy?”, you might ask. Actually, it wasn’t just Paul and Timothy. Paul had Silas at his side when he recruited Timothy and then others like Titus and Luke joined the entourage. Even in the famous “one-on-one” verse—2 Timothy 2:2—look closely at what Paul says, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (NIV, italics added) Paul clearly implies that he related to Timothy in a group setting and he calls him to do the same with others.
  2. One-on-one is less effective. It is a much better use of my time to invest in several people at once than it is to invest in one individual at a time. It’s not only more effective for me and for the kingdom, it also works better for the young believers or the emerging leaders that I am working with. They are challenged, supported, and encouraged by the others in the group. Another thing I like about it is that no longer does everything depend on me. For example, right now I am meeting weekly with four other guys very early on Wednesday mornings at Einstein Brothers Bagels. Two weeks from now I will be out of town but they will meet anyway.
  3. There is less chance for mentor discouragement. If you have trained very many people to do one-on-one discipleship of new believers, I am sure you have encountered the problem of discouragement. This happens when a man or woman in your church invests months in a young Christ-follower who then reverts to drugs or for some other reason falls away. It is then very easy for that mentor to feel like they wasted their time or perhaps that they failed or did something wrong. However, if they are working with a mini-group of several people, success will be blended with the setbacks, and sometimes the person who pulls a backslider out of a gutter or out of a funk will be another new believer. I’ve seen dramatically less discipleship discouragement with mini-groups than with one-on-one.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that no one should ever do one-on-one discipleship. Sometimes it seems to be the only alternative you have because of someone’s schedule or other conditions. One-on-one can be great and effective. There is just something very much more effective for you, for the person you are concerned about, and for the advancement of God’s kingdom. If you want to know more exactly how I am doing discipleship groups, click here.

What are your thoughts on this? What has your experience taught you? What are the Biblical models and principles that you want to highlight?

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Posted on April 2, 2013, in Care, Discipleship, Empower, Small Groups and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. We have monthly ‘meetings’ which The Lord has orchestrated so that we can connect across the city. In these groups, I encourage relationships to take place without me or our leaders. I admit that I do spend quite a bit if time one on one with specific folks that are struggling with deep depression and such but do a lot of encouragement via text now as well. Amazing what short encouraging remarks during the day can help another just learn to get out of bed… I much prefer groups for teaching, loving…we call it family time….and friendship instead of mentoring. The Lord places the solitary in families through small group discipleship/family. I feel like Jesus did not mentor. Instead, He shared life with those men and sometimes women. HE shared life- the good, the bad, the ugly, the powerful, the challenges, the conflicts – HE lived with them. At the end of His time He put His mother not in the hands of a biological brother but into the family of John. You don’t give your mom to a mentee – you give her to a trusted family member.

    • Thanks for the comment. You make a good point, Donna, that Jesus did life with people and that was at the heart of his methodology. At the same time, however, it was not all just organic and unstructured. There are clearly points when he brings certain followers into more intentional relationships (Mark 3:13-15). I think effective discipleship—helping people grow in Christ-likeness—involves both organic and intentional relationships.

  2. Becky Waugaman

    I agree! If you even want to look at the natural life as an example of spiritual – babies are born into and raised by a family, not just one individual. We understand that each member of a family and their interactions with a baby are important to healthy development, ie. father’s holding is different from a mother’s. So, in the family of God – different interactions nurture and bring growth in ways that one mentor alone cannot do. It’s the beauty of God’s design. Thanks for sharing, Jim.

  3. Thanks Jim, it was great reading this new insight after discussing it with you yesterday. I shared it with our leadership team and they got excited.

  4. I have to agree. I’ve been leading a small group of middle school boys now for two years (they’re now in 8th grade.) and I can relate to the discipleship discouragement. But what I have found with working with them is that there is always someone in the group that is growing and that is always encouraging to see. This is really helpful information, and easy to apply and relate to!

  5. psihombing62@yahoo.com

    I believe it (Doing 1-On-1 Discipleship) is still relevant and biblical, because it is written down in the Bible and Jesus did it (with Samaritan women, Nicodemus and so on)

    • Yes, good point! We definitely should still do one-on-one ministry as you helpfully point put. My main point is that our investment in ongoing relationships to help new believers and emerging leaders grow is most wisely done in mini-groups rather than long term one-on-one relationships.

  6. Jim. Great advice. Jesus seemed to work with 3 and 12 and 72, but never do we see Him “discipling” strictly one on one. I’m thinking of Wesley as well and the Methodist revival. His ‘method’ was to gather a group of 3 or 4 brothers (or sisters) together (called bands) and discipled followers of Christ that way. I think you’re barking up the right tree!

  7. Well said, Jim. Agree completely… even when 1:1 works well the “disciple” usually winds up looking a lot like the “discipler.” This is fine as it applies to overall Christlikeness… but often it extends to the more minute points like spiritual pathway, disciplines, prayer style, spiritual gifts, etc. Group-raised disciples tend to be more “well-rounded” and varied.

  8. You’re raining on the whole “Multiply Movement” parade

  9. Ok, I’m scratching my brain….

    Philip and the Eunuch, Moses and his Father in Law, Jesus and Nicodemus, Paul and Barnabas. Or maybe Matthew 18:15-18, reconciliation starts one to one… isn’t that one of the bigger themes in discipleship?

    So, I wouldn’t go so far as to say unbiblical. I do like points 2 and 3 though.

    Jim, I’ve been using your (Ralph and you) mentoring books for years and, while I admit that I haven’t always used them one-on-one… I have thought I could get to honesty and growth faster with an individual over a small group.

    I will, rethink what you have to say, but can’t promise anything!

    Bruce Bundy

    • While it’s true that ministry is often one-on-one as so many examples, especially in the Gospel of John, illustrate. I think intentional discipleship relationships happen better in mini-group settings. I stumbled on this. Interestingly, like me, Greg Ogden also stumbled on this methodology after doing one-on-one for many years. His excellent book “Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time” explains the Biblical and practical rationale. In the book he commends triads but he told me that he’s more recently concluded that “quads” or four in a group works better. I personally like four or five in a group, meaning me and three or four others.

      • I’ll take a look at the book. For me, one prime challenge in mentoring in the Hispanic and Spanish world deals with levels of honesty/saving face. That, in my mind is a requirement for radically changed lives. Do your experiences with mini groups foment this?

        BTW, I seem to recall that you have a visit to Spain promised one of these years! 😉 Blessings.

        Bruce.

      • Yes, this is the challenge—creating the space, the relationships, where people get totally honest with others and themselves. My experience is that this is the optimal context for this, a small gender-specific group. It takes teaching people on this. Encouraging people both to share what is really going on in their lives and being honest in challenging each other. Please tell me in love where I am blind-sided.

        Also, we need to pray about coming to Spain. 🙂

  10. You’re a wise man, Jim.

  11. I think Jesus modeled discipleship at several scales: the crowds, the 12, the 3 and one-on-one. The church goes through phases where we focus on one of these models and throw out the rest. However, I think they all have value and we need to each decide what works best in our unique context.

  12. 2 Tim. 2:2 is not the only passage that describes Paul’s relationship with Timothy. In fact, it’s much less significant than Acts 16-17 and 2 Tim. 3:10-11. To argue that throughout all their traveling together, beginning in Lystra, going into Macedonia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens no one-one-one mentoring or instruction from Paul to Timothy took place is to use a preconceived idea to muzzle the text of Scripture.

    When Paul says in 1 Tim. 3:10 that Timothy has “followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, [and] my steadfastness,” he not only describes in exceedingly close relationship—clearly a spiritual father-son relationship, given their relative positions in the church—but it is quite telling that when he goes on in verse 11 to include his persecutions among the things Timothy was familiar with he reaches back to the earliest ones he endured, before Timothy joined him in his missionary journeys in Acts 16, thus implying that they already had a personal relationship before then.

    So then, what?—if Timothy came to Paul during any of those stretches of time when they were together and said, “I have a few questions about Christ and the Scriptures,” are we to believe that Paul would have responded, “You know, Tim, why don’t you wait until the rest of the discipleship group gets here? One-on-one discipleship is unbiblical, less effective, and might make me discouraged.”? I don’t think so.

    There is no text that prohibits one-on-one discipleship, and there’s no reason why we can’t cite examples such as Christ’s dealing with the Samaritan woman at the well as illustrative of how all one-on-one Christian instruction—be it evangelism or discipleship or occasional admonition and reproof due to sin (Matt. 18:15)—can be carried out. I would say that adding prohibitions where the Bible does not is what is actually unbiblical, and I think Jesus had a lot to say about that kind of thing.

    Nor do I think one-one-discipleship really is less effective, but rather in some ways more so. As a certified teacher I am well aware of the research that has repeatedly demonstrated that one-one-one tutoring is not only a more effective way of teaching just about any other way, but it is better at building the kind of relationships between instructors and pupils that encourage further learning. A recent mantra in education says, “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” and personal attention is a primary way of showing that you care. Effectiveness in discipleship is not mentioned merely by how much data is communicated to how many people.

    Nor do I think the discouragement argument carries much weight. I am going to get more discouraged if I disciple three people one-on-one and one of them falls away than I would if I discipled the same three people three-on-one and the same person of them fell away? I don’t think so. Now, it’s true that discipling three people in a group takes less time and energy than discipline them one-on-one, and that’s a good practical reason for discipline in groups, but it does not render one-on-one discipling wrong, let alone unbiblical.

    • Hi, Ron. Thanks for joining the discussion. You make some very good and clarifying points. My main point in saying one-on-one is “unbiblical” is that we need to think of mini-group relational contexts first when we hear the word “discipleship.” This is not to say that a lot of helpful mentoring can happen in a one-on-one setting, it is more to say we should be asking, what handful of people do I need to relate to now, to invest in, to multiply my leadership through? Instead of asking, what individual should I invest in?

      Perhaps you have not experienced it but if you are trying to create a discipleship culture churchwide, discouragement is a very real factor for mentors of new believers and this is greatly lessened in a minigroup context in comparison to one-on-one. I am speaking from substantial personal experience here but others experience may be different.

      Thanks again for your helpful input to the discussion, Ron!

  13. Thanks for welcoming me into the discussion, and for taking my words in the spirit in which they were intended. I realize that I was firm,

    My main point here is that I think you need to choose a word other than “unbiblical” to describe one-on-one discipleship, because to most Bible believing Christians, myself included, anything that is unbiblical is completely out-of-bounds and should never be believed or practiced. You also use the “unbiblical” label as one of your reasons for stopping any practice of one-on-one discipleship, and yet toward the end of your article you say, “I am not saying that no one should ever do one-on-one discipleship. Sometimes it seems to be the only alternative…” and so on.

    But given the import of the word “unbiblical” among Christians, you can’t have it both ways. Unbiblical is a virtual synonym for spiritual poison. It’s kind of like you’re saying, “You should stop doing crack cocaine because it’s extremely bad for you…but I’m not saying that no one should ever do it…sometimes it seems to be the only alternative…” and so on.

    I think it would better express the point you seem to be trying to make if you exchanged the word “unbiblical” for the phrase “not the standard biblical model.” In that case, instead of your first reason listed above reading, “One-on-one discipleship is unbiblical,” it would read, “One-on-one discipleship is not the standard biblical model.” I’m not saying I would agree with that point, but this change of wording would remove the unnecessary offensiveness of your original wording—and yes, it does tend to be offensive when you call accepted and even cherished practices “unbiblical.”

  14. Great insights. I would Agree with Ron’s comment about using the word unbiblical to describe a one-on-one relationship. I just recorded a WebShow about Group size under the series: What is Discipleship?.

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