April 26, 2022

Is Faithful Discipleship Spontaneous or Structured? Yes.

Ever since we started the church-planting process, we’ve had a deliberate discipleship programme. I suppose this has been prompted, at least somewhat, by the noticeable gap in discipleship throughout my early Christian life.

Shallow Discipleship

Many Christians I met early on in my Christian walk thought discipleship happened in the ‘Manse’ after a church service with tea and toast, or more formally in an after-church fellowship. However, as a young Christian, these forms never really challenged me to grow in my faith.

Now, I have no doubt that a talk with people round at the minster’s house on a Sunday night can be a good form of discipleship. Gathering together as a church body and listening to a speaker after a Sunday night service can also be used to help in the discipleship process. Then there are the more spontaneous, natural forms of discipleship, like when we meet a Christian friend from church for coffee.

All these, I believe, are helpful ways to disciple. In recent years, we have noticed a growth in certain forms of discipleship which can be most helpfully grouped under ‘coaching’ or ‘mentoring’. Again, these forms of discipleship are helpful. Many ministers/church leaders today have mentors or coaches because their insight can stimulate new thoughts or points of view in the discipleship process. Kevin DeYoung wisely said: “The one indispensable requirement for producing godly, mature Christians is godly, mature Christians.”

As a young church, discipleship is something we take seriously. We want to adopt good practices, and therefore we attempt to teach people to seize both the spontaneous method of discipleship as well as the more formal, structured approach to discipleship.


The spontaneous form of discipleship takes place as the church lives its life daily, when we action the ‘one another’s’ found throughout the New Testament. For example, when we make friends in the church and share life with them, there are situations that will naturally present opportunities for discipleship. This is normally a mutual form of discipleship, where both participants disciple one another—praying together, reading Scripture together, and walking side by side as they bear each other’s burdens.

This spontaneous form of discipleship can be used to spark growth in a believer’s walk with Jesus, and is always a joy to hear as a church planter that people are sharing their lives and faith in this way.

There is, however, one dangerous assumption that can be made with spontaneous discipleship. That is, we do lots of cuppas, chit-chats, dinners, and wee walks but never actually engage in discipleship. Instead, it’s all banter. These friendships hardly look any different than those of unbelievers. The dangerous assumption is thinking that people who share life together automatically share their faith together. But this isn’t always the case.

Scotland once had a strong sense of discipleship in its respective local churches. Sadly, one of the factors that slowly eroded Scottish churches’ discipleship was the move away from intentional, structured forms of discipleship in favour of spontaneous ones, as it was seen as ‘more natural and comfortable’ for people. Yet this ended up with very few people being discipled, because we naturally like comfort, not challenge.

We prefer to keep things to ourselves rather than be open and honest. We think power is given away if we open up too much. Or, as Charles Bridges reminds us: “It is not easy to overcome our natural love of ease, our indisposition to self-denying devotedness, and our false tenderness in flinching from the declaration of unpalatable truths.” In moving to a more comfortable form of discipleship, we actually moved to a lack of direct, bold, and challenging discipleship that once marked out the Scottish church.


Spontaneous discipleship has its strengths and weakness, and so does our second form of discipleship—which I’m calling structured discipleship. This form of discipleship is normally developed through careful thought and planning. It can be expressed in several ways, and is most often done in small groups or one-to-ones.

These types of discipleship are mechanical because they exist within a set framework, and normally have a leader who is responsible for the study and overall growth of the group’s members. This form of mechanical discipleship lends itself to being intentional—asking direct and honest questions where one probes and pushes.

These are contexts designed to help us exercise our spiritual muscles in an accountable environment. Joe Barnard writes: “Hard work cannot be avoided. Spiritual fruit, like natural fruit, requires the sweat of the brow.” In short, a strength of the structured approach is a level of intentionality that the spontaneous approach is prone to lack.

For those who have a gospel coach or mentor, you have experienced this relationship, but this form of discipleship should not apply to just minister/elder/deacons or staff workers, but should be a part of everyone’s discipleship in the local church.

In our church, everyone is offered a one-to-one relationship. We try to make it clear that this space is about intentionally applying the gospel into the lives of our members. Yes, at these meetings you can chat about the weather, but if the conversation stays surface level for months, then we’re falling short of what it’s there for. We want to address the heart because, as we get to know one another, we become aware of the challenges of sin, growing in understanding of each other’s particular battles with it.

Charles Bridges is helpful again: “Our whole course is a struggle against the mighty current of sin—flowing out of that restless bias of the natural heart, which upon the highest authority is declared to be enmity against God.”


Let’s be honest, there are many objections that could be made against either of these approaches to discipleship. The ones we have experienced the most are: transparency, fear, trust, and pride. It is hard for those who are living double lives to keep that up when they are pulled into an intentional one-to-one relationship. Because they are continually being asked questions that open them up and shine a light on their lives, it’s hard to hide things.

For example, the lad who comes to church, says he is a Christian, loves meeting with people over coffee, and can quote John Calvin may still be ‘dealing’ behind closed doors. In a spontaneous meet up he can hide, but under the light of intentionally the vail will fall quickly.

Fear is another common objection to discipleship—fear of being rejected, of what others think, of being exposed. This fear makes us shoot down any spontaneous forms of discipleship and reject any form of intentional discipleship. Over time, this fear grows into dissatisfaction with the local church and we leave because “no one really know me”. Yet, in reality, we kept people at arm’s length due to our own insecurity.

The next objection is a difficult one—trust. It’s difficult because, for any relationship to flourish, trust is foundational. But trust can also be used as an invisible baseball bat to hit away any potential one-to-one relationships because people don’t want to trust others. When this happens, we don’t give people the opportunity to build trust. People who are this guarded are also normally the most prickly. In their lack of trust, they burn relationships to the point that no one want to disciple them, whether spontaneously or intentionally.

And finally, pride. We can object to discipleship because we’re proud sinners. Who do they think they are to disciple me? we think. I’m older, so I know more than them. I will just sit here and get through this on my own. Pride ultimately limits us because we think we’re better than we really are. The only ones we listen to are Tim Keller or Sinclair Ferguson. Pride diminishes any form of discipleship. The reality is, no one is above discipleship. We all need it.

Both Are Important

In our church plant, we want to show the importance of seizing the spontaneous forms of discipleship while also having structured discipleship. We do not want to pit these against each other, thinking one is better than the other. We want our members to delight in both because, as Peter Scazzero writes in The Emotionally Healthy Church: “How can you enter someone else’s world when you have not entered your own?” In other words, How can we disciple if we have not been discipled intentionally?

The balance between spontaneous and structured is difficult to strike. But as a church plant, we remain committed to encouraging both.

Chris is the minister of Merkinch Free Church in Inverness. Find out more and support the ministry in Merkinch by going to the link below.

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