See if this story sounds familiar to you. A new young man walks into your church. You eagerly follow up with him, maybe even take him out to lunch. You might even have the chance to lead him to the Lord! As you prioritize your time over the coming weeks, you begin pouring your life into this young man. You invite him into your home, teach him building blocks for his faith, and give him opportunities to serve. He seems to value God’s Word, your church family, and your mentorship in your life. Ultimately, your goal is to make a disciple who will make other disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). And to your credit, you’re on the right track! All of us as pastors should model discipleship by actively investing our lives into others. When we see new disciples growing, it’s one of our greatest joys!
Unfortunately, after a prolonged period of faithfulness, this young man begins to fall off. He misses services, doesn’t respond as quickly to you, and starts allowing other influences to swerve him off the path of faithfulness. After a while, he abandons you and doesn’t come back. You reflect on all those hours you’ve invested in him, and you ask yourself many questions. Did I somehow hurt him along the way? Was there a flaw in my discipleship method? What is going on in his heart right now? Should I have invested my time in someone else?
Here are some thoughts to encourage your heart as you ride the highs and lows of discipleship ministry.
No Discipler has a 100% Success Rate
We want to be careful how we compare our ministry to Jesus’ ministry, but even he didn’t see success with all twelve of his hand-picked disciples. Judas betrayed Him to His face and then committed suicide. Imagine if that happened with someone you’re investing in!
Paul is an even more helpful example. As we read through the New Testament, Paul had so many disciples that it’s hard for us to keep track! Did every single one of those men and women continue walking with Jesus? Certainly not. Paul was deeply disappointed when John Mark left him at Perga and headed home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). This later caused conflict between Paul and his dear friend, Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41).
Even more grieving was his description of Demas. Demas had once been a fellow worker with Paul (Philemon 24), and that was not an easy task! Following Paul meant a lot of travel, bold Gospel witness, hard work, great sacrifices, and likely persecution. But in Paul’s last letter to Timothy, it appears that Paul lost this valued disciple when he said “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10a). Demas decided that the sacrifices of Gospel ministry were too much for him and he loved the joys of this world more. That must have crushed Paul. Do you think Paul’s discipleship method was flawed? Was his time invested in Demas wasted?
God will Continue to Work on Your Man
Even when you lose your chance to invest in someone, God is not done with them. As Jesus builds His church (Matt. 16:18), He knows exactly how to work on each of His children. Philippians 1:6 reminds us that He who began “a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Hebrews reminds us that God chastens those whom He loves (Heb. 12:6). You might not have opportunities with “your man” anymore, but his Heavenly Father is not done working on him!
Your Work in the Lord is not in Vain
God’s Word encourages us to be “stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” What could motivate us to keep pushing forward in the ups and downs of daily ministry? “Forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). Labor genuinely done for Jesus is never wasted. So keep pushing forward! After all, the man who lost John Mark and Demas also discipled Titus, Timothy, Silas, and many other strong, Christ-like leaders. Your labor is not in vain.
Some Disciples Will Come Back
Thankfully, the New Testament gives us some examples of men who were restored to faithfulness in life and ministry. Think about Onesimus. Philemon was not your average master, and he likely tried to lead his whole household, including his servants, in Christ-likeness. Things ended horribly between Philemon and Onesmius, but God continued to work on him, and the man that returned to Philemon’s doorstep was not the same lazy, thieving servant that had left. How about John Mark? Paul thought John Mark was done, but he later was restored and became incredibly “useful to [Paul] for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11). He then went on to write one of the four Gospel books that we still read today. Sometimes, your disciples return in a couple months. At other times, it might be years before the return. But some do actually return!
Discipleship is hard work, but it’s worth it! Keep laboring in the Lord and trusting God to work in the lives of each of His children, including you, as you invest time and effort into discipleship ministry.