Character Qualities to Look for in One to Disciple
As we pray and consider disciple prospects, the right person must have certain fundamental qualities before we enter into a deep relationship with them. Granted, a young believer will not be advanced in all or any of these traits, but I believe we should see a degree of these qualities in him, assuring us that spending the kind of time necessary to disciple that person will be well spent. The person who enters an in-depth process of discipleship with another person becomes a “spiritual father” (or mother) to him. Therefore, I suggest we look and pray for the six qualities enumerated by the acronym FATHER (for women I use the acronym MOTHER):
Faithful (Maternal faithfulness, for women)—God looks for men and women who are committed to him. In 2 Chronicles 16:9, we read that “the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” So many believers have a half-hearted commitment, often diluted by the influence of worldly desires. God sees right through our half-hearted efforts, and requires that we daily demonstrate our commitment throughout the Christian life by faithfulness. Paul exhorted the young pastor Timothy by saying: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Notice he didn’t say slothful men, nor does he give approval for him to choose disloyal men. Paul is concerned that the time Timothy spends in discipleship is not squandered away in a discipleship relationship characterized by unfaithfulness.
When selecting someone to disciple look for wheat, not chaff. I have made the mistake of selecting disciples who were characterized by chaff―this kind of person will do nothing but drain the discipler physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The disciples of Christ were called followers of Christ—he never chased them. Yes, thankfully his grace compels our Good Shepherd to go after his wayward strays, but once one becomes his disciple, he has no need to chase them because they are his followers. I’m not saying we should never chase down a stumbling disciple, but I am saying that we need to be careful in the selection process so there will be little need to go after lost sheep.
How do we know if the prospective disciple is “faithful”? I would suggest that the disciple maker begin observing the prospect. Is he coming to church with some consistency? Has the person demonstrated some faithfulness in the new believers’ class? When asked to lend a helping hand in minor ways for setup or tear-down at church events, is he joyfully willing to help? When he makes a commitment, does he show up? Is he on time? What do other discerning people say about the person? In every instance, pray that God will reveal whether or not this person has a significant level of faithfulness.
During the first meeting, I always explain what I expect from my disciple. I share my confidence that God will do great things to develop him spiritually. I explain that if we enter into this kind of relationship God will be giving me spiritual oversight and authority over him; therefore, I will enforce certain requirements in order for him to receive the kind of growth God wants to impart. Then I list my expectations, which include faithful attendance in the regular services of the church, never missing scheduled meetings with me unless excused, and being on time. I tell him that he must call me in the event that he will not be able to make a meeting or if he is running late. I also require that he complete all assignments on time. I put these requirements in a written form I call the Disciple’s Covenant, which I have him sign after emphasizing the seriousness of the commitment. (See a sample Disciple’s Covenant in Appendix III.) I find a disciple’s covenant to be a very good communication and commitment tool and I rarely proceed discipling a person unless the prospective disciple agrees to this commitment.
Faithfulness is a primary characteristic and is foundational to all others. A disciple who does not demonstrate faithfulness will waste many hours of effective discipleship. Until he becomes faithful, he will never be a fruitful disciple of Christ.
Available (Obtainable, for women)—The disciple may have all the other qualities desired, but if she doesn’t have a time available that fits with the discipler’s schedule, obviously she cannot be discipled effectively. For many, their commitment to the cares and desires of this world are an obstacle, even when legitimate. For instance, his responsibility on the baseball team or bowling league, the need or desire to work a second job, or perhaps college responsibility, may prevent him from meeting.
Often a potential disciple’s commitment is not the issue at all. Sometimes the discipler’s schedule and the schedule of the prospective disciple simply conflict. And so the answer may be that you help find someone else to disciple this person, whose schedule will harmonize more fully.
Teachable—Does the person have a genuine desire to learn? Is there a willingness to submit to being taught? Does the disciple ask questions, or just want to debate issues?
A potential disciple will display eagerness as he attends learning opportunities such as as Bible studies or other church services. During these ministries, the prospect will be alert and engaged, sometimes taking notes and often asking questions. The discipler will quickly conclude that this person has a keen desire to learn about God and effectively live the Christian life.
I met with a man once who was constantly trying to teach me. When I tried to instruct him, he would change the subject because he was not interested in being taught. He just wanted to display his knowledge. The amazing truth is that when we use the Word of God in a life-on-life relationship with a person who has a teachable spirit, almost any barrier can be overcome.
It is a great pleasure discipling another when the protégé displays an eagerness to learn and continually applies the truth of God’s Word. It seems like he can’t get enough and has come to the discipler to help him grow. The disciple’s teachability then serves as a necessary quality that can bring about transformation in his life.
Heart for God—If a disciple wishes to grow into a true servant of God, it is absolutely necessary that he or she has a heart for God. Does the disciple have a desire to know God? In Matthew 22:37–38 Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Of course we all fall short of this command, but if a person desires to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, he or she must have a desire to love and obey him. Jesus also said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23) This command will only be followed by one who has a heart for God.
You will recognize if a disciple has a heart for God because you have a heart for God, and this yearning has become your primary motivation. Consider these questions: Does the disciple have questions about God? Does he or she share testimony of what God is doing in his life? Does the prospect seem to want to be around other brothers and sisters? Does he or she love to worship God and seem to relish the opportunity to sit under the preaching of the Word? Ask God to show you if the prospective disciple has a heart for God, and it will soon become evident.
Eager to Serve—I don’t know of anything outside of God’s Word and the active work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life that more fully motivates us than our involvement in service to the Lord. We experience a great sense of gratification when we understand that we’re doing something significant and of eternal value. The sense that the Holy Spirit is using us to impact another person’s life is thrilling indeed.
Jimmy was a nineteen-year-old homeless young man and a new believer in Jesus Christ. He came to our city to move in with his brother, who lived at a nearby military base. When I found he would not be allowed to live on the base we took him into our home, and what I thought would be a few days lasted a year. During that time, I became his surrogate father and at the same time began to disciple him.
Jimmy had developed a high level of proficiency in the martial art of kung fu, which we used in several programs as a tool to draw kids. That summer we took Jimmy with us on a youth mission trip to Casa Grande Arizona to work with the children of Mexican migrant workers. One day we encouraged the kids to bring their friends the next day to see the kung fu master. The word spread rapidly, drawing a large number of children and visitors. Jimmy put on an exhibition, breaking pieces of wood and a stack of cement capping stones. The demonstration was then followed by his testimony of how he received Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and how God had changed his life. His witness had a great impact on the children that day, and a number of kids received Christ.
When I noticed that there were six teenagers in the crowd, I asked Jimmy to take them to a back room while we continued the children’s program. I asked him to share more about how he got into this sport and about his workout regimen, as well as to explain more about how God helps him each day and what Jesus means to him. Since we had not planned for this additional meeting, Jimmy was afraid that he wouldn’t know what to say. I told him that God would give him the words. And so, as requested, Jimmy took the boys and shared about his sport and his relationship with Jesus Christ.
After the meeting, Jimmy eagerly told me how God worked through him and as he talked to the boys he saw tears in their eyes. I asked Jimmy if God helped him as I said he would. He told me it was amazing and that he thought of things he forgot he knew and he shared verses he didn’t know he remembered. Jimmy said he felt like he grew six inches spiritually that day. This experience was the highlight of the trip for this young man and probably the high point in his Christian life since his salvation.
Serving God has a profound impact on our motivation and love for him. If the prospective disciple has no eagerness to serve God, it will greatly impede his growth. Therefore, look for a person to disciple who sincerely wants to serve God.
Respect for Authority—Evaluate if the prospective disciple has respect for the authorities around him; this would include leaders at church as well as the police and elected officials. People tend to perpetuate a common disrespect for government officials, especially the police. Some go so far as to openly resist anyone who exercises authority and holds them accountable for their actions. However, as Romans 13:1–2 tells us, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities . . . Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God, and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” If the individual doesn’t respect the civil authorities, he or she will likely disrespect the discipler’s authority as a leader, and it will be difficult to disciple him or her. A general disrespect for authority will result in disrespect for God’s authority as well. If the prospective disciple doesn’t have these qualities, at least to a degree, it may not be wise to invest massive time beyond new-Christian classes.
Considering these FATHER (or MOTHER) qualifications, we must discern whether the prospect meets the above requirements through prayer and simple observation. If the person is a new believer, for instance, he or she should begin attending a new-Christian class either in a small group or with another person one-on-one. We can then assess if the individual has been faithfully attending and finishing assignments such as memorizing Scripture. If there are no organized new-believer classes, we can begin taking the person through the new-Christian materials one-on-one with no commitment beyond this stage. Once the prospect completes the series, you’ll be ready to judge if he or she meets the criteria. As you spend time praying, asking God to reveal the God-given person he has prepared for you.
(This excerpt comes from chapter 6 of Changing the Landscape of Eternity)
View the video series “Making Disciples of Jesus”