One of the greatest pushbacks against church online is that an online church cannot provide authentic discipleship because it is not authentic community. Though I will save the authentic community argument for another post, I want to make the case here that you can provide authentic discipleship in an online environment. In fact, the same components that create healthy discipleship in person are the same components to create healthy disciples online. If you are struggling with the concept of discipleship in an online community or how to make disciples in your meeting time online, here are six components to help you establish a discipleship culture.
Shepherding is too often reserved for pastors and not lay people. Yet, the concept of shepherding is simply to care for other believers, often those you have been entrusted to lead. Though you may not be able to hug someone online, you can still shepherd them effectively. Caring for other believers does not require to be with them in person. If someone is having financial troubles, send them some cash via Paypal or Venmo. If someone is having a difficult week, encourage them through prayer and scripture in text or messaging. If someone is facing big life decisions, provide wise counsel and fast and pray with them.
After focusing on shepherding, transition to accountability. Accountability consists of holding each other to obedience in our walk with Christ. Of course, this can mean asking someone who struggles with sexual sin how they have been doing, or utilizing online tools like Accountable2You to help. This also includes setting goals together (see number four) and holding each other to those goals that are being set. Use this time to ask about each other’s prayer life, their time in the word, and sin issues that can be holding someone back from an abundant life in Christ.
This one may be the trickiest. Of course, you can play a song on youtube and sing together. If you are musically inclined, feel free to play and sing together. However, this could also be something as simple as asking a question like: “What is your favorite attribute of God and why?” or “Tell me something that God did in your life this past week that you are grateful for?” Any act that draws our gaze and attention toward God is worship, so be creative. Note that this comes after accountability. If someone has had a hard week with accountability, it is important to immediately draw their eyes to Jesus for hope and to prevent shame and guilt that surfaces from sin.
Study the Word
Too often, we only study the word in our discipleship meetings, foregoing all the other things I mention in this post. However, time in the word should still be at the center of discipleship. The key to disicpling in the word is to come to the Bible with an obedience-based approach rather than a knowledge-based approach. In other words, we read the Bible to know God and to obey him through what we read, not to learn new things alone without concern for obedience. For Bible study, I highly recommend the Discovery Bible Study. It is the most adaptable approach to studying the Bible I know of, is obedience-driven, and is centered around a community approach rather than an individualistic approach.
After reading the Bible, the most important step is to take what has been understood and apply it to our lives in specific ways. Often, we use application in abstract ways by saying, “I just want to love God more.” That’s a great desire, but that is not a goal. A goal would be to spend thirty minutes in prayer every day for the next week, or to read 1 John once a day for the next week. In my groups, I use the acronym C.O.S.T to guide us in goal setting.
C - How will I Connect to God this week?
O - How will I Obey God this week?
S - Who will I Share the Gospel with this week?
T - What other Christian can I Train this week?
It is important that the leader provide a way for these goals to be made public to the group as these goals serve as a prayer guide for each other throughout the week and a chance to see how things are going as we seek to meet our spiritual goals. It is also important that the leader set goals as well and invite the group to hold him/her accountable.
Commission the Group
After setting goals and recording them, the leader ought to cast vision and commission them out into their communities. At the end of every group, we consider the Great Commission and remind each other that there is a real mission with high stakes that Jesus gave us to complete, and that is what we are being sent out to.
You may notice that prayer is not one of the six components. That is on purpose. Rather than making prayer a section during the time a group has together, I recommend making prayer center to every section. How can you shepherd each other without prayer? How can you determine what goals God would have you set without prayer? How can we understand the Word without prayer? Prayer ought to be in the ebb and flow of the group meeting rather than just one section.