3 Ingredients for Discipling New Believers in Any Context

Living things grow. That’s what they do. If there are no signs of growth, we don’t consider them alive. All believers are defined by a common desire—a desire to grow in the understanding of Christ and his Word. This desire for a deeper, growing knowledge of Christ is so basic that Peter compares it to an infant’s natural desire to be nourished by his mother’s milk (1 Pet. 2:2–3). It’s instinctual and also immediate. 

New believers have an immediate need to be nurtured and trained as soon as they initially trust Christ. Dawson Trotman, the founder of Navigators, simply called this “follow-up.” He popularized the practice in his ministry around the time of World War II. Trotman defined follow-up as “…patient, tender care of those able to instruct and equip men and women for the Christian walk” (Discipleship Journal, Issue 1, January/February 1981).   

Components of Follow-up

Trotman’s definition has several key components that help us better understand the nature of follow-up. First, there is the relational component: “patient, tender care.” More than just studying a book or series of lessons together, deep and authentic relationship with a new believer is required.

Within the context of relationship, we find the second component, “instruct and equip men for the Christian walk.” Follow-up is more than just developing a relationship. There is an intentional, instructional component of transferring foundational doctrines to the new believer. People need to know who God is and that his Word is reliable. They need to understand sin, salvation, prayer, and the importance of the local church. 

New believers study key biblical doctrines not merely to gain knowledge for its own sake but to know and obey Christ.

New believers study key biblical doctrines as a part of their follow-up experience not merely to gain knowledge for its own sake but to know and obey Christ. It’s not a new idea that the knowledge of God sustains deep joy and gospel faithfulness. In early church history and throughout the subsequent centuries, this type of follow-up was called catechesis—derived from a Greek word that simply means “to teach.”

J. I. Packer, in his book Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, defines catechesis as “the church’s ministry of grounding new believers in the rudiments of Christianity.” Catechesis focuses on the need to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This challenge in Jude is not merely for veteran Christians to contend for the faith. It is for all Christians, young and old.

Relationship is Key to Effective Follow-up

Recently, a distinguished local physician and his wife visited a small group that meets regularly in our home. I asked him about his spiritual life and he responded with a clear sense of his need for the gospel’s message of grace and hope. I shared the Good News with him, and by God’s grace, over the next few weeks, he and his entire family came to saving faith.

Following their conversion, each member of the family entered two forms of follow-up: personal one-on-one training and small-group Bible study that was accessible but also serious and focused on life application. Several months later, the entire family was baptized and joined a local church.

I asked him what difference this training made in his life. He responded, “I developed a great friendship with the man who discipled me. I learned new things about the Christian faith and corrected many of my misunderstandings about the Bible. Today, I look at the Bible in a totally different way than I once did in the past. Today, I believe all that Scripture teaches.”

Helpful Suggestions for Developing Follow-up Relationships

Those who’ve had the experience of learning a new language and culture know how it feels when a language finally begins to make sense. It is as if a person has discovered a whole new world. The same thing is true of the discovery of spiritual truth. Here are a few suggestions for discipling new believers in any context and helping them discover the exciting new world of walking with God:

  1. Actively seek out new believers in the Christian faith and make yourself available to help them grow in their faith.
    There are harvest fields worldwide in which many people are showing sincere spiritual interest in the gospel. It is a matter of spiritual stewardship that those responding positively toward the Christian faith receive necessary personal training. Often, it is the failure to provide this that leads mission fields to move from the status of a harvest field to that of nominal Christianity.
  2. Immediately work to establish the baseline of Christian teaching.
    Topics to be covered include the assurance of God’s gracious salvation and forgiveness, the importance of prayer, the centrality of the Word of God, the privilege of Christian witness, the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer, and the responsibility of Christian obedience in baptism and joining a local church. These truths need to be taught to a new believer during the first weeks of their spiritual pilgrimage.
  3. Help new believers understand not only the essentials of the Christian life but also develop an understanding of the Christian faith.
    I would recommend a study of two basic documents: a historic creed and a Baptist confessional document. I believe all Christians would be well served with a study of the Apostle’s Creed. That is the essence of Christian belief. Additionally, I recommend the study of a confessional document like the New Hampshire Confession of Faith and the Revised Baptist Faith and Message.

There is no sweeter blessing than to see a newly converted soul discovering God’s great and gracious plan of redemption.

Baptist pastor and theologian Andrew Fuller wrote: “When the true beauty and amiableness of the holiness, or true moral good, that is in divine things, is discovered to the soul, it opens a new world to its view” (The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications). When discipling new believers in the truths of God’s Word, there is no sweeter blessing than to see one of the greatest of all miracles occur, a newly converted soul discovering God’s great and gracious plan of redemption that has been made available in Jesus Christ.

Dr. W. Mark Johnson serves as IMB’s theological education consultant in the Americas. He and his wife, Caron, have served twenty-four years in Brazil and are passionate about helping believers grow deeper in their knowledge of and their relationship with Jesus Christ.