Discipleship Requires Boundaries

In my latest bible study, Embracing Holy Interruptions I structure the chapters based on the five thresholds a postmodern skeptic must pass in order to develop their own faith in God. This is a vital step whether someone has grown up around religious institutions or is completely lacking in spiritual knowledge. Until faith in God is our own, rather than formed and fed to us by influential people in our lives, we are not believers.

Matthew 7:7-14 says,

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (NIV)

What Matthew writes here is a warning. Anyone is eligible to knock and ask, however, Jesus warned that the narrow gate that leads to life is one that only few will find. Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 7:21:23

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (NIV)

We Learn About God Through Discipleship

As Christians, we’re called to live out both The Greatest Commandment and The Great Commission. That doesn’t mean that our calling on either front is easy. In fact, one challenge new mentors have is discerning who to commit to investing in. It’s not always clear what someone expects from a relationship. How do you know who wants to spend time hanging out socially and who desires a discipleship relationship?

In I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus, Don Everts and Doug Schaupp outline five thresholds a postmodern skeptic must pass through to become a believer[1]:

  • Threshold 1: Trusting a Christian
  • Threshold 2: Becoming Curious
  • Threshold 3: Opening Up to Change
  • Threshold 4: Seeking After God
  • Threshold 5: Entering the Kingdom

All five thresholds are necessary and it’s possible that someone will shift back and forth between them rather than moving forward in a straight line. If someone is just beginning to trust a Christian they will likely be very resistant to any structured discipleship. Especially if they have a past that includes wounds from previous encounters with the Church or others within the Body of Christ.

Part of discipleship is pausing to observe, meeting people where they are at, and growing honest, intentional relationships with people. But this doesn’t mean that you must do so with everyone you encounter.

It’s Perfectly Find to Say No

There will be plenty of people you encounter that you are not meant to disciple. This doesn’t mean you aren’t supposed to live out The Greatest Commandment and The Great Commission. Love your neighbor, but remember your time is valuable. It’s perfectly fine to reserve your hours for a limited number of people. In fact, the fewer people you spend intentionally investing in, the more time you’ll have to walk shoulder to shoulder with them during the season of life you are with them.

For example, let’s say you are mentoring a student who is a junior in college. They likely have a significant season of change ahead with several decisions to make. This student may need more time with you as they talk through different situations that come up. If you were also mentoring a new mother during this season you may begin to feel overwhelmed because both people you were investing so much time and energy in would be in seasons of transition that required additional support.

While both of these high-stress seasons of life are short-term, this would not be the time to take on any new people to disciple. Another thing to consider is that your discipleship time with a college student will likely have a natural ending point, but with someone more rooted in your community, it’s possible things could have a longer timeline.

Boundaries Prevent Wasted Time

Time is a significant consideration, however, this is only one aspect of establishing discipleship boundaries. It’s also important to confirm that what someone says is true. I want to be clear here, I’m not saying that you should expect that you will encounter someone intentionally misleading you.

Not everyone has the same emotional intelligence. So when someone says they want to hear your thoughts on life and learn from you they may believe that they mean what they say, but that doesn’t mean that they are opening up to change (threshold 3). It’s important to discern whether someone is curious (threshold 2) or whether they are open to change.

Even when someone says they want to change they may find themselves resisting the reality around them. The truth is, people don’t like change, even when they know change is necessary. There may come a moment when you have to accept that someone is simply not ready to hear what you have to say.

Recently a story went viral about a nurse in Ohio who testified before her state legislative committee that vaccines cause magnetism. She did so by laying an aluminum key on her chest and then attempting to also get it to stick to her neck. There are a few things wrong with her theory. First, aluminum isn’t magnetic. Second, as shown in the video below, while insisting that her body is now magnetic, the nurse was unable to get the key to stick to her body. Yet the entire time she continues to insist she is correct.

Now, not all conversations will be as obvious as this one, but you may find yourself internally responding like the woman in the blue shirt listening to this testimony. There are going to be moments where you find yourself wondering why the person you’re sitting across from is bothering to ask about your life experience. To be clear, no one should be prevented from asking questions. But if what they ask is done without the intention of listening and considering another perspective, then you are simply wasting your time.

If you find yourself in a situation where the pattern mainly remains that every answer you give is followed up with a contradictory response you have found yourself in a situation where someone is not open to change. While it is never a requirement to change when someone states they want to change and then consistently refutes every opportunity to do so they are simply lying to themselves and presenting a disingenuous relationship to you.

Again, everyone has a different level of emotional intelligence and it’s possible the person who has asked to meet with you doesn’t realize they are asking your advice and perspective on situations only to then turn around and look for ways to refute your responses. It’s also possible that the idea of change is more attractive than the effort to think or act differently.

Regardless, there will come a moment when you must decide if it’s still worth your time to engage in these conversations. Most people find that eventually, the boundary of acquaintance rather than mentor is preferable. That is a perfectly healthy boundary to establish so you can invest your time in people who are seeking to move forward in learning more about God.

Looking for a Discipleship Development Tool?

Embracing Holy Interruptions book cover

We’re all called to different communities and different types of ministries. But when we are followers of Jesus, our calling to live out the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment are the same. As Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), we’re all called to “make disciples of all nations” wherever we live. God invites us to partner with him and live on mission every day, even in the mundane moments of life. We do this when we love people as Jesus taught the disciples to do, without stipulations.

Embracing Holy Interruptions: How Jesus Used Mundane Moments to Love People Deeply is a six-week Bible study that teaches people how to develop a disciple-making movement.

This is not a step-by-step instruction manual.

[1] Don Everts and Doug Schaupp, I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us about Their Path to Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 12-13

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