Discipleship Requires Boundaries

In my 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. The journey is the same whether someone has grown up around religious institutions or is completely lacking in spiritual knowledge. Until the transition occurs that distinguishes a moment where we identify a trust in God independent of others we are not believers. We need a belief in God independently shaped rather than formed and fed to us by influential people in our lives.

In Matthew 7:7-14 it says that anyone is eligible to knock and ask to be part of the kingdom of God, 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)

It’s entirely possible to be very religious and incredibly knowledgeable about the Bible and still completely miss the message of the gospel. This is the story of the Pharisees and the Israelites who refused to believe in Jesus.

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?

We Learn About God Through Discipleship

We’re all called to invest our time in different people groups. Some people feel the burden to focus on the global church, others are called to an urban area, and others believe that different generations are their calling.

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.

If you don’t feel equipped to mentor someone who begins engaging the word “deconstruction” don’t feel the burden to continue mentoring them on your own. It’s wise to ask for help or refer your mentee to someone better able to handle the next stage of the journey to help move someone from deconstruction to reconstruction. This doesn’t mean you abandon your friend, just that your relationship shifts.

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, that most 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 and it’s no longer worth the same circular conversation.

Some People Aren’t Ready to Have Mentors (Even When They Ask)

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.

You may find yourself feeling as if you have to prove that you want to spend time with your mentee. While this can feel frustrating, I encourage you to dig deeper here. This is frequently a sign that you are engaging with someone wrestling with deep self-doubt. Do you have the temperament or patience to walk with the person? This is a situation that will require you to show up consistently and to remember to show intentional care.

When to Walk Away

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.

Remember, the Great Commission and The Greatest Commandment are for every Christian. Your journey with someone may be momentary, but that doesn’t mean the impact won’t last a lifetime.


Looking for a Discipleship Development Tool?

Embracing Holy Interruptions Bible Study

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.

Jesus modeled using mundane moments to love people, build tension, and point them to God in a way that caused many of them to step from a curiosity about God to a fully surrendered faith. We can adapt his methods and learn from the examples in the Gospels today. This study aims to help people keep their eyes on Jesus and improve their inductive Bible reading skills while also learning to love their neighbors to the best of their ability.

This 6-week study is available in both print and Kindle formats.

[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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