A few years ago, a young woman asked me to mentor her on being a “mom.” We were co-workers, so we had many conversations naturally. Now and then, we met one-on-one to talk about her cares and concerns as she raised her daughter.
She brought her questions and directed the discussion. I would offer advice and refer her to appropriate books or other people who might help guide her. We would also pray together.
As her mentor, I wanted to offer what she felt she needed in this life role. I have mentored women in areas like relationships, relating to married children and finding God’s will for your life. I’ve never been asked to mentor someone in gardening, cooking or home decorating, but other women I know have!
Mentoring is a general term used when someone asks another person to advise them in a certain set of skills or a life area.
This past fall, a recent college graduate, new to town and my life, asked me to “disciple” her. I asked that before agreeing to do so, she come to my home so we could chat and clarify what she was looking for. During this first meeting, I asked her questions like “What do you mean by ‘disciple’ (the verb)?”, “Have you ever been discipled before?”, “Were you involved in a campus ministry?” and “Tell me about your life.”
As we conferred, I could tell that what she was asking me for was exactly what I hoped to offer as her discipler. I was excited. In spite of the immediate connection we made, I suggested that we both pray for a week to see if God wanted us to meet together in a one-on-one discipling relationship. And He did.
Both mentoring and discipling are relational in tone. Both offer advice or content to some degree. Both focus on helping someone else learn, usually one-on-one. But there are some differences; one is that discipling is spiritual in nature, founded and authorized by God and an integral part of His Kingdom design for growth.
As we engage as disciple-makers, it is important to keep in mind that there are three foundational ways in which disciple-making is different from mentoring:
It’s God’s idea
Disciple-making is a matter of obedience as we respond to Christ’s command to “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). The idea of making disciples does not spring from our human nature; it is a supernatural undertaking as part of God’s design for a believer’s transformational process.
Discipling entails a specific focus: coming alongside another and investing in them spiritually so they will become a strong follower of Christ. It is God’s idea, not ours, and is therefore supported by His presence and power (see Matthew 28:18-20). Inherent in this idea is the necessity of co-laboring with Him.
It’s God Who Causes Growth
As 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 informs us, it is God who makes people grow. As we lovingly and vigorously share His Word with those we help, we are like one who plants or waters a seed. We are coming alongside to help grow what the Holy Spirit is already doing in a person’s life.
However, it’s still very important to share appropriate content from Scripture after the Holy Spirit helps us determine where they are in their spiritual growth. We also want to foster an atmosphere for growth by praying faithfully and building a healthy relationship with them.
It’s a Relationship with Intrinsic Purpose
The discipler is responsible to share the Word from a relational platform of trust and vulnerability. We can’t be everyone’s best friend or even a close friend, necessarily. So I often come back to the adage a wise person once shared with me as I became entrenched emotionally in too many relationships: “We are to build a bridge of trust that will bear the weight of truth.”
There is a mutual commitment in the discipling relationship to which the discipler brings intentional investment. Discipling someone is a lot like feeding children. There are certain phases of growth where we give children only milk; then we move on to solid food, and later, meat. In the book of Hebrews, we find that some needed “milk” even though they should have been ready for “solid food.” The goal was that all would eventually teach others (Hebrews 5:12).
Ultimately, the intrinsic purpose of the discipling process is for the one we disciple to become a strong, fruitful disciple—one that will go and teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).
Mentors bring advice and influence to those whom they offer guidance. They might meet intentionally or even share the Word of God with their mentees, but not necessarily. A disciple-maker, on the other hand, brings intentional spiritual investment into their disciples’ lives. There is a mutual commitment to share the Word, prayer and the ups and downs of life, trusting that God will bring growth and strength to those we invest in.
It is God who leads, supports and brings transformative growth. Our goal as disciple-makers is clarified in Colossians 1:28: “that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
Clarify your desired outcomes when meeting with someone about starting a mentor-type relationship. Are you mentoring them or are you discipling them? Understanding the difference empowers us as we disciple others.
Dana Yeakley is the author of The Gentle Art of Discipling Women . She and her husband, Tom, have been on staff with The Navigators since 1978 and married for over 40 years.