I'm a big fan of discipleship pathways. It's good for churches to have intentional ways forward (e.g. programs, resources, etc.), helping people grow as disciples (and disciple-makers). I'm encouraged that I anecdotally hear more and more churches uses the language of "discipleship pathway."
But I also want to paint the picture of a discipleship pathway as a four-lane road, rather than a one-lane bridge. Allow me to explain what I mean:
A one-lane bridge is narrow and rigid. There's only one way forward, and it usually slows down traffic. There's only one way to get to your destination, whether you like bridges or not. When some people see a one-lane bridge, they do a U-turn and head the other direction. For "one-lane bridge" discipleship pathways, every next step along the path of discipleship (and every tool that's part of that next step) is planned out and mandated. I'm concerned that it can feel too rigid, and may even impede progress.
But gladly, there's another way.
Instead of a one-lane bridge, think of a four-lane road. (Oh yeah — and imagine some toll booths, too. I'll get to that in a second.) On a four-lane road, you're all moving the same direction — but some people may go faster and some may need to go slower. (Which is OK.) Toll booths are common on many four lane roads. When you arrive at a toll, you can choose to take the "fast pass" lane and fly right through. Or you may slow down a bit because you pay by credit card or choose to pay by cash. Or maybe you want to avoid the tolls altogether, so you take a long way, but you are still moving in the direction of your destination.
Sure, after the toll there's some merging going on as people shuffle into lanes again and it can feel a little discombobulated or messy. But that's OK. People are still moving in the same direction toward their destination, and they've been able to choose the lane / toll booth that fits what they need.
"Four-lane roads with a toll booth" discipleship pathways still keep people going in the direction they need to be going. And that's the point of travel, after all (and ultimately, of discipleship pathways): The greater good is direction and destination, and the particular lane people choose to get there (or the toll booth option they select) is subordinate to the direction. To be sure, the lanes still matter — you can't drive on the shoulder or go off-roading — but there are a small number of good options, rather than a restrictive one as in the "one-lane bridge."
As churches construct discipleship pathways, then, a healthy approach is to think less in terms of "one-lane bridge" (i.e., everyone has to follow the exact same steps, etc.) and to think more in terms "four-lane road" — providing a small number of options (lane markers are still important! I'm not advocating for a crash derby...) that keeps traffic flowing and people making progress in the right direction: Christlikeness.
And just to be abundantly clear: In this post I'm focusing on discipleship PATHWAYS and not discipleship itself. Discipleship itself is narrow — Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Narrow is the path that leads to eternal life (Matt 7:13-14). The point of this post is more practical: As people grow in Christlikeness and proceed in that direction as disciples, the practical tools and programs churches can use to facilitate that growth in Christlikeness should not be unnecessarily rigid or restrictive.
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