The 3 hardest people to disciple – and what to do about it

You’re channel surfing late one night and you happen to stop on a channel with a show that is just beginning. A father and son walk side by side with fishing poles slung over their shoulders. The images are in black and white, and the theme song is being whistled by a person off camera. What have you stumbled into? There are pine trees, a dirt path, and what appears to be a father-son fishing trip to the lake. You’ve just found a re-run of one of the most iconic shows in history – The Andy Griffith Show. Full of memorable characters like Opie, Aunt Bee, and of course Barney Fife.  The real star of the show, Andy Griffith, had a way of dealing with difficult people. His wit and wisdom allowed him to carefully navigate the most difficult of relationships. Andy knew just how to help people see his point of view, do his will, and create harmonious situations out of chaotic ones. Sheriff Andy always knew how to deal with the hardest kinds of people – the kinds of difficult people most of us would write off. He found ways to help them overcome their shortcomings – all in 30 minute episodes.

If you lead a Bible study group long enough, you’re going to run into some people who are hard to disciple. That doesn’t mean that you write them off, of course. It does mean that you may have to be savvy in how you disciple them, just like the way Andy Griffith was careful in how he dealt with the difficult people he encountered. What kinds of people might you encounter who are going to be harder to disciple? In my experience, there are at least 3 kinds of people that will prove challenging:

  1. The know-it-all disciple. People who are intellectually proud about spiritual matters have an arrogance that is difficult to get past in a discipling relationship. The Apostle Paul was like this before coming to Christ. He was full of knowledge about the Old Testament, proud of his cultural heritage and education, and he was absolutely convinced he was right in his denouncement of Christianity. It was not until his Damascus Road encounter that his self-assuredness was broken and he became dependent upon Christ to teach him the things he’d overlooked in his arrogant, pre-conversion state. If you are in a discipling relationship with a Christian who believes they have all the answers and can unlock the deep mysteries of God, you’re going to have a challenge on your hands. This know-it-all disciple can be hard to bring along the road to maturity, but don’t give up. To help this kind of disciple, you’ll want to challenge their false beliefs and incomplete understandings of spiritual things. The best thing you can do for this person is to show them how much they have to learn; help them see the lifetime it will take to even mature a little toward Christ-likeness. Help them by showing them how you haven’t arrived yet – and how you are still discovering new truths about the Bible daily.
  2. The time-compressed disciple. Just a few years ago, sociologists began using the term “time compressed” to describe people’s lifestyles. This observation demonstrates that more and more people run from one situation to the next, in spite of all the time-saving technologies available to us. The urgent tends to crowd out the significant things in life that should be the center of our time and attention. Growth as a disciple is partially influenced by the time you spend reading the Bible, praying, serving others, and relating to individuals who have a maturity and wisdom you aspire to have. A time-compressed schedule will always work against a disciple becoming fully mature in Christ. When you have this difficult disciple in your group and you seek to help them grow beyond their current circumstances. Call attention to their fast-paced lifestyle and sit with them as they review their calendar, helping them to find margin in their schedule. Lead them to say no to come things in their life that have crowded out “God and me” time. This kind of growing disciple needs accountability – so give it to them!
  3. The spiritually myopic disciple. In my experience, this is the hardest kind of disciple with whom I have to deal with from time to time. While they have a desire to grow in Christ and have begun to practice spiritual disciplines that lead toward maturity, they may not see just how far they have to grow. Although they are Christ’s ambassadors, they don’t fully realize, or care, how their behavior and actions hurt others around them when they fall short of Christ’s standards. A misspoken word, a fit of anger, a course joke, or a seemingly indifferent attitude can set them back lightyears with people they might otherwise influence for Christ. Those people might be a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or an acquaintance. The sad thing is, the disciple with whom you are working may not realize how they accidentally damage their relationship with others and how they make Christ less attractive to those who watch their lifestyle. In the case of the myopic disciple, you have to be blunt. Not blunt force trauma blunt, but blunt. It is far worse to let this disciple go on blindly hurting their opportunities to represent Christ than it is to call their attention to their shortcomings. Yes, there is potential that a discipling relationship might end if they become offended, but the stakes are too serious to let this kind of thing go unchecked.

Yes, Andy Griffith had a way of dealing with difficult people that is admirable. He confronted them when he needed to. He backed off when the timing was right. He ultimately found a way to achieve his goal, and the other person was usually better for it. “Good mornin’ ladies. My goodness, don’t you look happy! Must be cuttin’ somebody up real good” Andy said in an episode about the perils of gossiping. I pray for that kind of boldness and wisdom as I lead a group of growing disciples myself! He could step on people’s shoes and not mess up their shine. That’s what I want to do as I lead others to study the Bible and grow as disciples.

The one thing I’ll always want to remind myself is this: I am most likely someone’s difficult personso I must be quick to extend grace for I need it as well. As I go through life I must remember the words of the Apostle Paul who mentored and discipled his younger protégé, Timothy when he said, “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness.” (2 Timothy 2:24-25, CSB).

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