5 Steps for Creating a Discipleship Pathway (2024 Refresh)

In upstate NY there is a  beautiful region for climbing called “The Gunks”. They are one of America’s premier climbing areas. It’s just minutes from New Paltz, a funky college town, and 85 miles from New York City. Climbing here is characterized by huge rock roofs that shoot over the trails, big traverses, and waterfalls peppered throughout the route.

Thinking about discipleship can often lead one to think about climbing. At least here at V3.

One does not just roll out of bed one morning and decide to rock climb. Climbing requires preparation. Climbing requires the development of certain skills for the trek ahead; it is not something you do half-heartedly. There are basics one must master to climb well and to enjoy it without getting injured.

This is very much like Discipleship.

Discipleship is becoming proficient in the essentials in order to live into God’s in-breaking Kingdom. Your average Christian has not been discipled in the basics of following Jesus, living on mission, abiding in community, being present in their neighborhood, and sharing the holistic Gospel. We often relegate the basics to children, yet the basics are the foundation we need to recover for being human in the way of Jesus.

Discipleship cannot be haphazard, it must become intentional.

When one desires to climb a mountain they must accept the terms of physical, mental, and emotional preparation. In the Everest region of Nepal lies the Khumbu Climbing School, a training organization that teaches people to climb mountains by giving them concrete tools and opportunities to practice in real life situations. They familiarize people with core competencies of equipment inspection, rope management, high altitude adaptation, wilderness first aid, camp hygiene, and expedition team behavior. In other words, they have discerned the essentials needed for people to climb mountains.

Mountaineering is a commitment. Some days it is a grind where only by sheer will you put one foot in front of another. But other days it is unspeakably beautiful, with wondrous views and deep joyful connection with your team.

We need to become guides that help people mountaineer in God’s broken and beautiful world; laying out a path for developing the crucial basics of life-forming discipleship, boundary-crossing mission, tight-knit community, and locally-rooted presence.

Any guide will tell you that the goal of being a good guide is to get someone up the mountain and back down again, alive. A good guide helps each person become competent so that they know how to double check each other and be safe even when the guide is not around. It is not to make them into trip leaders or people who own their own guide business. Some may do that, but most won’t. Similarly, the goal or telos of discipleship is not to turn people into organizational leaders. Rather, the goal of discipleship is to help people transform into more spiritually mature versions of themselves. This is not just the goal for a few, but for everyone who is part of your discipleship core. And out of that journey, a few organizational leaders may be produced along the way.

"We need to become guides that help people mountaineer in God's broken and beautiful world." ~ Dan White, Jr. & Jessie Cruickshank Click To Tweet

When creating training, the guide has to think about the area they will be in, the hazards the group will face, the adventures they plan to enjoy, and the community they want to have. These are unique to each area and each trip. The same is true when crafting a discipleship pathway. Each one will be unique to each expression of ecclesia. Begin with the end in mind, what you believe are the marks of a disciple, the character traits to be developed. And then make a map of how to help them get there.

In the act and art of discipleship we suggest you map out a Discipleship Pathway. A Discipleship Pathway has 5 Architectural Elements.


We are not machines; we are humans. This is important to embrace as you are putting together an intentional discipleship path. People need space for trust-building, for cultivating safety. Safety with others is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.

Jesus said to his disciples “I have called you friends” for a reason (Jn 15:15). Safety was cultivated in the sacred space between Jesus and the disciples. Safety is established when the resources of emotional support and tangible presence begin to grow between individuals. Find ways to create shared experiences of fun, laughter and play.

  • How do you plan to cultivate relational safety? Around a regular meal?
  • Where will you meet that communicates warmth, that encourages one to let their guard down?
  • How will you give space for people to share feelings of inadequacy, fear, or struggle?


The pathway involves more than passing along information or increasing intelligence. When it comes to education, theology and personal betterment more and more of our learning processes perpetuate a removal from habitation. This split between our information and immersion has inoculated us against local, on-the-ground practice. Divorcing information from immersion has become so normal that our discipleship methods often deliver theological content and end there.

Very little of the future health of the church will depend on who can disseminate information most efficiently. We are more than brains on a stick. We must engage the whole person in our discipleship methods. We are minds, souls, and bodies.

  • How does your Discipleship Pathway shape the whole person?
  • How will your Discipleship include incarnational practices or experiments?
  • What tool or framework will you use to exercise minds, souls, and bodies for mission?


What are you discipling people in? Discipleship should be fully-orbed and substantial enough to equip people for their missional vocation in God’s world. What are the core competencies that you want to see them trained in? As mountain-climbers must develop new and essential skills Jesus-followers must also develop vital skills.

Discipleship is not just another Bible study or book club or mentoring relationship. All of those things are valuable but they have not historically trained people to follow Jesus, on mission, with the message of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

  • What content is in your Discipleship Pathway?
  • What tools do you want Disciples to become proficient with?
  • How will you assemble this material that goes into the Pathway?
  • How can this material become a primer in your church plant?


While the Twelve had a unique discipling relationship with Jesus, they weren’t the only ones who hung out with him. Mark tells us in his Gospel that “When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables” (Mk 4:10). Clearly, other people were with Jesus and the disciples.

The point is that the Twelve were a part of a clearly organized cluster that had a unique, formal relationship with Jesus, but they did not operate in isolation. It took place in the context of a larger social space of people curious about Jesus.

Discipleship is felt deeply when people are learning something new but are able to practice it within a laboratory. Discipleship must be tied to the formation of a social space community. Too much of our modern approaches to discipleship are inward and not outward. We certainly need to help disciples bond with God and each other but also seek to build something new.

Do not divorce discipleship from mission. Do not separate spiritual formation from the work of community cultivation. This is the leading edge of movement; when people experience the tangible hands on work of building a real-time community that is missionally present in a particular place.

  • How will you make the Discipleship path tied to a missional community?
  • How will you equip those you’re discipling to disciple others?


A discipleship pathway is not just a stage or season. Discipleship is the ongoing engine of the church. It’s what keeps the pulse of the church vibrant and alive to God’s active work in the world.

"The goal of discipleship is to help people transform into more spiritually mature versions of themselves." ~ Dan White, Jr. & Jessie Cruickshank Click To Tweet

We must continue to cycle through ongoing training. As we end one season of a discipleship path we are able to discern releasing them to start and lead a new cycle of the discipleship pathway. A discipleship path is not a permanent program, like a small group that sticks together for years, rather it is a training core that develops for a season and then disperses them.

  • How long is your discipleship pathway? 6 months, 9 months, 1 year? Is it doable?
  • How does one communicate commitment to a cycle?
  • How does accountability work for cycle?
  • What happens at the end of a cycle?
  • What does your rite of passage look like?

Contemplate and prayerfully reflect on these questions as you seek to formulate or assess discipleship in your church plant. Your discipleship pathways are key to transformation in your church.

About the Author

Jessie Cruickshank

Jessie Cruickshank is an ordained Foursquare minister and nationally recognized expert in the fields of discipleship and neuroeducation. She has spent over two decades applying neuroscience research to spiritual formation, ministry training, and organization development. She is respected globally as a missiological thought-leader and neuro-ecclesiologist. Jessie serves the body of Christ as a church and denominational consultant. She is the Founder of Who-ology, which seeks to equip all people to be disciplemakers. She is the Co-Founder of 5Q, which focuses on training teams around Ephesians 4, and a founding member of the Movement Leader’s Collective. Jessie holds a Master’s from Harvard in Mind, Brain, and Education. She is a published academic, author of Ordinary Discipleship: How God Wires Us For the Adventure of Transformation, and serves on multiple boards internationally. She currently lives in Colorado, enjoying the rivers with her family. You can follow her on X and Instagram at @yourbrainbyjess Visit WHOology and yourbrainbyjess

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