So what is the best process for building disciples? After reading quite a bit on various approaches and methods for discipleship, I can now definitively say... I don't know! But I've been starting to see that once again, principles are more important to understand than trying to find a cookie-cutter approach. What I can conclude is that any effective process for discipleship must be TRIM --
Relational - studying alone isn't sufficient for building disciples. Everything about Jesus' ministry and the nature of the body of Christ screams relationship. The trade-off is that more people means greater multiplication (ideally), while fewer people deepen the experience and increase the chance that multiplication will actually occur. Disciple making probably best occurs in groups of size 3 to 12, although a larger group of 12-20 may form a productive group that allows friendships to form, teaching and ministry to occur, and may be the seedbed from which a triad may form which is more intentional about discipleship.
Intentional - a key reason why many Church programs fail to produce any disciples, fail to see transformed lives, is that they are simply not very intentional in doing so. It's tremendously easy to be satisfied with friendship, fellowship, a comfortable group of people to support us and affirm what we already know - it's something else completely for iron to sharpen iron, to challenge, hold accountable, and unconditionally love one another. It's messy! Churches stressing one-on-one discipleship see this work because they are highly intentional. Churches using a small group for discipleship will see true disciples built only if the group is intentional about producing such.
Missional - if a process or model is not producing people who are about the business of God, continuing Christ's ministry to reconcile people to God, making other disciples and teaching them to obey all He has commanded... you're not producing disciples. Effective discipleship must never forget that its purpose is one with the mission of Christ and His church.
What then do we do with discipleship in our church? Start with evaluating how your current process is doing - think about what you expect to see in a 'disciple' then ask how well your current system is producing these. Ask if your process is bloated or TRIM. Are they transformational, producing life change? Is your approach relational? Is the system intentional about building these disciples? Are the 'disciples' produced carrying out the mission of Christ and His church? Ok, now consider whether your system has enough going for it that it can be improved. Perhaps you're relying on small groups for discipleship and they're relational, with life change happening, but you're not seeing any real disciples made. Are your small group leaders themselves disciples? (If not, the chance they can reproduce disciples is small) If so, work with them to be more intentional, perhaps via a change in curriculum or expectations. What if your current system is far from TRIM? Is it providing some other purpose aligned with the vision of your church? Perhaps it's doing a great job of providing teaching or fellowship or care. Maybe it's time to consider supplementing that process with a new one more geared for building disciples, whether one-on-one discipling, triads, or community service teams. Any discipleship approach should foster multiplication, and be intentional in seeking this, but to some degree multiplication is more of a result of success than something you can force. There's more than one approach to discipleship that can work - don't give up on finding one that makes sense in your church!