Are you discouraged in your efforts to make disciples? You are not alone. It’s a simple reality for a fallen world that there will always be barriers. Our discipleship efforts seldom go according to plan. But don’t give up. When people veer off track, it’s up to us to consider how to identify the obstacles to discipleship and discern how we might guide them through.

obstacles to discipleship

4 Common Obstacles to Discipleship

In my work with Dr. Charles Ridley, we’ve identified common obstacles to discipleship. When faced with God’s call to loving obedience, people usually run into one of these four barriers: cognitive, behavioral, emotional, or volitional.


In Acts 10:1-7 we learn that the Apostle Paul encountered this barrier amongst the disciples in Corinth. The Corinthians had “not even heard that there was a Holy Spirit.” A cognitive obstacle stems from a lack of knowledge. When someone is facing a cognitive obstacle they will often express it with, “I don’t know what to do.”


In Acts 8:26-40 we read about Philip encountering a man attempting to read the book of Isaiah. Philip asked the man if he understood what he was reading and the man replied, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”  A behavioral obstacle relates to the process of understanding or becoming. When coming up against this obstacle you will often hear, “I don’t know how to do it.”


We sees Peter’s battle with an emotional barrier when he denies Christ in Luke 22:54-62 saying, “I do not know him!” Emotional battles often involve fear and you will likely hear some version of, “I am afraid to do it.”


A great example of a volitional obstacle to discipleship is found in the story of the rich man in Matthew 19:16-22. When Jesus required extreme generosity it was more than the man was willing to give. Instead the man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Volitional barriers involve the will and excuses boil down to “I don’t want to do it.”

When faced with God’s call to loving obedience, people usually run into one of these four barriers: cognitive, behavioral, emotional, or volitional. Click To Tweet

Identifying and moving through obstacles

When discipling a person, you can work together with them to determine their unique barriers to growth. To some degree, this identification depends on the level of a person’s self-awareness, but you can ask questions to help them recognize where they are. It’s often helpful to begin with a general discipleship audit. Ask them, “What’s working?” “What’s not working?” and, “Where are you sensing God wants you to grow?” Take the time to listen to their answers and help them determine the source of the blockage.

Consider what approach would you take to each of the 4 obstacles to discipleship. Now what would happen if you mismatched your response? For example, if someone is afraid to take the next step they know God wants them to take, then they are facing an emotional blockage. The person probably does not need more cognitive information about the steps to be taken. Processing their fears and helping them find a way forward would be more effective.

To move past barriers in discipleship you need to be sure you’re addressing the right problem. Obviously, you’ll deal differently with a person who doesn’t know how to do something than you would with someone who is unwilling to do it.

To move past barriers in discipleship you need to be sure you’re addressing the right problem. Click To Tweet


Guide for Discipling- Ready for serious growth as a disciple of Christ? This scripture-based guide will challenge you to take the next steps. This is a great personal study but better done in community with others. Grab a couple of people to walk through this guide together to experience transformation. Available for the LutheranVineyard, and Episcopal church cultures as well.

Finding the Flow– Small groups are a great place to establish discipling relationships—especially if they have fostered an environment where it is safe place to ask honest questions. Finding the Flow is an excellent book to place in the hands of small group leaders. We also highly recommend the Finding the Flow Small Group Leader Training. Covering everything from asking good questions and active listening listening to conflict resolution, this is a ready-to-go kit for Small Group Leader Training. The downloadable leader guide, powerpoint presentation, and participant guides make it easy to adapt training to online meetings as well.

The Church Planting Journey- This book is a comprehensive guide for the church planter. It is the culmination of experience that includes being a church planter myself, and coaching and consulting church planters for more than 40 years. Within the pages of The Church Planting Journey, you will find wisdom, systems, and processes that can help you launch well as well as sustain your unique vision and call. Available in print and Kindle.

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash