By Sharon Messmore

Using the Discipleship Cycle with Internationals

Students don’t have to be Christians to be discipled. As staff working mostly with non-Christian international students, how can the discipleship cycle work in your context?

The Discipleship Cycle

The cycle has three steps: Hear the Word, Respond Actively, and Debrief and Interpret.

  • Hear the word generally means just what it sounds like – reading or studying a passage of scripture. Often with internationals you will study scripture about God and Jesus. Don’t feel the need to study Zephaniah to use the cycle.
  • Respond actively requires action from students. They must put the application to work, something not always done with Bible studies. Contextualize for non-Christians, since they will need different responses than Christians. (You probably won’t ask them to share the gospel with their friends on day one.)
  • Debriefing and Interpreting helps students think about what they learned about themselves, others, and God. Ask plenty of open-ended questions. You can debrief at any point, but try for within a week of the response without doing it immediately after. This gives them time to process the experience, but still takes place when it is relatively fresh in their minds.

Discipleship Cycles are the atom-sized distillation of InterVarsity’s ministry.  Many times we do dozens of "DC's" a day and are not even aware of it. Sometimes, we start a DC and don’t finish it...and it becomes a "fun conference," "great lecture," or "awesome experience" but it doesn’t create real and lasting change. Doing this one key practice means anything could happen! Use the provided samples (a PDF download or on this page) to help you prep a discipleship time with your international student on a blank Discipleship Cycle. You will be glad you did.

God and Culture

Goal: To be aware of and celebrate all cultures of the world.

Internationals will clearly see differences between their culture and American culture. By studying how God created all cultures, you can affirm practices they already know and open their eyes to God’s vision of multicultural community. Many see the tower of Babel as culture’s birthplace, so try starting there.

Hear the Word: Study Genesis 11:1-9. Prepare questions to observe and reflect on how culture is treated in this passage. Possible questions:

  • What was God’s command in Genesis 9:1? By settling in Babylon, were they filling God’s expectations?
  • Why did they want to build a tower?
  • What else might they have wanted to do/could they have done?
  • Why did God halt construction?
  • What happened when God gave them all different languages?
  • Do you see these events as positive or negative?

Respond: Have students participate in a celebration of culture, whether their own or someone else’s. Two possible options: 1) hosting a culture night for students to share about their home culture, 2) sending students out to other places on campus with a different culture than their own. This second response might be broadly defined, for example, football games (the American kind where they use hands) or musical performances could be different cultural experiences.

Debrief: Before the response, give students a few questions to consider. Don’t overwhelm them, but make sure they have questions that help keep their experiences in mind. At your next meeting, follow up on those questions as well as ask new ones. Possible debrief questions:

  • What was your experience like overall?
  • What did you learn about other cultures?
  • Where did you experience God?
  • What surprised you the most?
  • Do you feel like there are similarities between your culture and others that you originally thought were very different?
  • Do you feel like you would be able to navigate new cultures better?
  • How can you work at seeing all cultures positively?
  • Were you excited to share about your own culture? Apprehensive about how you would be received?
  • Did you feel uncomfortable at all? Welcomed? Why?
  • Would you want to go back/visit another group?

God and Creation

Goal: To see what it means to us for God to create a “very good” world.

Creation stories differ all around the world. By studying what Christians believe, international students can have a better understanding of how Christians view God, the world, and humanity. This foundation will help them better understand Jesus’ teachings.

Hear the Word: Discuss Genesis 1. Have other creation accounts from the time period of the early Israelites also present. (Origins has some helpful resources.) Ask students to talk about creation stories from their home countries. Look at how God interacts with his creation, including humans, and how Adam interacted with creation (also Gen 2:19-20). Possible questions:

  • What do you think “and God saw that it was good” means? What does a good world look like?
  • Compare the account of Genesis 1 with the other creation stories of the time. What are the similarities? Differences?
  • What style of writing is this? What does that mean?
  • What is God’s description of man? What does that mean to you?
  • What does it mean to have dominion over the earth?

Respond: Have students spend time in creation. This could take many different forms. Your group could study this during a retreat while students spend time outside. Your can visit local state parks. Students can compare wild creation and cultivated creation by going to parks, zoos, nature centers, and public gardens. You could have students talk about different types of plants and animals native to their home countries. (New Zealanders? One word:glowworms.)

Debrief: Debrief within one week. As students respond, ask them about the intricacies and diversity of creation. Have them draw parallels between the world around them and the world of Genesis 1. Possible questions:

  • How do we interact with creation?
  • Do you think creation was ever good? Is good now?
  • How can we see God’s viewpoint of creation?
  • What did you learn? About the world? About yourself?
  • What surprised you?
  • What excited you?
  • What disappointed you?
  • What did you think of the differences between occupied and unoccupied places?

God and Evil

Goal: To see that God has compassion for all, including those who complain or do evil.

The presence of evil and suffering often holds non-Christians back from accepting God. By framing human evil against God’s compassion, students are better able to see how God’s mercy and Jesus’ sacrifice redeem the world.

Hear the Word: Study Jonah 3-4. This Old Testament scripture on God’s compassion is also a clear example of human choice. Students may have heard of the story of Jonah in the whale, but the point of this study is to look at God’s response to Nineveh. Plan for questions about the whale, but draw focus to God’s compassion for the Ninevites. Possible questions:

  • (Before starting the passage) What is your view of God (nonexistent, judgmental, punishes, gives, etc.)?
  • If God told you to go to a community that you and your country despised, what would you do?
  • Why was Jonah upset with God?
  • Why does Jonah say God is “too compassionate”? Does that seem like a good or bad thing to you? Does God prove that point? How?
  • What do the people of Ninevah think about God? How do they respond to Jonah’s message?
  • Look up what Ninevah was like. Are they nice people? Would you have let them live? What does this say about God?

Respond: Look for ways students can show compassion. For example, ask students who they tend to resent. How do they make them feel? Have them find those people on campus and invite them to coffee to learn more about them. If you have Christians in your group, encourage them to think about who they have trouble accepting as God’s people, and have them interact with those people.

Debrief: Debrief within a few days, because students could have a very emotional response to the exercise. Gauge students’ reactions and help them respond healthily. Possible questions:

  • Did you have trouble finding someone to invite to meet with you? Did you have trouble getting them to agree to meet with you?
  • What did you learn about them? About yourself?
  • What surprised you?
  • Where did God show up in your interaction?
  • Did you feel more compassionate?
  • How did others respond to you?
  • Did you want to respond like Jonah?

God and Humanity

Goal: To cultivate humility.

Humility is essential to realizing our sinful nature and God’s perfect mercy and grace in Jesus’ incarnation. As students look at Jesus’ interactions with people around him, they will learn more about how God sees us. This scripture may challenge assumptions about Jesus’ character, and show the need for humility before God.

Hear the Word: Study Matthew 9:18-38, a short collection of some of Jesus’ miracles. Possible questions:

  • What do you think about Jesus being interrupted while teaching yet still going with the man who interrupted him?
  • How many miracles do you think Jesus performed in this short time?
  • How does Jesus interact with each person he heals? What does he say? Is he blunt? Vague? Hopeful? Unapproachable?
  • How do people approach Jesus? What are their common emotions?
  • Why was Jesus compassionate? What does it mean to be “harassed and helpless like sheep”?

Respond: Encourage students to find ways to be humble. Some possibilities: doing a service day in the community; inviting students to try something new (that they may not be particularly good at); having students ask someone they trust to point out negative actions they often do. Depending on your group, some options are better than others.

Debrief: Debrief right after the response. Students will likely be more willing to talk about humbling experiences they’ve just had rather than after waiting a few days. Possible questions:

  • How did you feel before the response? During? After?
  • Did you expect to enjoy it or dislike it?
  • Did you experience unexpected distractions? How did you respond?
  • What did you learn?
  • What surprised you?
  • Where did you see God?
  • How did you feel towards others during the response? How do you relate that to how God feels about you?

In Real Time

Sometimes, the three areas of the cycle don’t clearly stand out. Or you may start at the response and end with the Word. What could that look like?

Your chapter hosts an event for internationals: a furniture giveaway. Your team, including internationals from last year, collects furniture and then gives it to incoming international students. It’s a great service project – but do your students know the vision behind it? If you simply say it is to welcome new students, you’re missing an opportunity.

After a hard day’s work moving furniture, you invite both the students you met as you passed out sofas and your moving team to a dinner discussion. (Hosted by a donor, because you are a pro.) At that discussion, you make small talk about the day and ask students questions. “What things did you learn today?” “How can we help you get settled in town?” “Do you know why we did this?” This opens an opportunity to talk about how Jesus calls us to service and giving. Bring up Mark 10 or Luke 22, passages about the role of a servant in God’s kingdom. Ask them what they think about that.

Though each step wasn’t spelled out, the discipleship cycle was present in that experience. The event was a response and the discussion was a debrief that led into hearing the word.

Go and Do

The discipleship cycle is simply a tool to use to point students towards God’s will. There is not a right or wrong way to use it – if something didn’t work, just try it again in a new way!

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

-Matthew 28:18-20


Have you been using the discipleship cycle with your group? Let us know what's been helpful in the comments below!

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