By Ken Braddy
The Andy Griffith Show—one of the most iconic shows in history—is full of memorable characters like Opie, Aunt Bee, and 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 difficult situations. Andy knew just how to help people see his point of view and could create harmonious situations out of chaotic ones. Andy also knew how to deal with the hardest kinds of people—people most of us would write off. He found ways to help them overcome their shortcomings—all within 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 you write them off, of course. But it does mean you 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 will be harder to disciple? In my experience, there are at least three kinds of people that 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 wasn’t 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’re 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. One of the best ways to do this is to show them you haven’t arrived yet—and how you’re still discovering new truths about the Bible.
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.
Urgent matters to tend to crowd out 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 the 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 disciple with difficult circumstances 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 find margin in their schedule.
Lead them to say no to things in their life that have crowded out “God and me” time. This kind of growing disciple needs accountability.
3. The spiritually myopic disciple
In my experience, this is the hardest kind of person to disciple. 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 coarse joke, or a seemingly indifferent attitude can set them back light years with people they might otherwise influence for Christ.
In the case of the myopic disciple, you have to be blunt. It’s 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 an admirable way of dealing with difficult people and circumstances. 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.
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 person, so 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).
Ken is Lifeway’s director of Sunday School and is a 30-year veteran of church education ministry. He is a blogger, author, and practitioner—serving a church in the Nashville area as its director of Sunday School and discipleship ministries. He is the author of several books, including Breathing Life Into Sunday School.