How to Disciple Someone Who Struggles with Reading

By Jon Kelly

Many people have a hard time reading or cannot read at all. If we are to fulfill the Great Commission, we must know how to disciple people who struggle to read. These four tips may help you.

What do you do when you realize that the person you recently led to Christ can’t read, struggles to read or has no desire to read? How do you teach someone all that Jesus commanded when reading the Word of God is a serious challenge for them?

So often, our understanding of discipleship (in America) assumes that those we encounter can read. Years ago, when I was incarcerated in prison, I worked as a G.E.D tutor helping fellow inmates achieve their diploma. Working up close with these men, I saw a massive number of individuals, from all different backgrounds and ethnic groups, who were either unmotivated to read, had a hard time reading or could not read at all.

I was one of them.

If we are to make disciples and fulfill the Great Commission, we must know how to disciple people who struggle to read.

These four tips may help you navigate potential opportunities the Lord presents you.

1. Remember history

We often hold other Christ followers accountable with reading because they can read. For Christians in the West, if you can read the word of God and choose not to read the word of God, you are seen as spiritually immature. What we often forget is that historically, many in Jesus’ day (and millenniums before) could not read or didn’t have personal daily access to the Word of God. Personal devotion through the daily reading of Scripture wasn’t common. The ability to do mass printing was not even an option until the 1400s, when the first printing press changed the world. This is why regularly attending the local synagogues and the Temple were so important in Jesus’ day. It gave everyone the opportunity to hear from the Word of God and learn for themselves, since many couldn’t read or own a copy of the Scriptures.

If you ask most missionaries who serve in under-resourced countries, settings in which oral tradition is premium, or in environments with caste systems, they will share stories of the challenges they face with those who struggle with reading. History reminds us that discipleship is possible even when the inability to read is present.

Action step: Start by talking about the teachings of Jesus. Pick a passage or teaching to talk about and discuss it together for a week. Repeat this week after week with a different text. Look for ways to help them memorize the teachings of Christ as they grow in their ability and desire to read.

2. Remember to protect

Protect them from shame. Some people grew up in an environment in which access to good education (or even the need for it) is extremely low. Others may have had to choose at a young age to either go to school and learn or to go out and work to provide for their family’s immediate necessities. I remember a friend sharing with me about their grandfather, who was a farmer in the Deep South. He couldn’t read and had never made it through middle school. Yet he was one of the godliest, most humble men you’d ever meet. He was a man of prayer who sacrificially served his family and community. Another time, I recall being with a young man filling out applications to wash cars at different auto dealerships. After realizing that he wasn’t filling anything out and approaching him, he asked me, “Can you help me? I can’t read.” He was 21 years old and soon to be a father. Given his reputation and charisma in our neighborhood, that was the last thing I expected to hear from him. I felt horrible that I had pressed him on filling out applications without considering if he could read.

This is why you never pick someone out of a crowd to read a passage of Scripture if you’re not sure that they can read. It may end up being an extremely embarrassing moment for them. It’s best to ask: “Can someone read (blank) for us?” Those who cannot read often hide it from others in order to not experience shame.

Action step: A loving aspect of discipleship is seeking to protect the inabilities of those we serve as they grow in spiritual maturity in Christ. Remind them that their inability to read does not lessen Christ’s love for them and that Christ desires for them to learn to read so they may know him better.

3. Remember the Opportunity

Discipling is most effective when two individuals share their lives with one another. Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you became very dear to us.” (1 Thess. 2:8). Paul shows us in this passage that discipleship requires both the preaching of the gospel (conversion) and intentionally “sharing our own selves.” The process of discipleship requires us to share our lives with those we are discipling. Instead of simply waiting on the individual to learn to read, we have the opportunity to walk alongside them, encourage them, support them and teach them about the ways of Christ as they learn to read.

This is what led to the creation of the “Street Lights Audio Bible.” As Christians sought to make disciples in under-resourced urban communities, they came across young men who loved hip-hop but couldn’t (or weren’t motivated) to read much. Those who could read struggled to understand the truths of Scripture being taught to them. So the “Street Lights Audio Bible” was created with hip-hop beats and strong visuals. Listening to Scripture over hip-hop beats as they shared their lives proved extremely fruitful in the spiritual formation of others. Instead of the inability to read becoming a stumbling block to spiritual formation, it became an opportunity for more effective discipleship and the creation of new resources.

Action step: Celebrate the opportunity you have to “share your life” with someone who is a babe in Christ and in need of growth. See their inability/lack of desire to read as an opportunity to come alongside them with support and encouragement for the long-haul.

4. Remember Christ

We are called to love people, not fix them. Pressure can mount when progress in reading is slow. In these moments we are reminded that God has called us to love people, not fix them. God fixes them as we lovingly walk alongside. Disciples of Jesus Christ aren’t required to be English teachers, but they are required to sit with and love those who are learning.

Remember that you are not Jesus, and you don’t have to be. Remember His patience with His disciples and remember that His grace is sufficient.

Published February 6, 2023

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Jon Kelly

Jon Kelly was born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has a B.A in Theology from Moody Bible Institute, M.A in Biblical Studies at Wheaton College and currently is earning a Global Missions doctorate at Southern Seminary. As someone formerly incarcerated, Jon has a heart for serving families that have been affected by incarceration and who often are forgotten. He and his wife, Danielle, have been married for 12 years and have three sons.