Demystifying Discipleship

Discipleship.

It's a Christian buzzword. The word (or some equivalent) appears in most church mission statements, including ours. You've heard about it in sermons. Perhaps you've even talked about it with friends. You have some sense of its importance.  

Discipleship is important; vitally important. In the New Testament, believers are called "disciples" 269 times (by comparison, they're only called "Christians" three times). Moreover, Christ's final command to his church is to "make disciples" (Matthew 28:19-20). Until Jesus comes back, all of us are in the discipleship business.

Every Christian has a dual calling; to be a disciple, and to make disciples. All other callings are secondary.

  • You may be called to full-time ministry. Or, you may be called to full-time market analysis, or full-time motherhood.
  • You may be called to celibacy, or to marriage.
  • You may be called to stay here. Or, you may be called to leave.
  • You may be called to live in a very affluent suburban neighborhood. Or, you may be called to live among the urban poor.
  • You may receive great acclaim for what you do, or you may toil in obscurity.

Our secondary callings vary. Our primary call does not. We are called to discipleship.

Feel the weight of that. Let it sink in.

Your primary objective in life is not to have an exciting social life, a comfortable existence, fun on the weekends, a sizeable 401k, a large house in a safe area, a thriving business, above-average kids, a great physique, a successful career, or the respect of your peers. None of these things are inherently bad; some are quite good. But none is the main thing; the main thing is discipleship.   

So what is discipleship?

Discipleship is becoming like Jesus, and helping others become like Jesus.

A disciple is a learner. That's what word "disciple" (Gk: mathetes) literally means. As Ben Sternke says, a disciple is someone who is with Jesus, learning from Jesus how to be like Jesus.

Christian growth is a process of transformation into Christ's image. From conversion onward, the indwelling Spirit is conforming us into the image of Jesus (2 Cor 3:18). As we cooperate with the Spirit, we take on the character of Christ in increasing measure.

But what does growth look like? How do you know if you're growing? I like Colin Marshall and Tony Payne's metrics for growth. A Christian (i.e. a disciple) should be actively growing in the "three C's"; conviction, character and competence:

  1. Conviction - A disciple is deepening his knowledge of God and understanding of God's word (John 8:31-32).
  2. Character - A disciple exhibits Christlike character, supremely in the love she demonstrates to God and those around her (John 13:34-35).
  3. Competence - A disciple is learning to prayerfully and skilfully use God's word to encourage, rebuke, comfort and train others. She is learning to make disciples the way Jesus did (Matthew 28:18-20). 

Put differently, growth involves your head, your heart, and your hands. We should strive to think like Jesus thinks, love like Jesus loves, and lead like Jesus leads. Discipleship is thus a comprehensive commitment. It requires whole-person imitation of Christ's example. This presents unique challenges to each of us. Some of us love acquiring knowledge, but struggle to apply it. Others are eager to meet practical needs, but have difficulty articulating the gospel message. Whatever the case, being a disciple of Christ will stretch us in a variety of ways.

Another important implication flows from this; being Christ's disciple entails that you are making (or seeking to make) disciples. We are called to imitate Jesus, and Jesus spent the bulk of his earthly life investing in 12 men. When Jesus called his disciples, he said, "I will teach you how to fish for people" (Mark 1:18). He wishes to teach us the same lessons. Thus, it is impossible to follow Jesus closely unless you are actively seeking to help others follow him closely. Put differently, if you're growing as a disciple, you're growing as a disciple-maker.

As you contemplate these things, here are some questions to ask yourself. At some point, I believe every Christ must honestly ask her/himself these questions.

  • Am I a disciple? Am I committed to following Jesus and becoming like him, no matter what the cost?
  • Have I been discipled? Has a mature Christian made an intentional investment in me? Has this person taught me how to think like Jesus, love like Jesus, and lead like Jesus? These are crucial questions. There are many people in the church who've never been discipled (or discipled well, at least). Sermons are immensely helpful for spiritual growth. So is Christian community. But sermons and Christian community don't magically generate disciples. To quote Ben Sternke once more, discipleship is a relational and directive process. We become disciples by living in an intimate relationship with another believer. However, this relationship is directive, in that the discipler proactively offers spiritual direction to the disciple. The discipler consciously demonstrates Christlikeness, and the disciple actively seeks to imitate her (see 1 Cor 11:1; Heb 13:7).  We become like Jesus through imitating other imitators of Jesus. It's a bit like parenting. Payne and Marshall note the similarities:
  1. It begins as someone is instrumental in bringing someone else to new birth.
  2. It is long term and loving.
  3. It includes passing on knowledge, wisdom and practical instruction.
  4. It involves modeling and imitation.
  5. It forms not only beliefs and abilities, but also character and lifestyle.             (The Trellis and The Vine, p. 75)
  • If you've never been in this kind of relationship, seek it out. You can start by telling me you're interested. Jesus makes disciples through disciples. We need spiritual fathers and mothers who will direct us in the way we should go (see Titus 2:1-6). They've gone before us, and they're wiser than we are. They're flesh and blood examples of Christlikeness to us.
  • If I have been discipled, am I making disciples?  If you have been discipled, are you seeking to help others follow Jesus? Are you engaging those who don't follow him? Or, are you building into a younger believer in the manner described above? If not, are you seeking out these kinds of relationships? Making disciples is our highest calling. It is the most important, most taxing, most rewarding, most pressing task we've been assigned.   

At some point, I'd love to hear each of your answers to these questions, and any follow-up questions this post generates.