Many years ago, when I was significantly more clueless about life and barely able to think deeply about things, I was asked to be part of what my youth pastor called a “Ministry Team.” He probably told me and the others he invited to participate what the purpose of the group would be, but I really didn’t fully understand what he was talking about. I knew it would involve extra meetings and training to be involved in leading certain aspects of the youth ministry. I said yes because I was afraid to say no. During one of the first special meetings we had, the youth pastor asked a question that went something like this: “How would you describe a discipled student?” He was after a definition or specific description of a teen who had been through four years of the church’s youth ministry. What that person would look like – not on the outside, but in their heart, mind and behavior. If we could define our goal, we could create a practical strategy for reaching that goal. As a sixteen-year-old, it was a rather “heady” question. But it started me on the path of seriously thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in real terms. This is necessary for all of us to consider – regardless of age or level of spiritual formation – as we embark on the mission of making disciples who make disciples.
What does discipleship look like?
Before we consider what discipleship looks like, we need to understand what discipleship does not look like. Discipleship is not church attendance. Discipleship is not participating in a Bible study group or attending a Sunday School class. Discipleship is not taking classes at a Bible college or local seminary. Discipleship is not developing a gift or skill and using it in a Sunday church service. Discipleship is not a checklist of spiritual activities. While all of these things may play a role in the process of an individual becoming a disciple, in and of themselves, they do not constitute discipleship.
When we think about discipleship as followers of Jesus who make up our local church, this is what we mean:
Christian discipleship is a dynamic process that takes place within loving, accountable relationships over a period of time for the purpose of bringing believers to spiritual maturity in Jesus.
The essence of this definition is from a statement that was developed at the Eastbourne Consultation on Discipleship in 1999 at which church leaders from more than 50 countries and nearly ninety organizations and churches met to establish a mutual understanding of and global strategy for discipleship. The definition helps us as a local gathering of believers guide our understanding and practical application of what it means to make disciples who make disciples. Think about some of the important ideas in this definition.
Discipleship is not a dry, formal program. It is an animated process in which specific actions are lived out in real life. It is not something that can only be talked about – it is something that happens. And what happens is largely dependent on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is active in our lives, producing his fruit in us and fruit for God and his guidance must be relied upon in order to effectively and actually make disciples. The Holy Spirit is literally the “dynamo” or the power in the process of discipleship. One can carry out the tasks necessary for making a disciple, but without the influence of the Spirit of God, nothing significant or eternal will take place. But with his activity enlivening the process, people become disciples and God receives the credit. Ultimately, the dynamic process of discipleship is far more concerned with the person than it is with the product. People are the focus and when something else becomes the focus, we are no longer legitimately making disciples. The point bears repeating: Discipleship is not a program; it is a person-centered, real-life process with real-life outcomes.
Loving, Accountable Relationships
Because at its core, discipleship is person-centered, it is fundamentally relational. Relationships require time together, sharing life together. The mundane and climactic, the broken and the sacred, the tragic and the celebratory – all the moments of life are shared in discipling relationships with each other. There is no making of disciples without relationship. Discipling relationships involve speaking truth in love which is to say, we love each other enough to tell the truth and we are honest enough to love. Of course, love is simply seeking what is best for another person. In seeking to make a disciple of someone, we must be prepared to love them as a person, not as a project. And love requires a willingness to carry the burdens of another, to be broken with them, to get some of their dirt on us, to allow our shoulders to be moistened by their tears. Love, the apostle Paul says, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13). If we are going to make disciples who make disciples, we will need to put up with the weaknesses, foibles, annoyances, frustrations, habits and sins of another. We will need to love them like Jesus loves us.
Relational discipleship involves helping others grow – addressing their weaknesses and developing their strengths, pointing out their problems and promoting their potential. Discipleship is all about people in loving relationships with each other.
Over A Period of Time
Think about the amount of time Jesus spent with his disciples. He spent the better part of every day for three years with them. He was intentional in his teaching and training. He made the most of each teachable moments and in some cases, he created teachable moments when none were readily available. Discipleship takes time and it can’t be rushed. There is no predictable time-frame, no standard expectation of how long it will take for a disciple to reach maturity. Here is a major understatement: Discipleship requires patience. Jesus expressed some frustration with the slow progress of maturity in his disciples in John 14:9 – Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” If Jesus could be somewhat frustrated with the the slow progress of his disciples, we should expect discipleship to take some time and need to be patient in the process.
Part of the reason it takes time to make disciples who make disciples is due to the fact that there is significant work to be done at each level of growth. In general, there are four levels or phases to the discipleship process: evangelizing the lost, establishing the new believer in the faith, edifying and equipping the maturing believer, and empowering the mature believer to make more disciples. Each phase requires focused attention and specific tasks – and lots of time. Be prepared to invest time in the disciple you are making at each phase of the process.
Purposeful Pursuit of Maturity
The time spent in making a disciple needs to be purposeful. Jesus described the purpose of discipleship as teaching others to obey what he commanded (Matthew 28:20). This idea emphasizes the priority of the Word – person and pages. This point can’t be overemphasized: Making a disciple who makes disciples means helping them know and obey Jesus. Discipleship is not inducting someone into a religion or helping them pass a test on theology. Making disciples involves being witnesses to the realities of who Jesus is and what he has done and helping people respond to those realities with commitment and devotion. Paul expressed it this way in Ephesians 4:11-16:
"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love."
No one could have said it better. What a thorough description of what is involved in purposeful discipleship. We are developing followers of Jesus, not followers of you or me, or of a church, or of a denomination, or of a cause. We are making followers of Jesus who, as Paul said, grow up into Jesus. That’s what we mean by making disciples who make disciples. This is our calling, our responsibility and our stewardship until we are present with Jesus in the life to come. Next time, we will consider the real-life, practical tasks necessary to accomplish this mission. But for now, think about the definition of discipleship and ask God for wisdom, strength and willingness to be part of this eternal, dynamic process.