When communicating an idea successfully it’s necessary that you first define your terms. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of discipleship. Everybody has a different opinion. Discipleship has become somewhat of a “buzz word” in evangelical circles today. It’s a hot topic. Everybody wants to put in their two cents. My goal isn’t to add to the buzz. I just want to create a little clarity for how we think about it in our own church family.
What comes to your mind when you see the word “disciple?”
Let’s think about what a disciple is and what a disciple is not.
First, a disciple is NOT just a learner. The word disciple literally means learner but a disciple does much more than simply learn information. Good discipleship is about transformation not just information.
Second, a disciple is NOT just a “committed” believer. Another common mistake people make when thinking about discipleship is the assumption that disciples are the committed believers whereas non-disciples are non-committed believers. Disciples are the one’s who’ve made Jesus LORD whereas non-disciples are content with just having Jesus save them from hell.
Unfortunately, there is no such class division in the Scripture. That sort of two-tiered Christianity is unhelpful and unbiblical.
A disciple is anyone who has trusted in Jesus for salvation.
You cannot be a Christian without also being a disciple and you cannot be a disciple without also being a Christian. They are one in the same.
There is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that provides us with a simple and biblical definition of discipleship.
Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and he sees two brothers casting a net into the sea. Simon Peter and his brother Andrew hear the Lord offer them this invitation.
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)
Immediately they left their nets and followed him. At that moment, they became disciples of Jesus.
That invitation from Jesus provides us a very clear, three part, definition of discipleship.
A disciple is
- Following Jesus,
- Being changed by Jesus,
- And committed to the mission of Jesus.
This definition of discipleship is by no means original with me.[i] But it’s a good definition of discipleship in my opinion. It’s simple, biblical, and easy to reproduce.
According to this definition, we see that discipleship is a PROCESS.
We are all on a discipleship journey. There are degrees of maturity when it comes to being a disciple. You cannot expect a disciple to become mature overnight. Maturity in discipleship takes place over time.
If being a disciple means you are someone who is following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and committed to the mission of Jesus then that means we also have a definition of disciple-making.
Disciple-making is the process of helping others
- Follow Jesus,
- Be changed by Jesus,
- And be committed to the mission of Jesus.
In short, disciple-making is the process of helping others trust and follow Jesus. [ii]
Now that we have a working definition of what a disciple is, let’s think about what is required for discipleship to take place. Remember, discipleship is helping someone follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus, and be committed to the mission of Jesus.
What’s needed in order for this kind of supernatural process to take place?
In my view, discipleship requires at least three components.
- The Word of God,
- The Spirit of God,
- And people.
When the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to transform people then discipleship is taking place.
That means discipleship can take place inside the walls of the church and outside the walls of the church. Discipleship is something that takes place in the home, the workplace, or the football stadium.
You can be making disciples in the preschool wing or the nursing home. You don’t need a special curriculum. You don’t need a seminary education. You just need to be a person who is willing to let the Spirit of God use the Word of God in the lives of people.
That said, I would like to offer just a few thoughts on the best kind of environments for disciple-making to take place
The best disciple-making takes place in the context of relational environments.[iii]
The more relational the environment the more likely discipleship will take place. That’s why churches who are committed to making disciples will continually grow smaller as they’re also getting larger. As the church gets bigger it has to grow smaller.
Take the life of Jesus, for example. Jesus taught the multitudes, He mobilized the seventy, He trained the twelve and He confided in the three (Peter, James and John). The smaller the circle the more relational the environment. The more relational the environment the more conducive it was to discipleship.
The best relational environments are marked high invitation and high challenge.
If you were in the inner circle of Jesus you were brought into a place deep intimacy but also steep commitment. The disciples of Jesus were accepted as they were but always being pushed to where they needed to be. The relational environments for disciple-making today should be marked by the same thing.
Bringing all of this together, let’s think about the different parties involved in the disciple-making process and the responsibilities that each party has. In my view, there are at least four parties involved in the disciple-making process:
- The Spirit of God,
- The disciple,
- The disciple-maker,
- And the local church.
Each party in the disciple-making process has a different responsibility.
The Spirit of God is the one who is responsible for transforming a person more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ (John 14:15; 25). Discipleship is a supernatural process brought about by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
The disciple is responsible for cooperating with the Holy Spirit by walking in faith and working out his salvation (Philippians 2:12-13). This takes place through a verity of spiritual disciplines and faith commitments.
The disciple-maker is responsible to present the Word of God in such a way that the Spirit of God can do His supernatural work (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Only God can produce spiritual life but He always uses people to speak and present His Word.
Lastly, the local church is responsible for creating and promoting relational environments so that discipleship can take place (Hebrews 10:24-25). A church should never have programs for the sake of having programs but always for the purpose of making disciples.
These articles are geared to provide a vision of discipleship that will give the last three of those parties a practical and workable plan so that they can know and successfully take their next step in the discipleship journey.
We’ll start by examining the six my disciple statements of Jesus and the implications of those statements for how we think about discipleship.