2 Questions for Successful Discipleship

Are you implementing discipleship in your organization, ministry or church? Many ministries have launched, faltered and discarded an attempt at discipleship because they failed to answer two critical questions. They discussed growth, teaching, transformation, mentoring, accountability, spiritual maturity…, but never really identified the distinctions of discipleship. Two significant questions will affect the objectives, content and results of discipleship.

After 40 years of discipling men individually and through small groups, I am convinced we benefit from answering: what is discipleship, and how do we accomplish it?

What is discipleship?

When a ministry cannot clearly answer this question, everything related to spiritual growth is crammed into the task. The result is a ministry venture that is so vague that little is accomplished, or so expansive that few will start, or finish it. Discipleship requires some boundaries.

The New Testament meaning of the word disciple includes all three of the following aspects:

1. Being a learner. A person who moves beyond knowing something, to responding to what he learns.

2. Being a follower. A disciple referred to “one going in the same way.” “Christianity came to be described as ‘the Way.’ Followers of the Way were called disciples. They were recognized by their devotion to the Master, evidenced by obedience to His precept and example.” (Master Plan of Discipleship, Robert Coleman, p. 99.)

3. Being committed to the person of Jesus. “Intellectual assent to His truth, to His doctrine did not make one a full New Testament disciple. Not until one was willing to commit himself, his life, his mind, his heart, his will to that truth and to the person of Jesus Christ could he be called a disciple of Jesus Christ.” (Design for Discipleship, J. Dwight Pentecost, p. 20.)

“A unique aspect of New Testament discipleship is that it is commitment to the person of Jesus. His teaching has force only when there is first this commitment to his person.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Trans. Geoffrey Bromiley, p. 560.)
In general, we could assume that everything accurately taught from the Scriptures in any forum could contribute to helping believers progress as learners and followers committed to Jesus. In that sense sermons, Bible studies, conferences and Bible resources all contribute to discipleship.

While you could argue that discipleship happens from the pulpit before a congregation of hundreds or thousands, it has some shortcomings. All of the people are at different places in their maturity, understanding and needs. Some are struggling with the security of their salvation, others with guilt and others with the authority of the Bible. Large groups cannot facilitate an opportunity for individuals to personally process the material with the teacher. People need to process spiritual truths with older believers in order to gain better understanding and make more specific applications.

The effectiveness of discipleship can be viewed as a funnel. The mass of people make up the wider portion of the funnel. One-on-one relationships or small groups make up the tip of the funnel. The intensity of discipleship increases as the numbers decrease from congregation to small groups to one-on-one relationships. The smaller the number, the more personal the interaction becomes.

It is helpful to regard discipleship as one person grounding others in their relationship with Christ, either through one-on-one relationships or small groups. A discipler helps a younger believer set a firm foundation for his relationship with Christ. Rather than designate a time limit, a specific material list or a maturity level as the objective, discipleship is measured by a desired result. Have I helped a younger believer come to the point where he is committed to following Christ, equipped to grow in his faith, and convinced of his need to continue learning what it means to trust God?

As the young believer increasingly takes responsibility for his own growth, the discipler changes his role. Over time his role shifts from spiritual parent to teacher to coach to peer. The younger believer should already be engaged in a church where he will continue to receive input from a broad range of peers and leaders. For the rest of his life he may experience some level of contact with his original discipler, but the circle of influencers in his life will expand.

How do I accomplish discipleship?

The how of discipleship involves both methods and content. The topic of methods will be left to another posting.

Content is critical. The content we cover in discipleship is based on what will best enable a person to become a learner and follower committed to Jesus. Making disciples has many parallels to building a house. The four most essential elements are:

1. The foundation. Most ministries that emphasize discipleship teach similar content that contributes to forming the foundation of one’s walk with Christ: security in Christ, position in Christ, God’s love and forgiveness, the ministries of the Holy Spirit, spending time with God in Bible study and prayer, God’s character and spiritual conflict. (See Discipleship/Set Your Foundation on this website)

The list will vary, but it always includes topics that are foundational to one’s growth in Christ. These are the issues that touch the everyday reality of every believer who is serious about maintaining a spiritually vibrant walk with Jesus.

2. The framework. You could consider the framework of the Christian life as the structure on which we hang everything else that we learn. There are three prominent themes in the Scriptures that characterize how we live the Christian life:

We live under grace. Romans 5:1-2—“Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand;…” (NASB)

We live by faith. Galatians 2:20—”I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.” (NASB)

We live in obedience. Matthew 28:19-20—”Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you;…” (NASB)

Grace, faith and obedience are primary descriptions of living in relationship with Jesus. The three are interconnected. Each gives balance to the other. Our relationship with Christ is based on His sacrifice, not our works. Both salvation and sanctification are anchored in grace. The Christian life is a life of dependence, a life of trusting God’s Word and His works. Our faith is verified by our obedience, by submitting to His Lordship. Jesus’ final commission regarding discipleship called for teaching disciples to obey—not to give them a list of rules to keep, but to help them learn a heart of obedience.

3. The blueprint. In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul admonishes us to handle the Scriptures accurately. Because the Scriptures are the inerrant, infallible and authoritative guide to life and relationship with Christ, we need to teach new believers how to navigate them. An abundance of topics include: basic study skills (regular devotions, how to study an entire book of the Bible or a Biblical character), an overview of the New and Old Testaments and apologetics (the reliability and historicity of the Bible).

4. The contractor. Just as a building contractor insures that a building is properly constructed, so the Holy Spirit was given to us to build us toward Christ-likeness. He provides empowerment to resist temptation, discern error and stand firm on the truth. He produces the fruit of Christ-like character in us. He enables us to please Christ instead of the fleshly desires that so easily consume us. (Galatians 5)

When Jesus’ disciples expressed their fear over His departure, He assured them that the Spirit would be present in their lives. Following Jesus as He described is only possible through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Materials are readily available through Bible teaching churches and several discipleship ministries. Consider the resources produced by www.cru.org, www.navigators.org, and www.ccbt.org . Discipleship materials are also being developed as free downloads on this website.