What is Discipleship?
Given that this is so clearly our task, it’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer well. We have a certain intuition about it which is not exactly wrong but it’s often too vague to articulate in a meaningful way.
Can you imagine a group of church leaders working together for years, working well by most standards, toward the same mission of discipleship, who sit down to attempt to define for the first time what discipleship is and discover they don’t, in fact, agree on what it is they are trying to do!
Not only have I seen it, I’ve experienced it. This happened in each of the first two churches I pastored. In broad strokes we all meant the same thing and it’s not as if the visions were polar opposites or incompatible but it did mean our assessment of how we were doing and the reasoning behind stopping or starting anything never started from the same place. I’ve seen this many times repeated in other churches as well.
Consider: If I walk in to any Mcdonalds restaurant and ask the manager to define a hamburger for me he will of course tell me that it is some concoction of beef formed into a patty and placed in a bun. But if pressed, he would no doubt be able to tell me more. He would acknowledge that beef and a bun is far too vague and that there is much more to the definition of a McDonald’s burger. If free from proprietary concerns, he could no doubt give me a very precise recipe for a McDonalds’ burger. But imagine if every McDonalds defined a burger differently. Even worse imagine if every employee in the store defined and made each burger differently. Some cooked them differently or not at all! Some used different ingredients. At the end of the day there would be no way to judge a “McDonald’s burger,” no way to improve or discard the idea of a McDonalds burger. In truth there would cease to be a McDonald’s burger at all: there would instead be just a bunch of McDonalds where you could get an assortment of random beef patties in buns.
When I first ask church leaders to define discipleship, I get some common answers, which is good. They tend to look roughly like this
- Teaching the same doctrine
- Building the same convictions
- Learning to live according to a standard of morals and standards
- Sometimes there is a list of specific behaviors usually including evangelism, some kind of regular private time with God, service to others, and biblical application. Teaching and internalizing these behaviors becomes discipleship.
- Drawing closer to Christ
- Learning to love God and People
- Mentorship and multiplication
These are all good things and undoubtedly connected to Discipleship. As I said we do have a certain intuition for it, but these answers are in some ways like saying a burger is a beef patty in a bun. It’s true enough but how do we assess the burger? What makes it nutritious or healthy or tasty?
Here’s the kinds of questions I tend to press to try to reach a better more specific definition.
- Which doctrines? Is there a priority to important and less important ones. When one has memorized these doctrines are they then disciples?
- Which convictions? What does it mean to be convinced? How do we know?
- Which morals and standards? Does anyone who lives these standards or higher ones count as a disciple of Christ even if they are, for example Muslim?
- How much room is there for abberant behavior? How do we determine which behaviors make a disciple and which don’t? Isn’t there a heart issue which separates a self righteous Pharisee from a well behaved Christian? How do we assess and encourage that distinction?
- What does drawing closer to Christ actually look like? How can we assess progress? Is this emotional or behavioral or mental or what?
- What does loving God and loving others look like? What does discipleship which encourages such devotion look like? How do you assess progress?
- What are we mentoring or multiplying specifically?
Why does it matter
- If we don’t define it clearly we can’t articulate it and if we can’t articulate it we can’t expect people to do it
- We can’t clearly even model what we can’t define
- We can’t assess progress or lack therof so we never know what to stop or start doing
A few suggestions
- If defining what seems particularly slippery it’s likely because you have not yet defined why. Go back and take your time on the first question. Why inevitably informs what. In fact, sometimes it makes it really obvious.
- Don’t stretch my franchise analogy too far. I don’t mean that every church should define it exactly the same way. In broad terms (beef on a bun) yes, but specifics will be culturally and contextually dependent. Even McDonald’s does the same thing. I love my Green Chile Cheeseburger but they only serve it here in New Mexico. They look at me funny when I order it in Illinois. If that sounds too wishy-washy for church, consider how Jesus evangelized: he told the rich young man to sell everything, he told Nicodemus to be born again, he didn’t tell the woman at the well to do anything. The Gospel of Grace and their need to accept it didn’t change but he defined it differently in each case. There is room, even obligation for us to do the same contextualization within the parameters of the broader definition of discipleship.
- Define it with a small community of leaders you trust who you believe “get it.” Don’t define it yourself. Trust God to work through others who demonstrate a maturity and interest in the topic. Take the time to discuss and explore together. Below is an exercise I use which can help guide your discussion.
- Think of your definition as more of a recipe or list of qualities about Discipleship rather than either a list of qualities for the disciple or a dictionary definition of the term. Here’s an example of what we came up with at Lifesong. We made ours an acronym to help with articulation. You’ll also notice that our elements all include questions to help us consistently assess the how and just keep seeking better answers. Were I pastor if a church today it’s likely I would make some changes (in community with my new leadership) but it’s an example of the kind of thing you may arrive at from the exercise below. We saw our elements in the passages below. Here’s the link: LIFE Training.
For each of the passages below come up with bullet points rather than entire essays on what Discipleship looks like in each of the examples. It’s ok if you don’t identify every possible answer:-) It’s more of a brainstorming with guidance, than a comprehensive definition.
What does Discipleship necessarily need to look like based on the “why” we discussed in Ephesians?
What do the following examples in Jesus life tell us about what Discipleship looks like?
- Matthew 20:20-24
- John chapter 4. (Pay particular attention to how these events are part of discipling the apostles.)
- Matthew 14:13-32
What do the following passages tell us about what discipleship looks like?
- Titus chapter 2
- 1 Timothy 1
- Romans 14
Next week we’ll explore how to continually assess how you’re doing once you’ve defined what you are doing and why your are doing it?
For the sake of community, even here, I would be delighted to receive your ideas, questions, disagreements or affirmations in the comment field below.
See you next week!
Smiling at the future,
I founded Discipleship Matters to help churches with leadership retreats, pastoral coaching, guest speaking and conferences as another supporting voice in your work of discipleship. We can create a custom long term plan (anywhere from 6 months to 2 years) or arrange an al-a-carte conference. (If the information in this series intrigues you, I’d specifically suggest the Big Ideas conference where I help you and your leaders work through these important first questions on your way to a unique plan of “How” to build a thriving community of Discipleship. I value you and the work you do and want to help if I can in anyway. Call me at 505-393-5433(LIFE) or email me at Pastormac_@mac.com (put Discipleship Matters in the subject if you want to get my attention right away.)