What Is Discipleship? (the need for a better understanding)

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Jesus referred to his closest friends as “My disciples.”

Jesus’ last words were, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)

In church, we hear all about the importance of discipling others.

But what is discipleship?

What Is Discipleship?

Discipleship is a buzzword in Christian circles. Yet, for many people (and churches), “discipleship” is a word that glorifies an idea more than it is an action that glorifies our Lord. There is a much higher buy-in to the concept of discipleship than there is an actual production of disciples. I think the disconnect often occurs because many of us don’t really understand what discipleship is.

We think we know, but the question, “What is discipleship?” is often answered too short-sightedly. As a pastor, I write this as a critique of the Western Church, which I am part of. I stand convicted as one who desires to devote my life to making disciples but often fails. For that, I apologize, first to Christ and then to you.

Three and a half years ago, I was hired as lead pastor at the church I now serve. I was eager to disciple the congregation God entrusted me with. One of the first things I did was polish up on previous studies I had done on discipleship. I read books to help me plan a discipleship program and solidify the answer to: “What is discipleship?” I talked with other pastors about how they disciple. I looked into programs to help our church become a disciple-making community. I remember talking to my wife about the unique opportunity we have (because we serve in a military community) to make disciples who will be sent throughout the world.

During this time, I recalled a challenge I was given to my discipleship concept, which I had heard several years prior. At a conference, the main speaker said, “You aren’t making disciples until your disciples are making disciples.” Think about that for a second. Often times we think that Jesus’ commission to “make disciples” is a one-step process. We may think to ourselves, “I need to find someone and pour into them, so they understand God more fully.”

While this is a noble thought, if teaching others about God is all you do, you are not, in fact, making disciples. Why? Because a disciple of Jesus is not just someone who learns from him, but someone who takes Jesus’ yoke upon them (Matt 11:29), which includes reproduction. In other words, a disciple is not just someone who gets instructions. Nor is a disciple someone who simply instructs others. 

As I began to better grasp the idea of discipleship, I thankfully discovered discipleship is an idea many churches and Christians enthusiastically promote. Unfortunately and sadly, I also observed few are really making disciples. Few are truly creating a habit of being discipled and discipling others. (As testified by declining faith in the west.)

So… What is discipleship?

What We Get Wrong About Discipleship

I’ve hinted at this a little, but a true disciple continually learns from God, instructs others in how to live for God, and teaches those they are discipling how to take what they have learned to help others live for God. To truly disciple others, your disciple must be discipling others.

Don’t get me wrong- introducing others to Christ is extremely important, but it’s not the end goal. For more on evangelism, check out this blog Evangelizing In A Bathroom

The point of all this critique is to help all of us understand the calling Christ gave us when he said, “go and make disciples.” This charge was spoken to his disciples, his followers. We are to be people who don’t simply look to pass off our faith to someone else; Jesus calls us to train others in their faith in a way that has them training others. Is this the way you view your relationships with those in your life?

Too often, my focus is either conversion or knowledge input. Too often, my messages on the weekends give the first step in engaging in discipleship, but not the end goal. Too often, my perspective is too short-sighted, keeping me in a loop of “Step one…repeat.”

You might also like: What Following Jesus REALLY Looks Like

A Better Understanding Of Discipleship

We need an accurate answer to the question, “what is discipleship?” When we correctly define discipleship, our process and programs may turn out to be less “successful” than we’ve evaluated because we can’t claim we’ve discipled people until they are discipling others. A heart for discipleship looks beyond what we are doing and, instead, looks to what those we are discipling are doing (I know that sentence might be confusing, so reread it slowly)

 It’s relatively easy to answer questions and make sure people understand their Bible and Jesus (and even what discipleship is). It’s much more difficult to make disciples who make disciples. It’s easier, as a pastor, to say I’ve talked about this over and over. It’s harder to ask myself, “Am I truly discipling others?” “Is our church really creating disciples?”

Imagine if the original disciples answered the question, “What is discipleship?” in the way it so often plays out in our culture. If they thought, “Discipleship is teaching others about Jesus. The end.” None of us would be here. They would have “passed on” what they had witnessed to their family and friends, and… that’s about it.

Instead, they shared the transformative Gospel message with inspiration, challenge, rebuke, and expectations that the good news should be shared with others. Inherent in the message was the reality of Jesus’ heart, a heart that called 12 men to be his close disciples, training them up to take his message and train others. The New Testament letters continue the assumption of discipleship. Paul, Peter, and James write with an expectation that their audience will live in a way that intentionally draws and develops others to a life of replicating faith.

So, my calling to you, to your church, to myself is to evaluate- honestly evaluate- if we are making disciples. You are only making disciples if your disciples are making disciples. This definition forces us to look beyond what we are doing and look to the fruit produced by those we pour into. When we begin to produce “spiritual grandchildren” who are creating “spiritual great-grandchildren,” then we can be encouraged because the “go and make disciples” which Jesus called us to is actually being accomplished.

Stay tuned for my next post as we begin to explore how to move from a “disciple” to a true disciple: a disciple-maker.

Thanks for reading! I hope that this post help you rethink parts of your life and faith. If it did, would you leave a comment and let me know your thoughts? How would you define discipleship? What is discipleship?

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Don’t forget to leave a comment! What is discipleship?

Drew Froese

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