What is a disciple? Some people say that a disciple is someone who is “following Jesus together as their Master and Teacher so that they may become just like Jesus.” Years ago, Walter Henrichsen said that Disciples are Made Not Born. Jesus himself said that the job of the Church was to make disciples, so Henrichsen’s statement still seems quite relevant. But the question still remains, what is a disciple?
I’m convinced that discipleship doesn’t take place for so many of us simply because we have no idea what we’re shooting for. In other words, discipleship doesn’t happen because people don’t have a clear picture of what the target is.
Let’s cut to the chase and, for the sake of time, agree that making disciples means we’re focused on helping people become more like Jesus. Jesus himself said that disciples obey his commands (Matt. 28:20) and St. Paul famously speaks of being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) as we present ourselves holy before God (Rom. 12:1). A Christian disciple is someone who follows Jesus as Lord. Somewhere along the line, discipleship has gone woefully wrong… and our churches are suffering because of it.
Soooooo, here are five ways that we can get back on track:
(1) Making disciples must be pneumatic. Followers of Jesus are “born of the Spirit” (John 3:1-22) as the Holy Spirit is the agent whom the Father works through to draw people to Jesus (John 6:44). We must keep in mind that our missional praxis of making disciples is completely ineffective if we believe that we are working by ourselves! I’ve yet to meet a person who is on mission with God who disagrees with this, but it is so vital that it must be repeated.
In addition to being pneumatic in the soteriological sense, making disciples is pneumatic in the ongoing relational sense. The Spirit must be at the center of our discipleship making. How else can we effectively baptize people into the Trinity, right? How else can we effectively teach people to obey Jesus’ commands? How else can we effectively build up and equip Jesus’ followers? In Kyle Strobel’s fantastic Metamorpha: Jesus as a Way of Life, he writes of the relationally transformative work of the Spirit by reminding us that,
“the Spirit is the agent of change in our lives, and because we often fail to relate to and interact with him as such, change remains elusive.”
So what does this look like? I have a young man that I’m currently in the process of discipling and there are some key formational practices that we are doing together that includes reading Scripture together, praying together, and doing ministry together. I’ve increasingly become aware of the necessity of leaning into and looking toward the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So when we get together to hang out, we are both doing our best to be sensitive to what the Spirit wants to do in our meetings. What is it that he would like us to address? How can we be discerning of his presence and work? Those are the types of questions that we both are keenly aware of because we both have come to the conclusion that making disciples is pneumatic.
(2) Making disciples must be intentional. I’m concerned that in the past ten years, all of our talk about being “missional” and “incarnational” has boiled down to one simple fact: we use new words to describe what we were already not doing. If we, as already reconciled-to-the Father followers of Jesus, do not live our lives with the intentional purpose of making disciples, we won’t.
Many of our churches often function simply as social clubs where the “already convinced” gather together to live as those who do not really believe that they are called to join God’s mission of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). Consider these questions:
- If your congregation did not exist, would the community you live in be aware of it?
- What makes your local church any different than a book club?
- How does your community take personal ownership of the task of making disciples?
These are the types of questions that I’ve been asking myself for over a decade. Being a “church kid” my whole life means that I’ve been in quite a few churches over the years and I’ve seen and been a part of many that simply did not have any focus on intentionally making disciples.
So what does intentional discipleship look like? Great question. When I was a teenager, I was fortunate to be a part of a church where my good friend Jason was the pastor. I can vividly remember his continual challenge, encouragement, and teaching on the importance of making disciples. The sermon that I remember always cast a vision of this and I saw it modeled in all that the church did. And guess what? The church grew… and many people were becoming followers of Jesus who made followers of Jesus. It didn’t happen over night, but it did happen. I saw first hand how being intentional made a huge difference.
(3) Making disciples must be sacrificial. Truth be told, sometimes it’s a huge challenge to be sacrificial. Sure, I don’t mind taking the time to pray for someone or share my faith with them if they are directly in my path. But to get in my car and drive somewhere that is off the beaten path… not so easy.
Yet the cross of Christ, if anything, is pointing us to the sacrificial nature of God. God gave of himself, totally off the beaten path (of heaven) so that people that he cared for and loved could call heaven “home.” As the biblical author writes, Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). Isn’t this one of the significant themes that is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan? In Luke 10:25-37 we read of a Samaritan man being sacrificially generous and Jesus closing the parable with the words, “You go, and do likewise” (v.37).
There’s a man in our church community that embodies this attitude in every way possible. His name is Mike and he has a this uncanny ability to sacrifice his time, energy, and money in ways that I am blown away by. When he finds about people’s needs, he’s the first one to go and meet it. I don’t think enough space exists to talk about how many driveways he has plowed snow off of, how much money he has given away, or how much wood he has split and delivered for people to have heat in their houses. The man is a giant of sacrificial giving. And guess what? It’s made a huge difference in our community and I can say without reservation that much of his service fits right into being intentional but is also heavily sacrificial. He serves, even when it isn’t convenient, and often gives credit away or shares it with the other people that he brings with him.
(4) Making disciples must be process oriented. If you are a control freak, this is a challenge. When we work with people, we can’t control the results (see item #1 in regards to the Holy Spirit!). I’m afraid that sometimes our discipleship is set up to look like a fast food drive-thru. We want results and we want them quickly!
When you read the gospels, we see Jesus working tirelessly with a band of people who can safely be described as “knuckleheads” (sorry St. Peter and St. Matthew and St. Thomas and… you get my drift). Yes, those people went on to be apostles and evangelists and start churches and whatnot, but they weren’t always the big names that they are now. Some of them were fishermen and tax collectors and they needed a lot of time and energy. And if it took more than three years for Jesus, the Son of God, to see some significant growth, how much longer do we need?!?! You get my drift?
Process oriented discipleship looks radically different than a quick checklist. It takes an investment of time and energy and prayer and becomes a primary focus of your energy and time. That’s why pastors are absolutely crazy to think or behave in a way that reinforces the heretical view that they alone are to be the church’s primary disciple maker!
(5) Making disciples must be reproducible. When I look at the model that Jesus gave us for making disciples, I am extremely encouraged. Why? Because it’s something that even I can do! I’m not the smartest guy or most gifted or extremely talented. I mess things up all the time. But I can spend time with people and pray with them and read the Bible with them and talk to them about Jesus and do my best to obey Jesus’ commands.
Much of what has passed as “discipleship” has been 100% impossible to reproduce. If praying for someone means that I have to use fancy words and dress in fancy suits and wear gold watches, chances are that most “normal” people aren’t going to get in the game. They will likely burn out before they even get started. If sharing my faith with someone means that I need to make signs and yell into a bull horn and distribute tracts from the 50’s, chances are that my friends and neighbors are going to have a difficult time joining in God’s work.
If you want to be effective at making disciples who also make disciples, you need to rethink the canned box that you may have inherited. Why? Because it’s simply ineffective. But if you get back to the basics and look to the Spirit for guidance as you intentionally and sacrificially enter into long term relationships with people, chances are that your disciples will pick up on your model and run with it!
So there you have it. Discipleship for many of us has gone woefully wrong. The train has left the tracks and all of our improvements upon the missional methodology that Jesus and the apostles demonstrated and taught will not get us back. I’m convinced these five observations, however, are a way for us to start thinking and acting a bit more effectively… and this is just the start of the conversation.
- What would you add?
- Do you have any examples that you could share with us?
- What is the single most important aspect of disciple making?
- How would you describe the most difficult challenge facing our discipleship?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.