Defining Discipleship

Scott AtteberyDiscipleshipLeave a Comment

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I once heard a man say, “The moment you define discipleship, you lose it.” I get what he is saying. Discipleship can’t be placed in a formula or a “one-size-fits-all” solution anymore than a concept like parenting can be.

So, my goal is not to describe a step-by-step process of discipleship or to describe a “guaranteed method” of discipleship.

Instead, I want to take a moment to give a big-picture definition that encompasses the heart of Great Commission discipleship. I describe it as “Great Commission” discipleship for two reasons: 1) The Great Commission give a clear call from Christ to all believers to make disciples. 2) There are other kinds of discipleship –sports fans, medical interns, electrician apprentices, etc.

Although this is not a perfect definition, perhaps it will provide a healthy “big picture” perspective.

Great Commission discipleship is an intentional human relationship that helps someone learn to grow in Christ and learn to help others grow in Christ.

Let me point out a couple of key words/phrases:

“Intentional” –While it is true that discipleship happens without our awareness (have you ever said, “I sound just like my dad…”?), Jesus calls us to be intentional in the Great Commission. Intentionality causes us to focus on a direction for discipleship. Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. (Luke 6:40).

Intentionality, however, does not necessarily imply using a workbook or structured program for discipleship. They can be good tools, however tools are only as effective as the people who use them.

More important, then, is the means by which discipleship happens –humans.

“Human Relationship” –For reasons known only to Him, God has chosen to entrust this ministry of discipleship to humans (2 Cor. 4:7). Of course we also understand that it is God who is doing the life-transformation in others. In this sense, we are tools in his hands as Christ is the chief disciple-maker.

Jesus gave us the greatest example of how relationships drive discipleship. He humbled himself by taking on flesh in order to make disciples. If Jesus determined that relationships were so important to discipleship that He would leave Heaven and take on flesh, certainly relationships should be important to us.

Interestingly, Jesus didn’t produce a “discipleship program.” The apostles didn’t fund their ministry by selling a book/dvd/workbook boxed edition set of Jesus’ teaching. Instead, Jesus simply left an example of a lifestyle built on relationships.

“Learn to Grow in Christ” –Notice the word “learn.” Instead of saying, “grow in Christ,” the goal of discipleship is to help the disciple learn how to learn on their own. In fact, the word disciple itself simply means “learner.” In other words, the goal of discipleship is not to create a master of the faith (as if that is possible), but instead to create a dependent learner upon Christ. This demands intentionality. It means you aren’t always feeding them knowledge as much as exemplifying and imparting skills and desires for growth. In this way, the disciple-maker can set a reasonable goal to “release” the disciple after he/she has gained a few skills and can grow on their own.

“Learn to help others grow in Christ.” –Having a reasonable goal to release the disciple also means intentionally teaching them to disciple others. This is how disciples multiply. However, this may be the one element that most discipleship relationships lack.

Recently, I have spent time interviewing folks about their discipleship experiences. It has been interesting to see the tears flow as people recall the way certain relationships have touched their lives. If, then, discipleship makes such a powerful impact on humans, it only makes sense that those who have been touched deeply would want to touch others. I really think that all they need is a gentle nudge in the right direction –through (you guessed it) discipleship.

In my opinion, discipleship is happening more than we realize. The only problem is that its not Great Commission Discipleship. So what is the state of discipleship in the Church today?  I’ll get back to you on that J

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