What is your strategy for changing the world in the right direction for a long time to come? Jesus’ strategy was discipleship. Thinking about our part in that work is our focus for tomorrow night’s worship gathering. (6:45 pm in the St. Johns Room at FCC – 3450 CR210, 32259) We’ll be talking about how discipleship impacts people.
Discipleship has been a part of the language of the church from the very beginning. Like many common words, we forget what it means or develop a corporate confusion about it. As social networks, churches may even reinforce confusion about our common words – but that’s another topic.
This week, I have been thinking about how discipleship is understood in the churches and Christian circles I’ve spent time in. I believe its pretty common to have partial definitions of discipleship. When our definitions are partial, the concepts don’t fly well. Like birds with unbalanced wings, they fly funny and are prone to crash.
One partial definition of disciple is “learner”. When that definition takes hold, the work of discipleship is confused with things like course work or programs of Christian education. In the churches I served, the paradigm of western education operated strongly. There were education-appropriate levels of curriculum developed for children, youth, and adults. The associated tasks were sitting in a class, being quite, paying attention and doing your homework. The student was there to be taught. For those who were “serious”, advanced courses could be found. Much “advanced discipleship” material requires a high level of education (or effort) and calls for a steady commitment to take all the classes and “do the homework.” One course I led called for theological reading, inductive Bible study, prayer, answering questions for reflection, and a series of twenty-six 90 minute bi-weekly meetings. A friend showed me a “discipleship program” he was invited to take. It involved a two-year long course commitment, a weekly meeting, a pile of work-books, and thousands of pages of college-level reading, followed by a two-year commitment to teach the course. There were breaks for Christmas and summer. This partial definition is biased toward the well-educated and sends the message that a disciple is a student and discipleship is an academic education.
Jesus had no problem working with the well-educated of his day, but it is likely that some of his first disciples were illiterate. In Acts 4, the disciples he invested in were recognized to have been “unschooled and ordinary men”. Faithful discipleship, as modeled by Jesus, was accessible to and transformed people from lower education levels. Some of them would teach priests and lawyers, who would also be transformed. And while Jesus taught and gathered people to listen, his approach does not look much like a weekly scheduled meeting with reading assignments in between. The way Jesus made disciples doesn’t match the Christian education paradigm.
Another partial definition for disciple is “believer,” more specifically “someone who believes in Jesus for salvation”. This partially defined approach to discipleship emphasizes evangelism. Sometime back, I had breakfast with a man who had a ministry at a local high-school. He began telling me about his “disciples” who were on athletes at the school. After a while, it became clear that he had led these young men to profess their faith, thus they were “his disciples.” I heard a “discipleship sermon” recently by a well-known preacher and I could summarize his message like this: “Your job is to make disciples, and making disciples means getting someone to believe in Jesus, helping them stand up in the Lord, and then moving on to get someone else to believe.” The partial definition plays out like this: if a disciple is a believer, discipleship is evangelism.
Faithful discipleship certainly includes coming to trust in Jesus Christ for eternal life and to know him as Lord and Savior. Clearly, Jesus invited his disciples to know him in this way (and more!) But in the stories of Jesus, his first encounters with those who would become his disciples did not begin with an invitation to believe. They began with an invitation to follow him. Based on what we see in the gospels, following Jesus looked going, physically, where Jesus went while spending time with Jesus. Believing in Jesus for eternal life, for the forgiveness of sins, and as God’s Son came, but it came later. It seems that some of his disciples struggled to believe in him right through to the end of his ministry. (Seriously. Check out John 16:30 or Matthew 28:17.) But that did not stop Jesus from calling them his disciples.
Plainly, Jesus taught the disciples. Clearly, Jesus encouraged them to believe in him. Discipleship included education and evangelism. But his understanding of discipleship was less about imparting knowledge and inspiring belief and more imparting his life and life-style with those who accepted his invitation. He intentionally invested in a dozen disciples. As a result, that dozen gained skills for imitating Jesus. They learned to preach what he preached, to do what he did, and to invite and empower others to do the same. He brought them with him as he proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven, healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, cast out demons, confronted injustice, and opened the eyes of the blind. He taught them to do what they saw him doing. (Had they been blind?) He didn’t move on until they were trained, and then he gave them his Spirit and sent them out to do the same. (John 20:21) The disciples Jesus invested in invested in others. They were disciples who made disciples just like Jesus had. Knowing the truth and coming to believe in Jesus with confidence clearly mattered to Jesus, but his primary purpose as he walked with the twelve was so that they would learn from him how to live like him.
The way Jesus made disciples was not unlike what other 1st century Jewish rabbis did. The difference was not his method of discipleship. People of his day understood the relationship and what was involved. The difference was Jesus himself.
Simply put, a disciple learns to imitate the master. If we are disciples of Jesus, then we acknowledge, as the first disciples did, that Jesus is the master. His life is the standard. Our calling is to learn to imitate him. Our commission is to invite and help others to do the same.
The pattern for making disciples in the New Testament is rooted in imitation. In I Corinthians 4:16-17, the Apostle Paul wrote, Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. For this reason, I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church. Paul wasn’t asking them to imitate him out of ego. He was asking them to imitate Jesus based on his example of imitating Jesus.
In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says, we are to learn from Jesus “how to live our lives as he would live them if he were we.” This is exactly what we see the twelve disciples doing in the gospels. By being with Jesus, they learned from Jesus how to think, act, and live like he did. The disciples watched Jesus and learned to imitate Jesus so well that when they went to new places, they would represent him well. They would live out their lives as he would. And they invited others to imitate Jesus by imitating them. This simple pattern created a movement of discipleship.
And God worked and continues to work through people in this way to change the world in the right direction steadily and for a long time. And the movement continues.
Have you found your place in this movement?