Generally I’m not one for Christian buzzwords. Most of the time they imply more than they actually mean and inevitably get watered down to mean nothing at all. We Christians used “community” so much that now we have to clarify what we mean by community, i.e. biblical community, missional community etc.
However, discipleship seems to be an up and coming buzzword, and this is one that I can get behind.
I think a good place to start defining discipleship is by defining what it is not.
Discipleship is not…
- A series of classes
- A linear, chartable system
- A weekly meeting
Now, don’t get me wrong, discipleship can include some of those things, but it should never be limited to those things. The problem being that when most churches/organizations talk about “discipleship” they often set out to create one of those 3 things.
There are some assumptions that undergird these incomplete notions of discipleship.
Three Faulty Assumptions
First, we assume that by giving an individual the right information about God and about themselves, they are able to, in their own personal time, realize spiritual formation on their own.
Maybe this is possible, but this is not the norm. It doesn’t take much time to recognize that, for most of us, that isn’t our story. We required long hours of other people, personally investing in us, helping us rummage through our personal sin and struggles, painting, with us, a picture of God’s grace in our lives. The classroom has given me a lot of great categories, but in the end having the right categories never saved a soul. It also never sanctified a soul.
This assumption is also a rigidly cultural assumption. This sort of thinking is birthed in western individualism. “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything…” is how we often think about spiritual formation.
Second, we assume that if we can just develop the right system we can stream-line discipleship. In the western world we love linear, chartable, and measurable. In much of my life, I also love linear, chartable, and measurable. It’s great when I’m saving for a vacation, or doing maintenance on my car.
But, again, few of us have had a linear, chartable, and measurable progress in spiritual formation. Why do we believe that others will?
I also have a sneaking suspicion that we prefer these systems because they are controllable. Through our system, we can determine when and how someone progresses in his or her spiritual formation. This allows us to better invest our resources to producing the kind of results that we want and be more efficient in disciple-making, a concept foreign to Jesus’ method.
It all sounds great in a business proposal, but when has intimate, interaction with God in spiritual formation ever been controllable or measurable? No other relationship in our lives functions like that. There are few things about the Bible that seem linear, or measurable. The Bible is full of the improbable, the unimaginable, the unchartable etc. 1 Corinthians 1 has a lot to say about this.
Maybe I’m the exception. Maybe I’m the only one that has rapidly grown, and then fallen just as rapidly. Maybe I’m the only one that doesn’t fit into the neat “discipleship” categories found in most churches. Maybe I’m the only one whose spiritual growth resembles a pathological liar’s lie detector test. There has been nothing linear about my spiritual formation. Anytime I’ve set out to measure it or chart it, I’ve failed miserably.
For some organizations, this systematization allows us to reproduce disciples of us, not of Jesus. Within this system we can inject “our language” and “our ideals” and “our DNA.” At the end of the process we have someone who can robotically regurgitate our 7 steps, and is actively marketing and promoting for our organization, but this does not necessarily mean that they are a disciple of Jesus. We have formed disciples of our system, not necessarily of Jesus.
Dallas Willard satirically points out
…as a result we have now come to the place where we can be a Christian forever without becoming a disciple.
Third, we assume that discipleship shouldn’t require much personal investment. We set up one-hour meetings with the purpose of delving deeply into how God is shaping and forming a person. When the hour is over, we move on, with the hopes of picking up where we left off the next time. Plus, if we can do it with one person, why not ten, or one thousand?
Each of these three assumptions are in direct contradiction to the methods of discipleship that Jesus chose.
What is the goal of discipleship?
Jesus gives us the goal: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
To put it simply, the goal of discipleship is the spiritual formation of an individual.
Baptizing them, allowing them to publicly declare their faith in Christ as King. And teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded. Those two little words “to obey” make a HUGE difference. Most of us have turned discipleship into “teaching them everything I have commanded you.” The sentence doesn’t look a lot different, but the meaning is drastically different. The knowledge of Christ’s commandments does little if we don’t teach people to obey. 
The point is teaching people how to practice the Jesus-life. Teaching people how to depend upon God, walk in prayer, meditate on God’s Word, fast, escape for silence and solitude etc.
I love how Dallas Willard defined spiritual formation:
Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.
The foundation for genuine obedience of all that Christ commanded, is the transformation of the “inmost dimension.”
Paul reinforces this same concept in Romans 6:17
17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.
The point is that spiritual transformation is an effort of the Holy Spirit in the transformation of another person’s heart with the goal of obedience, this being the goal of discipleship. Discipleship is the
What is discipleship?
Finally, we can answer the question that we set out to answer.
Robert Coleman says,
Having called his men, Jesus made a practice of being with them. This was the essence of his training program—just letting his disciples follow him.
The rhythm of making “disciples” has always been centered around the activity of “being with” one another. This was most likely a product of the decentralization of Judaism during the time after the first temple destruction.
Jesus’ activity of disciple-making was an expansion upon the rabbi/disciple relationships of the day.
To quote Dallas Willard again:
Nevertheless, the basic nature of the rabbi/disciple relationship of his day was retained by Jesus and his disciples and, arguably, remains normative to this day. That relationship is very simple in description. His disciples were with him, learning to be like him. “With him” meant in that day that they were literally where he was and were progressively engaged in doing what he was doing.
The point is this: the model that Jesus reveals is one of sharing his life with people for the purpose of spiritual formation. It is a long, pain-staking process full of very high highs, and very low lows. It is not a very “sexy” model. At the end of Jesus’ life, liberal estimates argue that he had a following of 500. However, at the cross, most of his chosen 12 abandoned him.
Jesus spent almost his entire ministry with 12 very ordinary men. With all of the potential in the world to create the awesomest mega-system in all of eternity; with all of the potential in the world to create the best series of classes; with all of the potential in the world to streamline the process of disciple-making; Jesus settled for 12 very ordinary men. Tasked with making disciples, why would we be so arrogant to believe that Jesus didn’t do it right, that it can be done better, more quickly, more stream-lined? Why would we be so arrogant to believe that if Jesus had only systematized, or used our 10 classes, it could have been done so much more effectively? Why would we be so arrogant to believe that what Jesus devoted almost every waking moment to for 3 entire years can be summed up in one-hour a week?
As David Platt brilliantly sums it up:
If we were left to ourselves with the task of taking the gospel to the world, we would immediately begin planning innovative strategies and plotting elaborate schemes. We would organize conventions, develop programs, and create foundations… But Jesus is so different from us. With the task of taking the gospel to the world, he wandered through the streets and byways…All He wanted was a few men who would think as He did, love as He did, see as He did, teach as He did and serve as He did. All He needed was to revolutionize the hearts of a few, and they would impact the world.
Making disciples is a spiritual discipline. It is a faith-filled act by one human being to invest in another human being, trusting that God will intervene and work powerfully to form and shape them. It is an on-going relational dynamic by which one person can observe the life of another, discuss and learn, how a life submitted to King Jesus is to be lived. It is God, actively using one person to reveal, explore, model, and teach how to obey all that Jesus commanded.
This is the task of every Christian. There are no exceptions. This task is not just for pastors and churches. It applies to engineers, and teachers, and mailmen, and missionaries, and consultants etc.
As a matter of fact, God placed you exactly where you are so that you would make disciples (Acts 17:26). Your current occupation is secondary to your Christian occupation. Yes, do your work. Do it well. But, even more than that, make disciples.
Now, that being said, who are you discipling?
 Matthew 28:19b-20a (NIV)
 A note on translation: A couple of versions prefer “to observe” rather than “to obey.” The verb used is τηρεῖν, and according to BDAG the implication is “to persist in obedience, keep, observe, fulfill, pay attention to” (Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.)
 Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism.
 David Platt, Radical.