What comes to mind when you think of discipleship? Is discipleship a life of moral reform or inner spirituality? Is discipleship serving soup lines and social activism in the name of Jesus? Is discipleship a doctrinal course or a forty-day Bible program that a person completes and then suddenly pops out as a disciple? Discipleship has become one of the Christian “buzz words” today, and for good reason. Thankfully, there seems to be a growing group of young people who are seriously seeking to follow Christ and obey his command to “make disciples.” But what is a disciple? Why is discipleship so important anyway? What is the nature of true discipleship? And what’s the process for Christians to effectively make disciples of Christ?
The Importance of Discipleship
Christianity is a life of discipleship. A Christian is someone who has responded to the voice of Jesus saying, “Come and follow me,” and Jesus couldn’t be clearer. Jesus doesn’t want fans who just listen and applaud him; Jesus wants followers who learn from him and obey him. And one of his commands is to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). For Jesus, discipleship is not an optional second step in Christianity for those who are “truly committed;” rather discipleship is Christianity. A Christian is called to both be a disciple and make disciples. But does this mean that discipleship is just a bunch of rules that a person must try harder to conform to? What is the nature of biblical, gospel-centered discipleship?
The Nature of Discipleship
The New Testament word for disciple means “student” or “learner,” and the learning never stops. In the first century a disciple actually lived with his Rabbi where he learned what was taught and modeled in a variety of ways. Jesus is your Rabbi. Therefore, discipleship is a life-long comprehensive process of learning from Jesus. He is your instructor. Every human instructor who teaches the truth is merely pointing to what Jesus is teaching. This is why he says, “…teaching them to observe all that I’ve commanded you.” And what was Jesus’ first and central command? “Repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). This means that discipleship begins with communicating the need for God’s cleansing and forgiving work of the Holy Spirit on the basis of Christ’s life, death, burial and resurrection. A person must first receive and rest in what Jesus has already accomplished before he or she can be empowered to respond with joy to Jesus’ other commands. A disciple learns from Jesus by first “sitting at his feet” and hearing the blessings of the gospel received by grace, yet also following in his steps that align with the truth of the gospel. It is both learning the doctrines of Christ and living them out in loving devotion to Christ and the world. Pastor Francis Chan compares this second aspect of discipleship with the game “follow the leader.” If the leader rubs his head, you rub your head. If the leader pats his stomach, you pat your stomach. In other words, you do what they do. You go where they go. No one follows the leader by just sitting on the couch and saying, “I’m following you in my heart man, I’m rubbing my head in my heart.” What would you think of a lady who speaks about how great her local physician is yet never follows the doctor’s prescriptions? Or what about the man who wants to lose weight but continually tells the trainer, “I believe in you, but I don’t want to do anything that makes me uncomfortable.” Yet, this is the way many people can view discipleship – a process of just finding out what is true instead of also following what is true. So what does this practically look like?
The Process of Discipleship
Christians should view themselves as full-time students in the ongoing school of Christ. But where do these classes take place? At church on Sunday? Over coffee with a mentor? In someone’s home or at the mall with a friend? The answer is, yes, all of the above. Your life, in every aspect and through a variety of people and means is the classroom that Christ is teaching you in. Discipleship is not an intensive weekend program; it’s a gradual life-long process. Discipleship can’t be packaged, marketed and sold. It takes time, patience, a lot of work, and faith in the ordinary means of grace. Disciples of Christ hear the word preached on Sundays, pour out their souls to God in praise and prayer, study and meditate upon the Bible, witness and give their lives away to the poor. Moreover, a disciple of Christ is not like Rambo, trying to take on the world alone. Rather, they live in community with fellow saints from various backgrounds, where patterns of behavior are passed on, a lot of times without even realizing it. Think of parents who are suddenly surprised at what they see their child do. They ask, “Hey, where did you learn to do that?” The child more than likely “picked it up” from the parents’ example in practice, not directly from their verbal precept. When a woman listens to another woman in the church respond to her husband with respect and care for her children, she is being discipled. When a younger man observes how an older man in the church responds in faith in a time of great need, he is being discipled. The life of discipleship is long, hard and complex, but it’s the only life of true freedom, which is so important to grasp. For in a culture that says, “just follow your heart and you’ll be free,” the true liberating voice of Jesus says, “Come and follow me.”