What is Discipleship?

discipleshiptitleThere are a number of terms that our Evangelical culture throws around without a lot of definition or clarification. As a result we end up using words that we often don’t understand. I think of words like “sanctification,” or “saved,” or phrases like “in Christ.” Among such terms I would also include “discipleship.” It’s a key term for describing ministries and yet I am not sure that most of us know exactly what we mean when we use it. There are tons of definitions, most are either overly complicated or tend towards such ambiguity that they obfuscate the meaning. It is extremely important that we define what discipleship is. A simple definition might be: the process of working together to better reflect Christ. This definition is helpful for several key reasons.

This definition affirms, first and foremost both a mutuality and a model. The mutuality is important because it reminds us that we are all engaged together in this process of discipleship. We need each other to help us grow. I need help, even as the pastor, and my people need help. The definition reminds us to weave our lives together, because we all need each other. No one is above this need for help and assistance in spiritual growth. The emphasis of this definition is on all of us, then, not just on the pastor. Discipleship is not the job of the pastors, it is the job of everyone in the church (Eph. 4:11-16). We need each other, so we work together. As Paul Tripp and Tim Lane state in their helpful book How People Change, “change is a community project.”

The model too is important. For far too many folks discipleship looks very amorphous. There’s no clear goal in sight, we are just hoping to grow in some ambiguous ill-defined way. Equally as bad are the reductionist models that don’t focus on Christ himself. For some being a disciple means being equipped to oversee some ministry or keep some code of conduct. Our goal, however, should be to reflect Christ. It is to his image that we are to be “conformed” (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). So we want something bigger than just legalism or ministry training. A clearly defined model enables us to develop a more strategic plan to grow and a more precise means of measuring that growth.

This definition then lends itself easily to a comprehensive philosophy of discipleship. As the pastor of discipleship at CBC I see my role not as doing the discipleship of our church but as providing our people with education and occasion to fulfill the “one-another” commands of Scripture. If discipleship is a mutual process of helping one another better reflect the model of Christ then I don’t need to design all kinds of programs and resources for our people. I simply need to help them do what the Bible lays out for all of us. That involves for me two parts. First, it involves educating them on what the Bible says and helping them to see how it applies to their lives, and how they can apply it to the lives of others. Secondly, this philosophy involves providing occasions for them to apply Scripture to themselves and others. For us that looks like Biblical Counseling and Small Group ministry.

Biblical Counseling is basically just discipleship. It’s the process of helping someone think Biblically about their problems, themselves, and God’s provision. At our church we are constantly training folks to use the Bible to provide counsel for themselves and others. It’s a vital part of what it means to help others reflect Christ. We provide the Biblical Counseling education and then help people develop occasions where they can use it via small groups or in one-on-one counseling appointments. Our hope is that over time it will become more of an organic part of our church culture and that my role as facilitating “occasions” will significantly diminish.

Small Group ministry is another “occasion” where discipleship is happening in our church. Small Groups are little communities where the “one-anothering” can more easily happen. In fact we have defined groups at our church as communities where we “apply Sunday’s sermon to our every day lives with help from others.” It’s all about mutual care and instruction. We are working together to better reflect Christ. Again, the hope is that people will do this more organically, but the small groups put people in places where this is the primary goal and where they are encouraged and challenged to weave their lives in with those of their group. It’s providing an occasion for discipleship.

Both education and occasion are important parts of our philosophy of ministry. It’s not enough just to give information, that doesn’t create disciples. Rather we want to see lives and hearts changed by the application of that information. The education component is necessary because most of us do not naturally think in conformity with Scripture. We need to be educated on what God’s Word says and how it applies to our lives and the lives of others. We also need help in thinking through how to help others grow, so that requires some information and training. I also believe it is my role to make sure our people have occasion to fulfill the one-another commands of Scripture. Naturally I want this to happen organically as our people just do life together, but I know it won’t just happen naturally. We need to encourage it, create a culture that promotes and celebrates doing life together. Weaving our lives together with others is not natural for us in a fallen world, and since I am going to be held accountable for how I shepherd the folks of CBC (Heb. 13:17), then I am going to do my best to make sure that they have occasions where they can put into practice these disciplines.

Finally, this definition helps me to establish a clear and simple evaluative tool for measuring our effectiveness. If the goal is to help people better reflect Christ then I want to think practically about what it looks like to “reflect Christ.” Such thoughts have formed for me an evaluation system that I call the Four C’s.* If I want to know how I am doing, and how my friends are doing, at reflecting Christ I am going to ask questions about these four marks: Biblical Content, Christlike Character, Christian Community, and Discipleship Competency. Each is an essential part of growth in godliness. I have expounded on these four markers elsewhere, but here the point is to highlight how our simple definition makes evaluation more realistic and attainable. If we don’t evaluate how we are doing we will never know whether or not our discipleship process is actually working, but for most churches evaluation is either unimportant or unattainable. That is partly because they’ve either defined discipleship in far too complicated ways or they’ve not defined it at all. A simple definition lends itself to a simple but effective evaluation.

It’s important that we think carefully about discipleship in the church. After all, this is the task to which Jesus has called us. “Make disciples” he said (Matthew 28:19). If we don’t think about what a disciple is and what the process of making disciples look like we will likely fail at accomplishing it. That’s partly why I am spending a year studying discipleship and thinking carefully about this subject. Defining my term is the first step in this journey, join me for the rest of it.


* I am indebted to the writings of Bob Kellemen for the Four C’s. While I have used these measurements for years, I did not possess the helpful, concise, and memorable description he uses in his work.


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