Episode 01: Defining Discipleship

A friend of mine likes to say, rather than defining a disciple, he talks about describing a disciple.

And it's good for churches to describe or define for themselves who a disciple is.

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I have with me two friends of mine, Rev. Matt McClure and Rev. Peter Cammarano. I've known Matt for about four or five years now; Peter and I met just a year ago but have become fast friends.

Rev. Matt McClure is the pastor of Prairie City Christian Reformed Church in Prairie City, Iowa. It's a small farming community; Matt came there seven years ago after he graduated from seminary. This is a church that had a history before that of beating up pastors, one of those churches that almost closed, and then they went through a pretty remarkable recovery and looked forward to a better future. The church has been growing well under Matt's leadership. I've been coaching with Matt and the church for about the last four years. We worked first on charting their next course as a church, and then around discipleship, and they've done a good job of this. I'm glad that Matt's with us here for this episode.

And also here with me is Pastor Peter Cammarano. Peter is the pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Lake Jackson, Texas. That's a church of about 160 people on Sunday morning. Peter has been there seven years, and 260 on a Sunday.

We're going to have a conversation today around defining discipleship. Both their churches have done a really good job of this, as well as a lot of other churches. I thought it would be good for us to sit down and talk about this.

You know, a lot of times, churches say it can be frustrating trying to work on discipleship, and I can understand that. When people, a church, doesn't have a clear sense of what we are talking about -- are we all talking about the same thing?

Matt, tell us a little bit about what it was like for you all, trying to work on discipleship before you had a definition.

MATT

Before we had a definition, it was...an easy answer. So when we talked about doing discipleship in the church, we actually never really talked about discipleship, we just talked about "Sunday School," or we talked about, "Cadets," and "Gems." And we ran into the roadblock of assumption. That assumption was that as soon as you do a ministry within the church, it is discipleship.


No one really wanted to own how that good work was moving people to Jesus and that piece, the discipleship definition, was not part of our conversations.
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MIKE

Bizarre is a good word for it. And those assumptions -- yeah, people bring a lot of assumptions to the table. Kind of like you were saying, that anything you're doing inside the church is discipleship, and how much of it is actually growing a disciple.

Peter, did you run into any of those assumptions, or other challenges you had before you all actually came up with a definition?

PETER

Yeah, I can agree with Matt's conversation. Without a definition of discipleship, it was either, we were searching for activity, right? What things can we put on that will attract and make people active? But not all of those things were making disciples. And of course, we didn't have a good definition for what a disciple was, and so as a church leader, when you don't know where you're going, any road will do.

The other thing that was interesting is that my denomination wanted to know about activity. They wanted to know, my phrase is, "how many hineys were in the pews and how many dollars were in the plate." But discipleship seemed to be more than THAT. Those who attended often and gave often, were not often considered our deepest disciples.

So, yeah, it was frustrating and challenging.

Without a definition of discipleship, we were searching for activity.

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MIKE

Peter, you referred to denomination. What's neat here is that Peter and Matt represent two different theological backgrounds. Peter is United Methodist out of a Wesleyan background, and Matt is Christian Reformed out of more of a reformed background. Two brothers that have a lot in common, but we also have some theological nuances, which is good too. Feel free to talk about that if that impacts this at all.

So, Peter, what is the definition that you guys came up with there at Chapelwood?

PETER

Right, we had done vision, mission, and values using CHURCH UNIQUE. It's a good book, it was a good process. And we'd come up with this idea that what the church is about is helping people take their next step. But what we found within the first three years of having that kind of mission, vision, value framework is that we kept encouraging people to take their next step, but we gave them no idea of what their next step was.

Our definition, with the help of Ascending Leaders, we took that vision, mission, and values, and some other images that were working well in the church. We had a church lay leader hike the Appalachian Trail one year, and he came back really changed and transformed. Then he turned around and took a couple men of the church to hike an easier trail, the Lonestar Trail, and we learned about how there are these little white blazes all along a hiking trail -- they don't happen on every tree but they happen within sight of each other. And so you know where you're going because you follow the white blazes.

There are other indicators for difficulty or challenge. And so coming back from that trip, the leaders of the church really loved the idea that a disciple is someone who has identified and is taking the next step in their faith journey with Christ and helping others to do the same. So that's our definition.

It gets beyond just hineys in the pews and dollars in the plate, and it begins moving people towards God's desired future for them.

MIKE

So I can see, people at Chapelwood UMC, when you talk about a disciple, hopefully they're thinking about hiking a trail, taking your next step.

Matt, how about you? What's the definition you guys came up with?

MATT

Alright, so the definition that we came up with. A disciple is one who is following Christ in an ongoing life process to grow closer to God, love others more deeply, and participate in the Great Commission. Our tagline that we really like to use is to be disciples who make disciples.

Those were a couple things that were birthed out of the fact that it can't be seen as something that you arrive at, and then you're done. We continually struggle with the mentality that you hit a certain point and you're done.

So we wanted to help people move through that mentality and continue to see broadness and the depths of being a disciple, and so we worked a lot through the stages of faith that we got from DiscipleForward workshops with Ascending Leaders and Mike, and the breakdown of those stages.

We as a church really felt that a representation of that for us personally would be the stages of a tree. Acorn is that first "Strangers to Jesus," and then the Sprout is "Friend to Jesus," and Sapling is "Close to Jesus," and Oak is "Christ-centered." And I really love the ending one, the oak tree, because it's not really an end. The oak tree provides food for animals, provides shade for the traveler, it provides security and groundedness... it keeps even the ground grounded. It offers a place to play; for me, it's one of those continuation ideas of DiscipleOn.

It (discipleship) can't be seen as something that you arrive at, and then you're done.

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Tune into the podcast for the full story of how these two different churches arrived at their definitions of discipleship, and what struggles they each faced.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

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