What is Discipleship?

Often as I talk to pastors and church leaders today, when they really get honest there is a frustration with discipleship in their church—with helping people move forward in Christ.

In the early 90’s when I was church planting, God led us to lead a number of people to Christ, to build this church out of people who were outside of church. But what we didn’t do a very good job at was growing people.

Too many people came in and went to Sunday worship and would sit and soak, and maybe serve some, but didn’t grow much beyond that.

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I became frustrated by that, and I looked around and saw that other churches weren’t doing it well either.

So that started me on a quest to find out how to disciple people better. How to do it well. I tried some different things, tried some groups, and we really made some good progress. It also got me started on what has become a life-long habit of reading books about how people grow, how Christians grow, and how Christians grow as disciples.

One of the things that I saw from experience that was also confirmed in literature is that most Christians really aren’t growing much over a lifetime. In fact, one study showed that from the time somebody accepts Christ to the time they pass from this earth, they may show perhaps six percentage points of growth. In this study they started at around 60% and grew over their life to 67 or 68%. (Michael Zigarelli, Cultivating Christian Character, Fairfax, VA: Xulon Press, 2002, p. 32)

And then in 2007, REVEAL survey results came out from the Willow Creek Association. The REVEAL study is one of the best studies that’s been done on discipleship. Perhaps you won’t be surprised that the largest group in your average church is those that are at an “adolescent” (Stage 2) place of faith. Even those who we consider mature, who have been in leadership, who have been around for a long time… when you really scratch beneath the surface you’ll find that they aren’t that far in their development.

And so, as we observed and as I listened, even in churches that are vibrant, that vibrancy is often attached to a charismatic leader. At some point that leader will be gone. And then what?

How can churches grow a discipleship culture that outlasts the character of the leader?

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And as I asked people about leadership issues, I became aware that between 60-90% of leadership and leadership development issues were really about someone loving God more deeply and loving others better.

And so, 60-90% of the leadership issues were really issues about discipleship.

If you try to teach people leadership skills and you build that on a weak foundation of little growth in their love for God, then eventually that leadership skills training is going to implode.

Instead, if we’re doing discipleship well, then we’re moving people far in the growth of future leaders. Stronger disciples make better leaders in the future.

I wonder… why in so many staff positions in churches, is someone hired away from another church? Wouldn’t it be a more beautiful thing when you see a person who is growing as a disciple and they grow from one place to another place to another place to becoming a leader in that church?

A friend who is a lead pastor of a church of several congregations, a church that has also planted several churches—he helped plant that church 26 years ago as their youth pastor.

What if growing from being the youth pastor to being the lead pastor of a church like this, what if that was more the vibrant norm rather than an exception?

In the early years of Ascending Leaders, a pastor of a mega-church in Austin, TX, that we were working with, asked what my desire was in working with them. I told him that if in five years, I was in a meeting with their key leadership, and I saw around the table five people who had become staff who had not been recruited in from another church, but rather who had become believers there, were young believers that had been discipled and had been grown as leaders to that place of influence, and if Ascending Leaders had helped that church grow them well, then I would feel fulfilled.

Seven years later I found myself sitting with that staff. I looked around the room—there were probably 35 to 40 people there—and I saw five people on staff who had started as young Christians in discipleship groups back in 2005, in groups that were using materials from Ascending Leaders, guided through those materials to be stronger disciples.

And I felt privileged that God allowed me and other friends to write that material, to train, to help that church raise up those leaders.

  • We at Ascending Leaders succeed when we help a church when it is building and teaching and implementing a clear DisciplePath for their people.
  • We succeed when their leaders are coaching individuals in ministries to define the disciple journey and to build opportunities and repeated experiences that keep moving people forward.
  • We also succeed when the church feels that it has in Ascending Leaders a dependable friend alongside, like a Barnabas. Not a friend that simply markets a line of books, but one that keeps growing in its abilities and capacities to meet the church’s growing needs for building quality DisciplePaths for decade-plus movement.

So “discipleship”. What is it? That word discipleship is actually a made-up word. You won’t find it anywhere in Scripture. Think of it as the act of forming a disciple.

Now there’s a lot of confusion about this word. Sometimes it comes from the fact that some people see “the acts that I do because I am a disciple” as discipleship.

Such as, when I give up something I love to do in order to spend that time with my wife or to serve another person or to visit someone in prison. Some say that is discipleship.

Here’s the problem with that.

When you say that the fruit of your life is discipleship, then it becomes a situation where generally anything a Christian does is discipleship.

Rather, what if you see discipleship as simply that which forms, shapes, and grows you as a disciple?

Adding to that the results of being formed, I believe, makes the word mean so much that it really means nothing.

Let’s reserve the word discipleship for activities or actions which clearly move one forward as a disciple.

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So that leads us to: what is the target?

What is a disciple?

When we say the word “disciple,” there are probably thought bubbles popping up over the heads of everyone hearing this, and each one is completely different.

What comes to mind when you think about the word “disciple?”

Do you think of someone who is really intense, or someone who is simply a believer in Jesus, or do you think it’s something that happened way back when, when Jesus was on this Earth—but not today?

We’ll talk more about a definition of discipleship and what makes a good definition later. For now, let me share my own definition.

A disciple is someone who is loving God more deeply and loving others more selflessly.

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The image I get is from the movie The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Remember him?

He sought to steal Christmas and steal the happiness of the people of Whoville. And there he was on Christmas morning—he had stolen all of their gifts. He thought he had ruined Christmas.

Then what he heard was people singing. In seeing their joy, even though they didn’t have the gifts or the tinsel… in seeing their joy, his tiny cold heart grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

Without Christ we are all Grinches.

I see a disciple as one whose heart is bound with Christ’s and is growing larger in love for God.

For some, this growth is very, very slow; for some, it even stops growing for a time. For some, a long time.

And yet, a disciple is one whose heart is growing larger, and larger, and larger for God—and then for others as well.

How does this disciple heart of ours grow?

Well, let’s look at the growth of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and how he relates to them. We see in the gospels that Jesus gives his disciples four invitations and one declaration.

The first invitation he gives is, “Come and see.”

In John 1:30, we see some of the twelve come to him and say, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”, and he says, “Come, and you will see.”

These people are curious. And on the outside looking in, they are not sure if he is the Messiah, if he’s the Savior and Lord. But they’re considering it.

Then Jesus gives the invitation of, “Come and follow me.”

In Matthew 4:19 we read about that, Jesus saying, “Come and follow me and I will send you out to fish for people.”

When we’re in this stage, we’re binding our heart to Christ’s heart. We’re coming and following him. We’re growing in him.

But then, there comes a time when we hit a wall. Our heart gets broken and crushed. And we wonder.

And then Jesus says to us, “You will have trouble, but overcome.”

That’s the declaration he makes.

Then there’s his third invitation, “Now that you’ve been a bruised reed and I’ve healed you, then come and be with me.” Trust me again. Trust me more deeply.

And the last invitation is, “Remain in me.” Or, abide in me.

In John 15, we hear that invitation from Jesus seven times, over and over. Remain in me, and I will remain in you.

Remain in me. That is a stage of deep sacrifice. Of acts of obedience, remaining in Jesus.

So we have those four invitations:

  1. Come and SEE.
  2. Come and FOLLOW.
  3. Come and BE.
  4. REMAIN in me.

And the one declaration, “You will have trouble. But I have overcome. Overcome with me.”

Let’s get back to that definition of disciple.

I believe that is a really good definition. Not just because it comes from Scripture, but it also fits a model of what makes a strong definition.

Think of the acronym C.O.R.E.

C – Core

O – Ours

R – Rooted

E – Encompassing

This definition is continual. It’s continually developing, just like the twelve kept developing. Like love isn’t something you turn on and off, you don’t fall in love and fall out of love. It’s like a brightener switch. It’s something that can get more and more and more intense.

The “O” is for “ours.” To use language that fits a local setting. I personally respond well to the feelings of an abiding love, that grows in me. An abiding love that’s not going to let me down.

I’ve been let down in life. At times, I’ve found it hard to gain acceptance. And so a love that’s like that fits well with me. It connects with me.

Continual.

Ours.

The “R” is for “rooted.” This means rooted in the context of Scripture. We can see in the first twelve that they loved God, and they loved him in a growing capacity in response to His love. This definition of disciple fits that model.

Finally, the “E” is for “Encompassing.” In other words, fitting someone in any stage they are as a follower of Jesus. From that very early, “Come and See,” to that much later, “Remain in Me.”

“Loving God more deeply” fits someone just where they’re started, because where they’re at they can love him more deeply, as well as someone who is hitting their head against a wall and wanting to trust more deeply and overcome, to someone who is remaining in a long and abiding love.

So you can see how my definition fits the criteria of a C.O.R.E. definition of discipleship.

Now, one of the aspects of growing more deeply in love with Jesus is our identity—how we see ourselves in relation to God.

I remember when I was a child, I felt very much like I was on the outside. God was out there. I didn’t feel very connected. That’s a time when Jesus was giving me the invitation, “Come and see.” Come and see if my love is deep. Come and see if I really do love you. Come and see if I’m personal.

Then there were those 10-15 years where I was in that stage of following Christ. Growing, getting my feet wet in serving, with increasing responsibility, even some early leadership tasks with others my age.

I saw myself then as a servant. In fact, I still have a wood burning in my office that really wrapped up who I saw myself as, my identity. It says, “Lead on, Lord.”

I’m a servant, wanting Him to lead me on.

And then I hit a wall. That shook my world so much that I wondered if I’d lose my family, if I’d lose my marriage, my work, my home. And that wall forced me to go much deeper with God. It knocked me on my spiritual butt and I began to ask some of the questions over again. “Lord, can I trust you? What I thought you’d provide you haven’t provided. Can I trust you?”

And that led, finally, into ten years or so of the “Be with me” stage. Where for the most part, I was about being with Jesus.

It involved grasping the identity that he loved me. No matter what I did or didn’t do. No matter if I succeeded or failed. No matter what others thought of me, whether they liked me or didn’t like me; or what they said about me. None of that affected his love for me. His desire for me. His complete forgiveness.

It also involved letting go of my ideal mental model, of becoming a well-rounded Christian active man. It meant facing up to my limitations and becoming okay with them.

It was a time of looking around at how God had been shaping my life. What he had used to shape me. And he had used often people who loved me and encouraged me, and who slowed down enough to be with me.

And I sensed a more focused calling from him. What to focus my life on.

That is, to focus my life on slowing down, to help others and encourage them in their growth.

To help them grow as followers of him.

It was out of that experience that I wrote the process we first shared with people through a retreat. Then we put it into a workbook form that people could use in threes or fours to see how God has been shaping their life. To look at their life, they actually use all kinds of sticky notes and they put them all together and they look for patterns.

We call it Charting Your Course. It’s about getting your focused identity.

What is it that God is calling of you… to be, and to do?

In recent years, I believe I’ve been moving into the fourth stage of ultimate surrender. I still have so far to go, but I do believe that more often I love God so deeply that I’d give up anything, or take up anything, in an act of obedience. Anything that he asks of me.

Far too many churches get stuck on this discipleship thing, for several reasons.

One is, they count on a fad to grow disciples. The 30 days of this, or the 40 days of that. And it lasts only a little while before they’re on to something else.

Or, they define a disciple as if they are people in only one stage or another. As if the other stages don’t matter.

Or, they have one tool. A tool that may work great in one stage but does not work best in the other stages.

Or they relate to all disciples the same. Jesus related differently to the disciples in each stage. And our discipleship needs are different in each stage. So churches can’t relate to all people the same for discipleship.

They may try to apply outmoded ideas—ideas that haven’t worked in the past and are built on incorrect assumptions.

Or they may try to mimic what another church is doing.

They may ask for too little or push for too much beyond what people in a stage are ready for.

They’ve not clarified their target. What is a disciple? So people are moving in different directions trying to grow as disciples.

Or they make it really complex.

Or they make it mechanical, or mechanistic, instead of relational as Jesus did discipleship.

I expect that the rest of this year, Ascending Leaders will find itself coaching 30 churches. My heart skips a beat when I hear stories of disciples growing more deeply in love with God, in some tangible way, because they were part of one of the churches Ascending Leaders is coaching in 2017. Or they’ve learned from us through a teaching venue or our resources or our website, and a church has started some different behavior which is better helping people move to a deeper place in love with God.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

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