What Is A Disciple? Getting Clear On Your Discipleship Goals
Updated: May 22
This is part 2 of a 10-post blog series about Getting Started with Discipleship Ministry. That link is the index of all 10 posts. If you prefer learning by video workshop, use the link at the bottom of this post.
HOW THE AMERICAN CHURCH MISUNDERSTANDS DISCIPLESHIP
Several years ago, while attending a discipleship conference for pastors, I had a profound realization about discipleship. In one session, Dr. Steve Gibson discussed the misunderstandings we have about discipleship. He pointed out that our mental model of discipleship is most closely related to a process of getting people into spacesuits.
You know what a spacesuit is, right? It’s a self-contained environment that shields you from a hostile environment. When an astronaut goes on a spacewalk, they wear a spacesuit that contains everything they need to survive in a hostile environment.
This mental model is highly attractive to Americans in the 21st century. Our individualism, already naturally in our identity, has become even more isolated with the advent of TV, the internet and social media. We used to talk over the back fence, now we build privacy fences.
Similarly, our churches have become collections of people in spacesuits who come together once or twice a week to wave at each other from inside their protective suits. They may even exchange awkward hugs in the foyer. Then, they wave goodbye, and walk out to return to the hostile world. In this kind of mental model, our discipleship process looks like this: When someone gets saved, we try to get them into a spacesuit as quickly as possible because, without a self-contained environment to protect them, they won't survive.
This realization made me re-evaluate the way I frame and approach the task of discipleship. It helped me recognize the importance of being ultra-clear about what I am trying to produce – the end result I’m toward which I am aiming.
Don’t miss this: The way you think about discipleship, the mental model you choose, is crucial to producing the right outcomes.
WHAT DISCIPLESHIP DOESN’T MEAN
Here’s a collection of half-truths about discipleship which can contribute to our failure to effectively disciple people:
Half-Truth #1: A disciple is someone who is separated from the world.
I spent a good bit of time describing this in the “spacesuit” model above.
The Value of It: Avoidance is a part of what it means to be a disciple. Jesus said that “they are not of this world.” (John 17:16) Disciples who emphasize separation from the world are often very serious about avoiding evil, and this is a good thing!
The Weakness of It: “Spacesuit” discipleship often produces disciples who define themselves by negatives (“I don’t…”) instead of positives (“I do…”) They may think that holiness is primarily avoidance of the world, when actually, holiness means separation to God (a positive). Because they view holiness as separation, they don’t view Christian community with as much value as they should.
Half-Truth #2: A disciple is someone who has learned a particular set of facts.
While there is some truth to this, it is not the entire picture. The word "disciple" (mathetes in Greek) implies a learner, and Jesus was called “Rabbi,” which meant “teacher.” Consequently, we often focus on educating individuals as a way of producing disciples.
The Value of It: Education produces disciples that cannot be easily confused or shaken by false teachers. They are less susceptible to cults. They subscribe to orthodox beliefs and frequently have a good understanding of many Scriptures.
The Weakness of It: Haven’t we all known people who knew tons of facts about Jesus, but frequently acted nothing like him?
The education model of discipleship is valuable, but falls short of true discipleship.
Half-Truth #3: A disciple is an activist for morality, truth, or justice.
Some people view disciples as individuals who take action. They’re turned off by the education model, so they emphasize doing, as opposed to learning. They engage in community activism. They organize voter drives. They speak up for morality on social media. Or, they speak up for some version of social justice.
The Value of It: This approach does avoid the problems of the education model, by
The Weakness of It: This model sometimes result in weak disciples who lack a solid foundation of orthodox belief. Such disciples may be easily swayed by charismatic leaders or popular cultural currents. They may fight for an inadequate picture of truth or justice. They may even end up joining cults due to a lack of theological understanding of what it means to follow the real Christ Jesus. Their character may not be reformed in holiness, their emotions may not be touched by their discipleship… is there anything more legendary on social media than the angry and frustrated activist Christian?
Half-Truth #4: A disciple engages in spiritual disciplines.
In reaction to the last three, some disciple-makers have focused their discipleship model on spiritual discipline practices like prayer, fasting, contemplation or meditation, Sabbath rest, solitude, etc.
The Value of It: There’s no doubt that these practices are valuable. There is a powerful and deep stream of teaching on these practices through the history of the Christian church. These disciples are often peaceful and less stressed than those from other models. They may be deeply formed in piety and holiness.
The Weakness of It: Although this model may be the strongest that we have discussed yet, we all have a picture in our minds of monks in some far-off mountaintop monastery, chanting prayers… yet not actively engaged in Christ’s mission to the world around them. Jesus “often withdrew to pray” but was intimately involved in feasting, healing, and hanging around with sinners. If discipleship is imitating Christ, then we need more than spiritual disciplines alone.
SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO PRODUCE A DISCIPLE?
What if we approached discipleship holistically, by combining the practices into one definition of discipleship, instead of focusing solely on education or activism?
Discipleship involves the whole person – head, heart, and hands, in Christian community.
The head for what we know (orthodoxy)
The heart for what we feel, believe, and commit to (orthopathy)
The hands for what we do (orthopraxy).
All in the context of a spiritual family
All of these aspects are vital for real Biblical discipleship. Jesus exemplified this approach by teaching the people, guiding his disciples to think and feel differently, and providing them with hands-on experiences. Though they often failed, he showed them that all three elements must be involved in discipleship.
Therefore, I suggest three potential foundations for discipleship, all in one great environment. You may come up with your own list or find your own ways to express them, but here are three possibilities.
Here’s what discipleship means:
The word “disciple” (mathetes in Greek) means learner, so we’re going to start with that idea. Everything we talk about from here out is going to be in the context, the environment of learning.
Here are the 3 foundations of discipleship:
1. Disciples are developing habits that will continually transform them to love God with all their heart.
Much has been written about habit formation in the past two decades, as brain science has been revolutionized. The recognition of habits as vital cornerstones to personal growth is now well documented.
Habits form in the brain through a process called "chunking", where repetitive behaviors become automatic and are stored in the basal ganglia. This creates a cue-routine-reward loop, where cues trigger the habit, the routine is performed automatically, and the reward reinforces the behavior, making it more likely to occur again in the future.
It isn’t hard to see how this applies to discipleship. So much is changing in the life of a new disciple of Jesus! Spiritual disciplines, church attendance, quitting old behaviors and beginning new ones. As John Maxwell reminds us, “You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily.”
But how can we facilitate this? How do we help a brand new believer create new habits that will continue to be cornerstones of their spiritual growth for the next decades of their life?
The value of “bite-sized” spiritual growth habits
One of the books that has been most transformative to me on this front is Mini Habits by Stephen Guise. Guise talks about the importance of starting “stupid small” habits that are nearly impossible to fail. He tells of using a “1 Pushup Habit” as an anchor to gradually increase his personal fitness by overcoming natural resistance.
By creating tiny habits that are installed over time, new disciples can continually transform themselves to love God more deeply. We’ll discuss which habits in detail later in this post series.
2. Disciples are living in community that continually supports and challenges their commitment to God and each other.
Remember the spacesuit analogy?
Dr. Gibson went on to say, “The dominant mental model of discipleship in the Scripture is a baby born into a family, not a solo person in a self-contained environment.”
He’s right. Think about it. How many metaphors of the spiritual life in Scripture are modeled around a baby born into a family?
Born again / born of God (John 1:12-13, John 3:3)
“Like newborn babies, desire the milk of the Word” (1 Peter 2:2)
“Little children… young men… fathers” (1 John 2:13-14)
Babies in Christ (Hebrews 5:13, 1 Cor. 3:1)
Brothers / sisters (Hebrews 3:12, etc)
Eating spiritual meat, instead of milk (1 Cor. 3:2)
child/man (1 Corinthians 13:10-12, 1 Cor. 14:20)
No longer infants, but full grown (Eph. 3:13-16)
“Firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29)
Sure, there are other metaphors (bearing fruit, training, etc.), but this one is all over the Scripture. When someone becomes a Christian, they start as a babe in Christ and grow to become young men/women and then mature adults, as described by various authors in the Bible.
Discipleship means Being Mentored in Community.
Jesus called each of his disciples into community. It’s easy to miss this, but it’s vital. None of the disciples had any control over it. Following Jesus meant following Jesus into community.
With this in mind, developing a community that continually supports and challenges their commitment to God and each other is crucial. How can we get them plugged into such a community and connected with a mentor from day one? How can we hold them accountable. These are important questions to consider.
This accords well with Christian experience, as many of the most vital spiritual growth movements in Christian history have been movements rich with community!
The Methodist movement had the class meetings, many revivals had the prayer bands, the holiness revival had the Tuesday Meetings. The modern small group movement also bears witness to the value of community providing accountability, relational healing, modeling of spiritual growth, and wise advice from those whose discipleship journey has been longer.
3. Disciples are imitating Jesus, obeying his commands, and spreading His rule.
I’m lumping these together because they are all actions that are part of the same family.
Discipleship Means Imitation of Jesus
Jesus invited his disciples to imitate him in every area.
Prayer. “Pray this way…” (Matthew 6:9)
Love. “Love each other as I have loved you…” (John 15:12)
Being sent. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you…” (John 20:21)
Healing. (Compare Luke 4:40 and Luke 9:2)
Proclaiming his Kingdom. “sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God…”(Luke 9:2)
Death. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me…” (Matthew 16:24)
Resurrection. “I will raise him up on the last day…” (John 6:40, 44, 54)
The first disciples were so intentional about this, that they were called “Christians,” which means “little Christs.” (Acts 11:26)
Discipleship means imitation!
Discipleship Means Obeying the Commands of Jesus
Jesus himself said, “Make disciples… teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19) So every discipleship program has to ask “What did Jesus command us to do?” Then, we have to prioritize that obedience right up front in our discipleship strategy.
In my curriculum The Obedience Challenge, I identify 48 commands of Jesus in the Gospels, and ask my brand new Christians to take time to learn what they are, and to spend 4 minutes each day praying and meditating on how they can obey Christ. Of course, obeying them will be a lifelong pursuit, but if obedience is the essence of discipleship, then we might as well get started as soon as possible.
Discipleship Means Living Out the Kingdom of God
The concept of the kingdom of God is underutilized when communicating about what discipleship means.
So much of Jesus’ teaching his disciples was about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven). Those 2 phrases are mentioned:
36 times in Matthew
14 times in Mark
32 times in Luke
2 times in John
6 times in Acts (the story of the first disciple-makers after Jesus…)
Why the Kingdom is important in your discipleship plan
While having a personal relationship with Jesus is a true and valuable part of the meaning of discipleship, it's also essential to integrate the Kingdom concepts into your discipleship thinking. This means emphasizing that Christ is a King, the Messiah, and has come to rule for all time, over all people groups, and in the life of every one of his followers.
Discipleship should focus on copying Jesus and spreading his rule. This is particularly true for men. Men need a mission, not a dating advertisement! They need a reason to follow King Jesus, to captivate them into discipleship, to believe that their surrender to God, and their death to self is conquering the forces of darkness. They need to understand that they are doing nothing less than proclaiming a New Kingdom, resulting in a New Creation.
The movie industry understands this concept. Movies for women are about having a loving relationship with a wonderful man, while movies for men are about heroes saving the world against impossible odds. If you hope to make disciples of men, this understanding is essential and should be emphasized.
Time for action
You might notice that I didn’t speak a lot about learning information.
Here’s why: the idea of a cognitive-only learning, disconnected from experience and action was not the way that 1st century Jews meant by the word “mathetes. To “learn” was not information divorced from action. Learning is best when it is geared to love and action. After all, as Paul instructed us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor. 8:1) It was the Greek world who “loved to hear something new” (Acts 17:21).
In fact, even the verb to “know” wasn’t mostly about information. It even famously serves as a term for experiencing the other person sexually – the most intimate, complete knowledge there is. Adam “knowing Eve” was not primarily about studying facts about her, but experiencing her completely.
I share this, not to be weird, but to point out the vast gap that exists between a concept of discipleship that focuses on classroom instruction and what the earliest followers of Jesus meant by the word “learner/disciple.”
Discipleship is learning for action, for obedience, for imitation.
Discipleship programs shouldn’t be based primarily on classes, but on:
Daily learning and action, in the context of…
Mentoring relationships which support life change, leading to…
Prayer and obedience experiences, creating…
A humble, experienced follower of Jesus.
Action Steps for Planning Your Discipleship program:
1. Reverse Engineer your discipleship - start with the end and work backwards:
Write out a list of characteristics of a mature disciple
What habits and processes would create that kind of person?
What kind of Head habits? Heart habits? Hands habits?
How would I encourage the formation of those habits in my discipleship plans?
Which habits will transform them, and how do they develop?
Which truths must they know, and how will I communicate them?
Which things must they love, and how help facilitate that?
2. Create a time slot to discipleship planning & action.
I know, this is a repeat from the last chapter. The problem is, I frequently find that folks haven’t executed on the action points from the last chapter. If you haven’t, that’s not very “mathetes” of you! So take time today. Create a 10 minute time slot each day to pray, think and act about discipleship in your church… and set an alarm on your phone for it.
3. Visit http://get.newstartdiscipleship.com and get acquainted with the discipleship strategy there.
A video course to guide you into creating a plan for discipleship in the local church:
Do you prefer to learn in a video workshop format? Purchase the workshop! Featuring:
an instantly downloadable 36-page workbook
print copies for other key leaders in your church
10 practical video coaching sessions
specific action items for each session