I went away with our elders for a time apart to re-examine our priorities as a church. The word “discipleship” started as one of many things on a “to do” list, and the more we talked and prayed, the more that word pushed its way to the top of the list.
That was all well and good, but almost immediately the discussion turned into a program — how could the elders begin “discipling” people, and how could that, in turn, multiply discipling throughout the congregation? Before we got too far down that road, I encouraged the group to substitute the phrase “making disciples,” from the Great Commission, for the word “discipleship.” That makes us stop and think biblically and comprehensively about just what Jesus’ mandate should mean in the life of our congregations.
A disciple of Jesus is a person who has heard the call of Jesus and has responded by repenting, believing the gospel, and following Him.
The positive reaction of our elders to the call to “make disciples” is part of a healthy refocus by many PCA churches. The importance of discipleship as a core activity of church life is certainly not new, but it doesn’t hurt to ask ourselves whether this clear biblical mandate has been relegated to a Wednesday-night men’s group, or some such program. Several months ago Presbyterian & Reformed (P&R) Publishing invited me to speak to this question in a booklet for its “Basics of the Faith” series. Here is a brief summary of what I wrote, trying to form a list of key issues to be included in a discussion of “making disciples” in our churches. I hope this serves as a conversation starter that leads to reflection and action on the part of ministry leaders.
1. True believers must think of themselves as disciples of Jesus.
Somehow, the idea that being a disciple of Jesus is not essential to salvation has taken root in the minds of many Christians; they see discipleship as an extra step or deeper commitment. This kind of thinking has no doubt helped in identifying discipleship with programs that are intended for believers who are interested in and willing to move forward in their walk of faith. Discipleship is, in common understanding, optional — important to be sure, but not essential to salvation. No doubt we will need to confess that we are weak disciples or new disciples or struggling disciples, but it is vital that believers understand we are disciples. Owning that vital truth is a key step to a more productive discipleship.
2. The life of a disciple of Jesus begins with the call of Jesus.
In the story of the earliest call to discipleship, Mark tells us that Jesus took up His public ministry by preaching repentance and faith in the good news. He then called four fishermen to follow Him, which they did immediately (Mark 1.14-20). In the next chapter He called Levi to leave behind his tax-collecting business and follow Him, which Levi did. Later that day Jesus spoke of what He was doing in terms of the call: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2.13-17). Based on these passages, and consistent with other Scripture, I define a disciple of Jesus this way: A disciple of Jesus is a person who has heard the call of Jesus and has responded by repenting, believing the gospel, and following Him.
We should not think of the call to salvation in Christ and the call to discipleship as different categories. They are simply two ways to understand the same supernatural work of effectual calling. This is a key way in which Reformed theology should inform our approach to discipleship. In most of the discipleship literature I have read, there are only occasional references to the Holy Spirit’s work and the need for regeneration. But it is the enabling power of the Holy Spirit through what we know as the “effectual calling” that brings us into the new life, just as it is the Holy Spirit’s power that enables us to walk in the new life. Paul said, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5.25). Our role in making disciples needs to be understood in terms of how we work as instruments of what the Holy Spirit is doing in those people’s lives.
3. Discipleship is not a distinct category or activity, but a synonym for Christian living.
One way to think of discipleship is to consider it as the human response to the Spirit’s work in sanctification. The ordinary path of Christian growth is learning what it means to be Jesus’ disciples and understanding the resources God provides to help us grow. Within this broader understanding of discipleship, it is certainly appropriate to have special study seasons or specific programs designed to help people in their walk with Christ. However, along with specific ministries that might be labeled “discipleship,” there needs to be a general consciousness that everything in the church should be viewed through the lens of making disciples.
4. The Great Commission does not make our modern distinction between evangelism and discipleship.
Our risen Savior and King sent His disciples to make disciples of the nations (the unbelievers all around them). The commission was not to stop with conversions, or obtain what are termed “decisions for Jesus”; it was to “make disciples,” leading people to profess faith and be baptized, and then into a life of obeying all things Jesus commanded.
We need to think in terms of two phases of making disciples, rather than distinct tasks of evangelism and discipleship. In fact, if many of us reflect on how we were “evangelized,” it could be better described as being discipled in the context of a loving family or community of believers until we publicly confessed trust in the gospel we had seen lived out in others. We should ask ourselves what is needed to make our congregations places where this kind of disciple-making goes on as a normal part of the church’s life. Do we authentically welcome unbelievers to come among us and take whatever time is necessary to seek and find Christ? Are we prepared to lead them step-by-step from initial profession of faith into a life of maturity in Christ?
5. The gospel is what is most needed by believers as well as unbelievers.
Many have reawakened to the fact that the gospel, the announcement of God’s deliverance through Jesus Christ, is more than a message for those who have not yet believed it. The statement, “I need to preach the gospel to myself every day,” is one expression of that reawakening. The more common pattern has been to equate preaching the gospel with evangelism, but once someone has believed the gospel, we are not sure how to describe what comes next. Unfortunately, in much of our teaching and practice in churches the gospel is actually separated from discipleship when exactly the opposite is needed.
For example, take a fresh look at Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It is clear as one studies Romans that “salvation” is far more than conversion — it is all that we are given in Christ, including justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification. Furthermore the word “believe” in the text is in the progressive sense of “is believing,” pointing to ongoing faith in the gospel, not a single experience. Thus the gospel empowers those who are believing it to live a life of following Jesus.
6. Don’t assume that people understand the gospel either in terms of experience or theology.
When I’m leading a seminar on gospel discipling, I frequently ask the group, “How much of the gospel did you understand when you first believed?” The responses are usually smiles and comments about how little they actually understood when God worked in their hearts to trust in Christ. People are at all levels of spiritual understanding in our churches. In some instances, “faith” is actually on a false foundation and not true saving faith after all. Or we may be working with “saved” people who nevertheless need to relearn almost everything about the gospel. Ultimately, only God truly knows the heart. As we consider how our churches will make disciples, we should not make assumptions about where people are in their journeys or how much of the gospel story they actually understand, even when they can use a familiar vocabulary. In 2009 P&R published a book I wrote for new believers, The Walk — Steps for New and Renewed Followers of Jesus. In The Walk, I deliberately took what I thought of as a “discipleship for dummies” approach and encouraged older believers to read it in preparation for their discipleship of others. However, many responses I received indicated that these “mature believers” were discovering gospel truths that were new to them.
We should want everyone in our large gatherings or small groups to feel invited in as learners. It doesn’t mean that we become superficial, but it does mean avoiding casual statements such as, “Of course everyone here knows the story of Elijah,” or not giving time for a beginner to look up a scriptural text because we assume that “everyone here knows their Bibles.” With just a slight change of language (reflecting a significant change in attitude), we can create a much more welcoming church. If that is reflected on leadership’s part, it will also become part of the way the entire church goes about its work.
7. The teaching of gospel doctrine was fundamental to Paul’s discipleship of new believers.
Typical discipleship programs major in “doing” the Christian life. These may include personal spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, fasting, etc., or more active disciplines such as community service and missionary work. These are worthy things that we need to be doing, but is this the place to start?
Paul approached this important question of living as disciples in another way. He taught again and again that the basis for “doing” must be “knowing” (Colossians 1.9-10). If you think of theology and doctrine as separate from discipleship, you need to rethink that idea. We want to be sure that the “doing” of Christian living is built on a solid foundation of “knowing.” We also want to be certain that our biblical and theological teaching (which most Reformed churches seem to be pretty good at) really does contribute to the hearers’ walk with Christ. The “teach” of the Great Commission is not the teaching of information, but very specifically, “teach them to obey all things I have commanded you.”
8. There is no discipleship without community.
God’s appointed arena for making disciples is the church. The modern discipleship movement was birthed by parachurch ministries that stressed particular discipleship methods. Usually these methods revolved around a multiplication philosophy that focused on small groups or one-to-one training. No doubt there is a great deal that has been of benefit to Christians, but this has also contributed to a highly individualistic understanding of discipleship. However, once we understand discipleship in the broader sense of helping one another live out our Christian lives, then the absolute necessity of the church community comes to the foreground. We are one body in Christ, and true growth comes as we grow up together (Ephesians 4.11-16).
Before attempting to design some kind of specific approach to discipleship for your unique situation, it is important to understand that the practical starting point in making disciples is what goes on in the church’s ordinary weekly gatherings for worship, teaching, and communion. This is where people learn their first lessons in prayer and in reading and understanding Scripture. The two sacraments — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — are amazing tools to teach and demonstrate the realities of coming to faith and walking in faith. Think of the Sunday worship service as the hub whose spokes then begin to reach into every area of the church’s life.
9. Discipleship begins with the next generation.
The first consideration in a church’s mission to make disciples should be the discipleship of its own children. Pastors and other church leaders should feel the weight of Jesus’ rebuke to His disciples when they thought He was too busy or too important to give serious attention to children who were brought to Him (Matthew 19.13-15).
We need to think in terms of two phases of making disciples rather than distinct tasks of evangelism and discipleship.
Those in the leadership of God’s people are called to create an environment where parents committed to raising their children to follow Jesus are given support. This may not mean more programs (in fact it may mean fewer programs so parents can have time to nurture their children), but any vision for making disciples needs to include concrete ways to see to the discipleship of children. This means help for parents in understanding the importance of spiritual training and practical guides for things like family worship. It will include a strategy for teaching children the faith’s essentials. It will include a strategy for preparing them to make a public profession of faith.
10. Following Jesus must include following Jesus in His mission.
From the very first words of His call, Jesus made it clear that to follow Him as a disciple had a purpose — a mission. Earlier I mentioned the challenge of convincing believers that they are disciples; now the challenge becomes to convince these disciples that they are actually missionaries. Of course, the word “missionary” can bring various reactions, but in its most basic sense, a missionary is someone on a mission — and a disciple of Jesus is a person with a mission. We are to be disciples making disciples. That means we are people still learning what it means to follow Jesus as His disciples ourselves, and an important part of that discipleship is helping those who may be a few steps behind us. Jesus told those first disciples that He would make them fishers of men. Jesus does this work as church leaders become Christ’s instruments to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4.12).
As I have noted, the 10 things just explained are building blocks to lay a foundation for ongoing discipleship. Now the real work begins. How is the Lord leading your mission or congregation to flesh out this clear mandate?
Stephen Smallman is assistant pastor of New Life PCA in Glenside, Pa. He is also an instructor for CityNet Ministries of Philadelphia. Interested readers are invited to read the full presentation in What is Discipleship? (P&R, 2011). Contact Steve directly by email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or through his Birthline Ministries website: birthlineministries.com
This article first appeared in ByFaith Magazine: Discipleship