What is Discipleship?

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Jesus' last words to his disciples were "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). This is the essence of discipleship - but if discipleship is the process of making disciples we need first to understand what a disciple is.

So what is a Disciple?

A disciple is a follower of Jesus. In the gospels we see him calling people to follow him.

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said

Mark 1: 16-17 (NIV)

The implication of the gospels is that Jesus called many people to follow him.

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him.

Mark 3: 13 (NIV)

But if we stick to a definition which limits discipleship to following Jesus, we are missing much of the point. Both of the scriptures quoted are partial quotatations - in the very next verse we see Jesus explicitly giving those he called a task to do.

"Come, follow me", Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

Mark 1: 17 (NIV)

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.

Mark 3: 13-15 (NIV)

These passages show us that Jesus was appointing them to carry his mission on to others. Discipleship is not an intellectual exercise. We are not called just to know about Jesus. We are not called to applaud his message. We are called to literally follow in his footsteps and to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the nations.

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

Luke 9: 1-2 (NIV)

How are we trying to make disciples?

For many years it seems the church has relied on Sunday services and sermons to build the next generation of beleivers. Round the world, this is now changing in two significant ways.

Firstly, many are abandoning the church. In a consumer and entertainment age church simply does not compete. People are dissatisfied with this preacher or that worship leader, so they move on or stop coming along.

Secondly, many are looking to grow church in completely different ways. The emphasis is shifting from Sunday Christianity to whole life discipleship. If we encourage people to actively live out a Jesus lifestyle the results can be astonishing. An obedient discipleship which challenges people to share their faith and live it out daily is much harder than sitting in a pew, but it is also much more engaging. Living faith is rewarding. When people come into contact with believers who are fully alive, the results can be infectious.

Around the world Disciple Making Movements are growing at unprecedented rates in unlikely places. As the church in the west obsesses over how to halt the decline - the church worldwide is exploding. So what can we learn from these?

How do we do discipleship?

In our faith we follow in someone's steps. In our faith we leave footprints to guide others. It's the principle of discipleship

Max Lucado

At the core of most Disciple Making Movements is a commitment to taking Jesus at his word. The Bible study tools may vary from place to place, but at their centre, the authority of scripture is paramount. This is not just an academic authority. It is not mere acceptance of the scripture as being God's word. Rather, it is an authority which leads to obedience. If Jesus says Go, then we go.

To make disciples, we must become like Jesus and do what he did. So what did Jesus do?

The Discipleship Cycle

The Discipleship Cycle. Pray, Go, Call, Grow & Send


Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Mark 1: 35 (NIV)

Prayer is at the heart of discipleship. It is in praying that we find God's heart, and express our utter dependence upon him to make disciples.

David Garrison lists prayer as the first of ten universal elements found in all modern Church Planting Movements. Prayer is as important to the Discipler as it is to the disciple, and it is by our commitment to it that we demonstrate it's importance to those we are discipling.

Go: Get out amongst the lost

When [Peter] found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Mark 1: 38-39 (NIV)

Jesus was very intentional about getting out to spread the good news. Peter is eager to call him back, but Jesus insists on moving on. It is in going that we find the people who are open.

Call: Focus on the few to reach the many

As we have already seen - Jesus spoke to many, but he chose only a few. He invested in depth with a select handful, and he sent them out with explicit instructions to do the same.

Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.

Matthew 10: 11 (NIV)

Interestingly, the day after I wrote these words I came across The Lost Art of Disciple Making which makes precisely this point - in 1978 long before most Disciple Making Movements were started.

[Jesus'] ministry touched thousands, but he trained twelve men. He gave his life on the cross for millions, but during the three and half years of his ministry he gave his life uniquely to twelve men.

The Lost Art of Disciple Making. LeRoy Eims. 1978

Jesus focused most of his discipleship attention on the twelve. He spoke publicly in parables, but unpacked the detail in private later. As Eims observes, he gave his life to the twelve, living out all aspects of life with them. Discipleship requires deep relationships. Sharing all aspects of life, and not just ministry activity.

Grow: Teach them to obey

Jesus instructed his disciples, not as a classroom exercise, but in a practical hands-on way. He told them to ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers in to the fields, and no sooner had they asked that than he sent them. He also instructed them to heal the sick and to cast out demons - and amazingly they did exactly that (admittedly with varying levels of success).

Building in obedience early on in discipleship makes it a habit. It is important to stress, however, that we are making disciples who are obedient to Jesus and not to us. Using an obedience-based approach such as the Discovery Bible Study method (used in the Discover Discipleship App) helps to put the focus on to God's leadership and Jesus' commands. It also demonstrates that we are serious about obedience as being a core requirement of following Christ.

Send: Send them out

Another characteristic of Disciple Making Movements is the way that they trust new believers with ministry responsibility from the outset.

New believers are expected to become witnesses immediately; these new disciples immediately become disciplers of others and even church planters. One elderly man who came to Christ in a Church Planting Movement in India planted 42 churches in his first year as a believer.

Church Planting Movements. David Garrison (1999)

Jesus is no different. In Luke 9 & 10 we see him sending out his disciples on mission trips, and at the end of his earthly ministry he sends them out once more, to the nations.

Keeping the cycle moving

From all that has gone before, we can see that disciple-making is a cycle, and whilst the process of becoming a disciple is life-long, it is a relatively rapid one. Jesus spent only three years with his disciples - and they went on to change the world. Having modeled discipleship to others, we should be expecting them to do the same, and once we have 'sent them' it is time to be on the look out for the next people to disciple.

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Scripture quotations from the New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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