Discipleship is not just about those already in the church, but those outside as well.
Like many aspects of the Christian life—kingdom, mission, evangelism, even the gospel—we have reduced the concept of discipleship. In many church settings, discipleship is seen as an activity only for believers. Many people think of evangelism as something you do with lost people, while discipleship is for those who have already made a decision to follow Christ.
As a result, discipleship has largely been limited to issues relating to our own personal morality and worked out in the context of the walls of the church. We certainly don’t want to neglect issues of personal morality. To strive for holiness and maturity in our own lives is extremely important, but it is only part of the story. We also have a God-given responsibility to the world around us. When we reduce discipleship to being just about us, we often neglect the biblical mandate to go and “make disciples.” Therefore, we need to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a disciple and what it looks like to create disciple-making environments.
One possible framework that I believe provides a more comprehensive way to think about disciple making involves incorporating three major spheres of the Christian life: Christology, missiology and ecclesiology. Instead of using the typical theological terms, let’s consider the more common language of kingdom thinking, missional engagement and biblical community.
The key theme is that our kingdom thinking (Jesus) should determine our missional engagement (mission), which in turn should determine our understanding of biblical community (church). When we get these three concepts in the wrong order, we often allow our idea of church to govern our sense of purpose and mission. Jesus, however, should be the one to determine our purpose and mission in the world (discipleship), and as we follow him into that mission, we should discover different expressions of being the church.
These three concepts work together in such a way that when the church lives out the disciple-making implications of each, the natural fruit, will be disciple making. The point is that disciple making should be woven into the fabric of everything we are and do as the church. It must become the pervasive ethos felt at every level of the organization.
Disciple Making and Kingdom Thinking (Christology)
Disciple making is first and foremost about the centrality of Jesus. Essentially, it involves the lifelong task of becoming more and more like Jesus by embodying his message, as well as his practices. Not only was Jesus the perfect model of a disciple maker—he formally invited 12 people to be his disciples (Mark 3:13–19)—but his ways are the curriculum for our disciple making. Discipleship is basically a Jesus-saturated affair, through which he lives his life in and through his people (union with Christ) and we become more like him (imitation of Christ).
The word “apprenticeship” best describes the disciple-making process. If you have never been involved in a trade or craft, the apprenticeship process may not be familiar. Yet the image of being an apprentice communicates many of the key ideas of disciple making. An apprentice is a person who is learning a trade, art or calling by practical experience. This is accomplished under the guidance of a skilled worker. The apprentice learns from observing and being in the presence of the one who has experience and wisdom in a particular trade. So a disciple maker is a person who is apprenticing others into kingdom thinking, or the likeness of Jesus.
Disciple Making and Missional Engagement (Missiology)
Too often, the missing component in the disciple-making environment is the lack of connecting discipleship and missional engagement. For too long, the church has associated discipleship with the transfer of information. But how can we be discipled into the ways of Jesus without participating in the mission of Jesus? He gave instructions to the disciples and then taught them once they had attempted his directives. Jesus was apprenticing the disciples in the midst of a constant rhythm of missional action-reflection. The church must do the same. Our disciple-making process cannot be devoid of missional engagement.
As every member is activated to engage in God’s mission, we must create opportunities for them to reflect on their missional involvement. Sometimes this may simply mean we need individual downtime to reflect upon our activities. We may need to ask God to affirm our involvement or to ask for clarity of direction. But it also will mean carving out time to reflect with others among our faith community. We need to hear what others are seeing and sensing concerning God’s activities and to hear the stories of how others are engaging God’s mission.
However, not only do we need to reflect on what God is doing “out there” in our missional context, but we also need to reflect on what God is doing “in here”—inside of us. We need to ask, how is God shaping and forming our hearts as we engage in his mission? This is a crucial component of discipleship. As we engage in God’s mission, the Spirit can transform our hearts. But this transformation also occurs as we each share (apprentice) with each other what God is doing inside of us in the midst of our missional engagement. What is God revealing to me? How is he calling me into his mission in new ways? What am I learning about myself?
Disciple Making and Biblical Community (Ecclesiology)
Missional engagement is best done as a communal activity. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the rhythm of action-reflection happens best in community. We can’t be apprenticed in isolation. Again, our relationship with Jesus is central to everything. Jesus is the teacher, the curriculum and the classroom. However, as social, relational beings, we are created to live the Jesus life in community with other believers.
The crucial interplay of these three aspects of the disciple-making environment (kingdom thinking, missional engagement and biblical community) will determine if we are truly obedient to the command to make disciples. The process of making genuine disciples determines the effectiveness of the church in the West. If we fail to spur on a movement of authentic followers of Jesus who are engaged in his redemptive purposes and instead focus on making converts who turn into consumeristic church attenders needing constant “feeding,” we will never see a movement take place.
For more on this topic check out Brad’s new book, Covocational Church Planting: Aligning Your Marketplace Calling with the Mission of God published by the Send Network.
This article originally appeared on NAMB.net.