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April 25, 2016

Defining Discipleship


Disciple, Discipleship, Discipling, Making Disciples . . .

These are good words, old words, and increasingly repeated words in Christian circles these days. What exactly do we mean by them? In order to define our terms, let’s begin with a story.

After pastoring a church in California for over a decade, I spent a good seven years as a “theological educator and leadership developer” amongst first generation Christians in urban Turkey. One day a Turkish man with a Muslim background approached a western mission worker (a friend of a friend) and shared his desire. Having been on the fringes of the local Turkish congregation for some time and so being somewhat known, he approached the missionary and declared, “I’m interested in learning more about Christianity.” In response, the missionary did not say, “Here’s a book,” or “Come to the Bible study on Wednesday,” although those things would have their place. What the missionary said was, “Okay, come live with me for a while.”

Down through the centuries, much of what world Christianity has meant with words like “disciple” and “making disciples” is captured in that invitation and picture of life together for a time. In other words, to be a “disciple” and to “make disciples”:

  • is highly relational;
  • requires an investment of time;
  • focuses on a few;
  • concerns a kind of personal knowledge of the life and work of Jesus Christ that is passed on from one individual to another. This knowledge is first embodied in and only then can be acquired from someone already in a relationship with Christ. Time together – in whatever configurations that may take – allows a Christ-filled life to be observed, understood, adopted, and adapted by another person who desires it.

In part, all of that echoes the well known reference in Mark 3:14, “And he (Jesus) appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, . . .” Disciple making and being discipled take time. A chunk of that time is face-time, together in a one-on-one relationship or in a small group.

Life together. No getting around it.

During my most recent pastorate, people were often reticent to contact me or seek time with me, because, “I know you are so busy.” Where did they ever get the idea that if I were to be busy, it was somehow not to be busy with them? Spending time with them, being with them is what we (pastors, elders, other leaders) are to be busy with. What are you going to say “No” to, in order to say “Yes,” and then get busy with them?

Let’s read the rest of Mark 3:14-15, and make a final comment or two. “And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.

What was true for those who were “to be with him” must also be true for those being with us. “Discipleship” and “being discipled” are ultimately about being turned outward, authorized, and sent into ministry in his name. “Being with” does lead to “doing.” And this kind of “doing,” which carries great power and yields tremendous fruit, only comes out of a relationship of “being with.” Disciple making and discipleship worthy of the Name must begin with and then make good on the invitation, “Come live with me for a while.”

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