A much needed conversation is taking place across the Western Evangelical church on the nature of biblical discipleship. What is it? How can we restore it to the church? If we don’t act soon, the Western church will soon be a stereotype of the discipleship-less church.We need to advance both the conversation and discipleship action.
Let me first say that while I am always for discipleship, I do not have a magic solution to solve the issue. That said, there are certain baseline principles that must be followed in order for the church to recover its original discipleship moorings. These moorings, though anchored in first century, continue to be enduring principles for making disciples.
Discipleship as a Lifestyle
In the first century, discipleship was a lifestyle. It was central to being the church. Discipleship was not a noun, to describe a process, or a synonym for Christian education; rather, it was a lifestyle. It was part and parcel to the Christian life. When a person became a Christian, the normal process was that the church (mature believers within a local body), would begin to live with the new Christian in such a way that truth was transferred in the context of relationship.
In Acts 2, when the 3,000 had been “added”, they immediately “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship”. This picture of the early church shows us that, when a large number of believers were “saved”, it marked the beginning of a discipleship process. This was administered by the rest of the Body of Christ. The birth of the church set into motion a pattern that continues throughout the book of Acts and in the letters Paul. For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul, Silas, and Timothy do life with the new believers in Thessalonica (Acts 17, I Thess.1-3). They disciple them right where they are, in life, not in a classroom. They didn’t do classes on discipleship; they made disciples.
Jesus’ Invitation to Everyday Discipleship
One reason the early church was strong in lifestyle discipleship was due to the fact that they were very close (in time) to the original discipleship experience. Many had witnessed Jesus discipleship, other became his disciples. Then, at a rock outside Galilee, he commanded his most committed disciples to go and make other disciples. There probably wasn’t a lot of Q & A regarding discipleship. Why? Because the idea of “going and making disciples” was something they had experienced for three years. Making disciples was precisely what Jesus had just done with them.
They knew that discipleship was an invitation into the very everyday life of Jesus’ existence—an invitation to follow him. They also intuitively knew that throughout the course of following, they not only heard about but experienced the transformative power of the gospel, fleshed out in the context of everyday life. In addition, they were involved in day-to-day ministry to others, even supervising this process.
So, at the end of three powerful years of truth and life, in the context of relationship, Jesus called his disciples to make disciples. I heard a wise old saint once say: “While education is discipleship, discipleship is not merely education.” I’m sure the disciples didn’t mistake discipleship for educating new believers in Christian doctrine, or teaching them how to hold one another morally accountable in the Christian life. Those things are a part of discipleship, but they are not discipleship in and of themselves.
To the disciples, making disciples simply meant that they were to invite others into their discipleship journey. They were to involve other hungry believers into their journey of pursuing Christ, and run together. In so doing, the less mature become more mature, to the point that he or she can then make disciples as well. As Luke 6:40 says, “a student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” So, there was a reproductive impulse that was the natural outcome of Christ-modeled discipleship.
Disciples of Jesus Make Disciples
It is certainly fair to argue that one cannot build disciples without first being a disciple. However, it is equally fair to argue that one can’t truly be a disciple of Jesus without eventually building other disciples. Here is Jesus, a man who spent about 85% of his three year pubic ministry with twelve men. Jesus was either very distracted by his friendships with these men, so much so that he couldn’t do what he came to earth to do, or hanging out with them was precisely the strategy by which he would accomplish the spreading of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. I would argue the latter.
And so the question remains: Is it really possible to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and never do what he was exceedingly intentional to do–reproduce himself into others as he pursued the will of the Father for his life? Is it possible to follow Jesus and yet not do what he was doing?
Central to the heart and strategy of Jesus’ ministry was that it was reproducible. He reproduced himself in others. Healthy, Christ-like discipleship will reproduce. Both the reality and the result of Jesus’ standardized discipleship is reproduction. Always has been. Always will be.
In a culture fascinated with numbers, church growth, big buildings, celebrity pastors, and microwave maturity, there is simply no time for authentic discipleship to take place.
The Problem of Discipleship in the Western Church
I believe one of the core reasons why discipleship is seen as weak in the modern Western church is that the vital reproductive impulse of discipleship has been in large part neutralized. In a culture fascinated with numbers, church growth, big buildings, celebrity pastors, and microwave maturity, there is simply no time for authentic discipleship to take place. Pastors and elders are too busy to model it. The people are too consumeristic to desire it.
So, in many churches discipleship is relegated to a class taught on Wednesday nights and the dynamic Christian life is not modeled in a way that shows how it can be experienced and reproduced. And so our churches often grow wide but rarely deep and the result is a slow attrition that is felt both numerically and in its waning influence on creating and redeeming culture.
The kind of discipleship that turned the world upside down in the first century was one that reproduced and thus multiplied. Without reproduction, there will be no multiplication. Without a return to Biblical discipleship in the local church, there will be no reproduction. Without reproduction through lifestyle discipleship, the church will become less relevant in a society where its echo is already much louder than its voice.
Kennon Vaughan is the Executive Director of DownLine Ministries in Memphis, TN. He is married to his sweetheart Kathryn Vaughan and they have three boys: Caleb, Luke, and Jonathan. Kennon’s greatest joys are all things sports, quality time with Kathryn, and time spent investing Christ in younger men starting with his boys.