Discipleship in the Moment - Part 1

Discipleship is the lifeblood of the church. Jesus’ final command is a call to discipleship:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

How is the church doing with respect to accomplishing Jesus’ final command? Are we making disciples? Jim Peterson, of the Navigators ministry, makes the startling statement at the beginning of his book on discipleship, “Thirty years of discipleship programs, and we are not discipled.”[1]

What has happened to discipleship? How is it that Christianity in America is so shallow, given the accessibility and availability of resources and knowledge? Where is the power of Jesus in the lives of Christians? I need look no further than my own experience and journey in discipleship to see the failure of programs to accomplish Christ’s commission. As I trace my own journey in exploring what discipleship is, I must rethink discipleship for the advance of the gospel in order to see the emergence of a new discipleship framework.

Discipleship as Program? Previously, I viewed discipleship as a program. Discipleship was a set body of information, usually the basics of Christianity, taught to a disciple in a structured academic environment. Once a person converted, discipleship was sharing information to produce behavioral conformity to evangelical Christianity. This view was established in my campus ministry experience with a parachurch ministry. In fact, once a person came to faith and went through one semester of Bible study, they were assimilated into a second Bible study which we called a “discipleship group.”

When discipleship is a program, there is a defined beginning and end with a distinct accompanying methodological emphasis.

Following the proven methods of discipleship to reach the end goal was key. Deviating from this method was not encouraged.  Deep down I knew something was amiss in this one-size-fits-all approach, but I was too young in my faith to articulate it and there were no other presenting alternatives.

I eventual came to see that utilizing a program made the end goal of discipleship not so much following Jesus and becoming like him, but the goal was self-perpetuating the particular parachurch ministry. This goal was accomplished by recruiting laborers from our pool of disciples. Progress in discipleship was more measured by involvement in and commitment to the parachurch ministry, rather than following God’s call to give Him glory in whatever vocational sphere into which He has called us.

I knew that there had to be more to discipleship and the Christian life than recruiting other parachurch staff. In time, I left the parachurch ministry and headed to seminary. My desire was to continue serving in ministry, but I knew I needed to not only grow in biblical knowledge and ministry skill, I needed a new paradigm found in the gospel.

Discipleship NOT as Program[2] Through seminary and the following years of ministry, I vacillated when it came to discipleship. My past parachurch ministry experience was still my tendency, even though I knew something of the rich diversity of experimental religion. It was because I knew something of the grandeur and sovereignty of God, that I refused to force a program on people. So discipleship was no longer a program I followed, but having lost the intent and structure of a program, I resorted to a haphazard approach. Having come into contact through seminary with the gospel of grace in a fresh way, I knew discipleship was more than working hard as a Christian and checking off godly behaviors.

During these years in ministry, I frequently met with spiritual hungry Christians and personally directed them spiritually. I would informally ask questions and discern how people were doing. Based on their answers or struggles, I would give some sort of guidance or comfort based on my knowledge of the Scriptures. Often I would evaluate a person intuitively to discern what they needed to hear and then gauge the effectiveness of my discipling efforts on how well they listened and obeyed. While this was no longer a rigid program, it was still highly informational. I knew people needed contact with the Word of God and exposure to the truth, but my downfall in terms of discipling effectiveness was becoming an informational guru rather than an incarnational reality.

Discipleship as Gospel Re-Presentation[3] If discipleship is not a program, if it is not a body of information, if it is not a class[4] to take, if it is not sitting at the feet of a guru, what is it?

Discipleship is presenting and applying the truths of the gospel in a way that cultivates the transforming knowledge of our Savior and results in following him.

The knowledge a person gains in knowing and trusting Christ is transformative because of the work of the Holy Spirit[5]. The Spirit’s work is to reveal the depths of knowledge (John 17:3), that we would look into the mirror of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:1-6) and see God’s glory reflected there. In discipleship the gospel is unfolded and “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3) are discovered in Christ.

Though discipleship can be defined as growth in knowledge, it is not an academic exercise or reducible to book learning. The intimate and relational knowledge that the Spirit uses to transform lives is centered on Christ. Jesus Christ is the gospel by virtue of His position at the center of it.[6] He is the object of our faith (1 Timothy 1:14) and the mediator of the message (1 Timothy 2:5) which is the “power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16).

The New Testament pattern for discipleship is the presentation and re-presentation of all that Christ has accomplished.[7] So to disciple is to teach and model all that Christ has done and will do. To disciple is to remind and explain how the Scriptures proclaim the good news (Isaiah 61:2, Luke 2:11, 4:19) and the implications of that news for godly living.

Discipling begins and ends with the good news of the gospel.

The gospel is our starting point as the Father effectually calls people towards conversion, and the gospel is our end point as we continually experience the transforming and renewing power of the Spirit by faith in Christ. We start with the gospel in discipleship, we stay with the gospel, and we end this life and begin eternity with the knowledge and power the gospel supplies.

This is Part 1 of the 3-Part Series, Discipleship in the Moment by Allen Taha.

[1] Jim Peterson, Lifestyle Discipleship: The Challenge of Following Jesus in Today’s World (Colorado Springs:  NavPress, 1993), 15.

[2] “Turning the process of spiritual formation into a program will undermine its very purpose. It is a spiritual process, a process that the church sets in motion to engage the heart, the mind, the will, indeed the whole person, in a lifelong commitment of discipleship.”  Robert E. Webber, Ancient- Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 47.

[3] I first heard the phrase “gospel re-presentation” from Bryan Chapell’s lecture during the 2005 Sacrifice of Praise Worship Renewal Conference (http://www.covenantseminary.edu/resource/Chapell_WC05_WorshipAsGospelRePresentation.mp3).

In this sense, worship is an aspect of discipleship, which is the point Webber makes: “In worship the unchurched are immersed in truth as the community remembers God’s great acts of salvation, discerns the ways God’s presence and power are now available, and points to the eschatological vision of the new heavens and earth…This kind of worship—worship that proclaims and enacts the gospel so that our relationship with God is rehearsed—speaks to our postmodern way of knowing.” Ancient-Future Evangelism, 63-64.

[4] Webber offers the following interpretation of “teaching” in Matthew 28:20, “Teaching is not divorced from disciple making; it is not a separate responsibility apart from discipleship, and teaching does not mean a mere intellectual framework.” Ancient-Future Evangelism, 22.

[5] “One’s whole life involves trusting in Christ, who by the Spirit continually transforms us into the likeness of God.” Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 75.

[6] Stephen Smallman, Grace-Centered Discipleship Class Lecture, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, 11 January 2006.

[7] Romans is an example of this pattern of discipleship:  Romans was addressed to believers (1:7), the letter begins with a definition of what the gospel is (1:16), this is followed by a depth presentation of the gospel (chapters 1-11), after which the implications of the truth of the gospel are worked out (chapters 12-16). Ibid.


Dr. Allen R. Taha is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Boerne, Texas. He also serves as a chaplain and firefighter for the Boerne Volunteer Fire Department. He graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis (M. Div., DMin.). He likes to bowhunt the backwoods of Texas in his spare time.