I have one heirloom from my grandfather. It’s a wooden walking stick with a few dozen medallions from different European cities nailed to it.
There are a few from German cities like Berlin and Munich, others from places like Prague and Budapest, and others from smaller cities across the continent. It’s still the same walking stick he started with, but it’s been permanently stamped with a record of everywhere it went.
Discipleship is one of the sticks I’ve carried with me as I’ve traveled through multiple Christian traditions over the course of my life. And, as it’s traveled through each of these traditions, I’ve nailed medallions to it, sometimes without even realizing I was doing so.
There’s the medallion I picked up in the non-denominational churches, both mega and small, I grew up attending. There’s another I picked up when I started going to summer camp with my Pentecostal friends. Then, there are the medallions I nailed to it as I absorbed books and sermons by reformed Baptists and Presbyterians as a college student. And, finally, there’s the medallion I picked up as I graduated from an Anglican seminary just a few weeks ago.
Each of these has left its mark on how I understand discipleship. As I reflect on each of these marks, I hope you’ll be inspired to learn from the various traditions of the Christian faith, or what Richard Foster calls “streams of living water.”
DISCIPLESHIP IN NON-DENOMINATIONAL CHURCHES
One of my earliest memories of the non-denominational church I attended growing up is how often we opened our Bibles. We sang a song that listed the books of the Old Testament that I still rehearse in my head when I’m looking for one of the minor prophets. The pastor opened his Bible when he spoke on Sunday mornings. We memorized Psalm 23, John 3:16, the Ten Commandments, and the “Romans Road”—verses I can still recite to this day, nearly twenty years later (thanks, AWANA!). And it was in another non-denominational church that I developed a love for reading and understanding the Bible on my own as a high school student.
In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul writes to his protege Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” If there’s one thing I learned about discipleship in non-denominational churches, it’s that there is no discipleship without the Bible. Any church that attempts to lead people into the way of Jesus without teaching people how to engage with the scriptures will always come up short.
As I think about what discipleship looks like in the church where I pastor, I know it means getting people into the Bible as often as possible. We want to make Bible reading as normal as eating. It’s why we teach a four-week course on how to read the Bible and how to form a habit of engaging with the Bible every day. It’s why our sermons are soaked in Scripture and why we hope people leave our services wanting to read more of the Bible.
While the Bible is critical to discipleship, it remains just a book without the Spirit who brings it to life.
DISCIPLESHIP AT PENTECOSTAL SUMMER CAMP
In Acts 1:8, Jesus says to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Yes, the Bible is foundational to any sense of discipleship, but the Bible is intended to be an access point to the Spirit who inspired it. As Gordon T. Smith, president of Ambrose University, writes in Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal,
“The genius of the Pentecostal vision is that we have an unmediated experience, however ecstatic or unusual or ordinary, that cannot be attributed to any other source than God’s very self, graciously offered and given and known.”
I’ve experienced this firsthand. I remember the first time I heard someone pray in tongues, the first time I heard a prophetic word, and the first time I saw someone healed. It was at high school summer camp with my Pentecostal friends, in-between bonfires and ping-pong.
These are normal people, I remember thinking, yet here they were doing things I thought normal people didn’t do. I was seeing an otherworldly power missing from my own experience with discipleship—and all I was expecting from my first year at summer camp was a girlfriend.
There were moments in my life where I was embarrassed the Pentecostal medallion I was adding to my stick and I tried to remove it. But it’s permanently shaped how I understand what it means to follow Jesus.
This is why the hub at the center of how we talk about discipleship at our church—the power that makes discipleship move—is the Holy Spirit. It’s why we’re trying to create spaces for people to discover and practice the full range of spiritual gifts. This includes not just the easy-to-manage ones like “administration” and “hospitality,” but also “prophecy” and “healing” that many churches doctrinally permit but functionally forbid. Even if no one who walked into our church would call us Pentecostals, the Pentecostal vision has left its mark on us.
DISCIPLESHIP IN REFORMED BOOKS AND SERMONS
It was in college that my love for reading led me to books written by reformed pastors, even if I had no idea what “reformed” meant at the time. I was consuming books written by Tim Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. I was listening to sermons by Matt Chandler and John Piper. I was reading every article on websites shaped by the Reformed vision, like Gospel-Centered Discipleship and The Gospel Coalition. One thing became clear through all my reading and listening: discipleship dies without the gospel.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Paul writes, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” The gospel is easy to lose. If the way we talk about discipleship becomes all about what you should do and nothing about what Christ has already done, we’re missing something.
When we developed a course we call the Discipleship On-Ramp at my church, we made the first session about the gospel. In it, we teach people the difference between religion and the gospel. As Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God, “Religion operates on the principle, ‘I obey—therefore, I am accepted by God.’ But the operating principle of the gospel is ‘I am accepted by God—there I obey.’”
When we teach this principle to people in our church, you can literally see the effect it has on those who are hearing it for the first time. It's like a huge weight was lifted and they can finally breathe. It's not about what I need to do, they realize; it's about what Christ has already done.
While Reformed books and sermons taught me the importance of getting biblical truth into my brain, it was Anglicans who taught me how that knowledge gets into my bones.
DISCIPLESHIP IN AN ANGLICAN SEMINARY
Four years ago, I began attending Trinity School for Ministry, an evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition. I knew nothing about Anglicans except what I had gleaned from skimming the Wikipedia article. Our morning classes opened with Morning Prayer and our evening classes closed with Evening Prayer, following along with a red book called The Book of Common Prayer.
We were kneeling, sitting, standing. I was regularly confessing what I’ve done and left undone, reciting the Lord’s prayer, praying the Psalms, and proclaiming my faith in the Apostles’ Creed. I was discovering, quite accidentally, what James K.A. Smith writes in You are What You Love: “There is no formation without repetition.”
These things trained me in godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). Even before my four years with the Anglicans, I had known that repeated spiritual disciplines were essential to discipleship. What I had not realized was the value of collective spiritual disciplines repeated daily, like the ones I was experiencing in Morning and Evening Prayer, in how we think about discipleship.
It’s why my church has started paying more attention to the other ways our Sunday morning “liturgy”—even if we’d never call it that—is shaping people in our church. What we do (and don’t do) at our weekly gatherings is forming us whether we want it to or not.
We started saying Matthew 28:18-20, the “Great Commission” passage, at the end of every service instead of switching it up every week. After speaking it over our congregation for a few years, I’ve noticed that as I recite the passage the people in the front rows mouth the words along with me. I doubt any of them ever intended to memorize this verse, but they’ve experienced formation by repetition.
AN ECOLOGY OF DISCIPLESHIP
Gordon T. Smith talks about how different Christians traditions—in particular, the Pentecostal, evangelical, and sacramental traditions—form an “ecology of grace.” Each of those traditions highlights a contour of grace that’s hard to see from within the others.
I think you could say that there’s an ecology of discipleship as well. There are contours of discipleship I was only able to see when I ventured outside my tradition, even if, in the end, I returned to the same non-denominational vantage point from which I started.
As you’re thinking about discipleship, whether you’re a pastor or not, don’t be afraid to venture outside your tradition. Read books written by authors you might not normally read. Check the endorsements of the past few books you’ve read and see if they’ve all been endorsed by the same handful of people. Try out a church in a tradition slightly different than your own to see what discipleship looks like there.
No single tradition has a monopoly on discipleship. Take your walking stick with you and see what medallions you come back with.
Austin Gohn (M.Div., Trinity School for Ministry) is one of the pastors of Bellevue Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of A Restless Age: How Saint Augustine Helps You Make Sense of Your Twenties from GCD Books, and he has written for Fathom Mag, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, The Living Church (Covenant), and The Gospel Coalition. Find out more at www.austingohn.com.