In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus said, “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.”
To be a Christian is to be a “disciple” – someone who is learning the way of Christ and following the way of Christ – as Jesus says, learning to obey all that he has commanded. The Apostle Paul even called it “learning Christ” (Ephesians 4:20), being transformed into his image. The goal of discipleship is Christlikeness.
But how does that happen? How do you grow as a disciple and grow up into Christ and become transformed into his image?
Ephesians 4:11-16 gives a picture of how discipleship happens…
“[God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
These verses give you a picture of the process of growing up into Christ. They show two main elements of discipleship…
First, the Apostle Paul mentions the formal offices in the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. (Some of these offices, we believe, were foundational and have passed away.) These formal church leaders have a primary responsibility for discipleship. Put another way, part of discipleship happens through the official ministry of the church. Theologians use the phrase – “the public and ordinary means of grace” – which are the preaching of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and prayer. These are formal, public and corporate means of discipleship.
In other words, coming to church is discipleship. Discipleship is what happens in Sunday School, in the worship service, in prayer meeting, at the Lord’s Supper. These are the corporate means of grace.
But Ephesians 4 also shows us a second element to discipleship, which is a “culture of discipleship” – the mutual discipleship of the Body, where all the saints are equipped for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all grow up into maturity in Christ, every part doing its share.
The key point is: Everyone is a disciple and everyone is a discipler. Everyone receives and gives discipleship. Everyone has a responsibility and a role to play. There is no place in church for consumers. We were all appointed to be producers, to bear fruit. In John 15:16, Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.” In the Christian life, we all receive ministry, but we all also are to minister. We are disciples but we also disciple one another.
2 Timothy 2:2 says,
“What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Titus 2:3 says,
“Older women likewise are to be reverence in behavior, not slanderers, or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women…”
1 Thessalonians 1:8 says,
“For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.”
The people that Paul discipled were now discipling others.
Everyone is a disciple and everyone is a discipler. Is that how you think of your Christian life? Is that how you think when you come to church? When you have children, you may think that way – that you have responsibility to disciple your own children. But what about with other people at church – even people your own age, even your own pastors? Do you any responsibility to disciple them?
What Is “A Culture of Discipleship”?
Biblically, discipleship is not a program, but is a culture. Some churches have developed discipleship programs, which are kind of like classes that people complete. These may have some value, but Biblically, discipleship is not a quantifiable skill-set, with set goals that can be achieved. It cannot ultimately be a program, but is a culture. Discipleship is what should happen in the ordinary ebb and flow of life.
Deuteronomy 6:6-7 says, “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Discipleship should be part of your daily life!
According to the New Testament, discipleship happens not just through instruction, but through relationships and imitation.
In 1 Corinthians 4:14-16, the Apostle Paul writes, “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”
He repeats himself in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
In Philippians 4:9, he says, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
This kind of discipleship can only happen through the sharing of lives. In 1 Thessalonians 2:8, the Apostle says, “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.”
The dictionary defines a culture as “The shared values, goals and practices that characterize a group.” So what is a “culture of discipleship”? It is a group of people habitually demonstrating through their values and daily practices mutual love for one another and mutual encouragement to be like Christ.
On an individual level, it is being someone constantly looking to others for help in being like Christ and looking to help others be like Christ.
When my wife and I were young Christians, we were very affected by relationships we had with other Christians, particularly older Christians. By God’s grace, we were very much the initiative takers in pursuing those relationships. We were constantly inviting ourselves over to people’s houses, offering to babysit their kids, watching their marriages, watching how they raised their kids, watching how they lived their lives. We were ruthless in asking people questions: “We’re struggling with this… How do we get through this? … Why did you do that? … How do you do that? …” We were hungry to learn how to live practically in godly ways. We benefited from inserting ourselves into people’s lives and proactively and persistently pursuing people – looking for help in being like Christ. We knew we needed help. Fortunately, there were older Christians who made themselves available to us, who were completely open towards us. They were people putting themselves in our path to let us in. We were constantly seeking them out, but they were constantly putting themselves in our path.
That’s what a culture of discipleship means – a group of people who are ruthlessly and seriously looking to others for help in being like Christ and looking to help others be like Christ.
It is younger Christians pursuing older Christians, pursuing relationships, asking questions. It is older Christians opening up their lives, putting yourselves in the paths of the younger. It is also Christians of the same age and station of life mutually pursuing and encouraging one another.
One very important rule when it comes to discipleship is: The initiative for discipleship depends on you. You have to be hungry and thirsty for discipleship. You have to seek it out. If you wait for someone else to initiate towards you – offer to disciple you, or ask you to disciple them – this culture will never develop. It happens as you live this way yourself and open up your life to others. Sometimes you might pursue others for help or seek to help others, and it may not be reciprocated or appreciated, for various reasons. But beginning with you, so much depends on you having your heart open. The Apostle Paul said, “Our heart is wide open…widen your hearts also” (2 Cor.7:11-13).
So what does initiative in discipleship look like? What practical steps can you take to engage in discipleship?
First, it is important to emphasize the place of prayer for discipleship. Do you regularly pray for other Christians in your church or your small group? When you don’t pray for other Christians, you’re not thoughtful about them. But when you pray, your mind and your heart are stirred to care for your brothers and sisters in Christ. You’re thoughtful about ways they are struggling, thoughtful about their needs, and about how you might be an encouragement to them. Your prayers for them are pleasing to God and near to his heart. And he stirs your heart to be more purposeful in caring for one another.
Second, be thinking about ways you can use your natural gifts in discipleship. What are you good at? What are you interested in? Could others be blessed by your sharing of these gifts with others? A musician in our church mentioned specifically choosing hymns to play during the offertory that would encourage people she knew in the church who were struggling. Instead of just picking a song by default, she was being thoughtful to use her gifts to encourage and disciple others. Are you a writer? Are you a handyman? Are you a baker? Are you artistic? Are there ways you can use these gifts to bless others? Are there ways you could include others while you do these things?
Third, you cannot overstate the importance of hospitality for discipleship. Particularly in our culture, which keeps people so far apart, inviting people into your home, allowing them in to observe your life and family, is incredibly powerful. This was an important part of the early church (Acts 2:44-47, 4:32; see also 1 Peter 4:7-11).
The Fall issue of the 9Marks Journal on discipleship listed the following practical steps for discipleship:
In practice, how can I disciple other Christians?
- Join a church.
- Arrive early at church gatherings and stay late.
- Practice hospitality with members of your church.
- Ask God for strategic friendships.
- If possible, include a line-item in your family or pastoral budget for weekly time with fellow Christians. Discuss this matter with your spouse. If possible, provide such a budget line for your spouse as well.
- Schedule regular breakfasts, lunches, or some other culturally-acceptable social engagement with teachable individuals (of the same sex). Depending on the person, you may decide to meet once, indefinitely, or for a set number of times (say, five). If you and the individual share a pastime, look for ways to share that pastime together.
- Ask them about themselves. Ask them about their parents, spouse, children, testimony, job, walk with Christ, and so on. In asking questions, however, do so in a manner that’s appropriate for your cultural context (don’t scare them!).
- Share about yourself.
- Look for ways to have spiritual conversations. Maybe decide to read the Bible or some other Christian literature together.
- Consider their physical or material needs. Would they benefit from your help?
- Pray with them.
- Depending on your home situation, invite the person to drop by your house or spend time with your family. Let them watch you live life.
- Look for ways to pray for the person throughout the week by yourself and/or with your spouse.
Appendix – Suggested Resources
Gospel-Centered Discipleship. By Jonathan Dodson, Crossway/GoodNews Publishers.
Growing One Another: Discipleship In the Church (9Marks Healthy Church Study Guides). By Bobby Jamieson, Crossway/Good News Publishers.
Instruments In the Redeemer’s Hands. By Paul David Tripp, P&R Publishing.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. By Eugene Peterson, Intervarsity Press.
What Is A Healthy Church Member. By Thabiti Anyabwile, Crossway Books.
– Matt Foreman, studied at Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pastor of Faith Church in Media PA where he serves with his wife Mary Scott and a bunch of adorable red headed kids! Matt and Mary Scott are both Furman WDA alumni. Go Paladins! Read more of Matt’s blogs at http://blog.faithchurchpa.org/