As we focus on shifting from reaching to making disciples at Exponential’s One Eighty: The Return to Disciple Making, each of us as part of the body of Christ, fellow priesthood of all believers, and leaders within our communities and churches will need to clarify and agree on a definition for discipleship. As discipleship has become a grossly over-used term but under-utlized practice in our 21st century church contexts, it has often become a generic label for our “Christian walk”, either pertaining to a severely privatized religion or a vague feel-good corporate Sunday gathering. So, what does discipleship mean to you? How does your congregation or church plant define discipleship? What images or models come to mind collectively when the word discipleship is used in your local context?
Second Chronicles 14–16 highlights the reign of Judah’s king Asa, whose “heart was fully committed to the LORD all his life” (2 Chron 15:17 NIV). Yet after gaining safety for Judah against surrounding nations by relying on God, in the thirty-sixth year of his reign Asa makes an unwise treaty with the king of Aram, using silver and gold from the Lord’s temple to maintain his own security at the expense of Israel’s. Hanani the seer goes to the king and says: Were not the Cushites and Libyans a mighty army with great numbers of chariots and horsemen? Yet when you relied on the LORD, he delivered them into your hand. For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war. (2 Chron 16:8-9 NIV)
God is not looking for mere fans; he’s searching for true followers, those whose hearts are fully committed to him. He’s not looking for bandwagoners who cheer him on in easier seasons, nor is he concerned with our fair-weather decisions on following or unfollowing him. God is looking for true followers who rely on him, follow him, rest in him, and are renewed by him. Being a true follower means being a disciple, and disciple-making is important to God.
In all four of the Gospel accounts, from the very beginning Jesus calls ordinary people to follow him. In the New Testament, “following” and “discipleship” are synonymous because they’re translated from the same Greek word, mathētēs. As such, Matthew 16:24 can be translated several ways:
- Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (NIV)
- If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (ESV)
- If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. (NLT)
The word mathētēs refers to a learner, apprentice, pupil, adherent, or follower.
The apostle Paul and other New Testament writers further define being a follower and disciple of Jesus by using the word mimētēs, which translates as “imitating” and is where the English word “mimic” comes from. Thus 1 Corinthians 11:1 can be translated as:
- Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (NIV)
- Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (NRSV)
- Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. (KJV)
Therefore, when we look at the entirety of the New Testament and its references to being a follower and a disciple, it’s safe to conclude that to the first-century Christians, being a follower of Jesus was about imitating Jesus.
It’s safe to conclude that to the first-century Christians, being a follower of Jesus was about imitating Jesus.
Shifting the focus of the church from “reaching the lost” to “making disciples” drastically requires a shift from keeping discipleship at the periphery to intentionally moving it to the center. When discipleship is centered, the shift from spectating Jesus to imitating Jesus occurs in our churches and communities. Shifting from merely observing Jesus to following him. And if discipleship means imitating Jesus, then the next question is what are we imitating Jesus in? Discipleship, simply put, is to imitate Jesus so that both our spiritual confidence and social competence matures. We grow and participate in the maturity of both our Christ-like identity and Christ-like praxis. We both know and love God and also participate in what God is doing in, around and through us. In our neighborhoods, communities and cities.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his pivotal work The Cost of Discipleship, “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” If Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ, then discipleship without mission is also discipleship without Christ. If we are to follow Jesus and make followers of Jesus, we must be compelled by his self-giving love and move into mission together. God is a missional God. His very nature of valuing community is tied to mission; the Father sends the Son and together they send the Spirit, who sends his disciples into mission for the sake of the world. If discipleship is about maturity and formation into the likeness of Christ, then there is no formation without mission.
Making disciples requires centering discipleship. And centering discipleship in our local churches and church plants requires leaders who are asking the question of defining what discipleship is and what does Christ-like identity and praxis look, feel, and sound like in our local contexts? When this shift takes place, the goal of the church won’t be limited to “reaching the lost” as if our prime directive is to pressure Christians to ensure non-Christians will win a golden ticket to heaven and twiddle our thumbs in the meantime as we wait for our heavenly retirement plan to kick in. This shift will unveil the Church’s role in providing environments where people are imitating Jesus, together in community, for the sake of renewal in their neighborhoods and cities. The Church will be a community of people that imitates who Jesus is and what Jesus does; and a community that meets deeply its neighbors’ sense of belonging and purpose will undoubtedly multiply imitators of Jesus.