Recovering Jesus-Shaped Discipleship

ReThinking Evangelism

Alan Hirsch

Over the years, I have found myself having to talk about a distinctly missional understanding of discipleship. I actually find this a bit odd. The very fact that we now have to put qualifications on the word “discipleship” just signals how far we’ve veered from a biblical understanding of discipleship. As if we could compartmentalize aspects of our lives and calling.

The word “discipleship” ought to be a stand-alone term that can carry the full weight of biblical spirituality as defined in Jesus’ version of the shema (Mark 12:28-31). The shema sets the agenda for all aspects of Christian life lived as worship towards God.

If we really understood the kingdom dynamics and the concentrated theology/worldview that the shema conveys, then we wouldn’t have to use the term “missional” at all. Mission is implied in what it means to love God with all that we are and love our neighbor as ourselves.

True and authentic worship of the One God requires that I offer my world back to Him in response to His grace and lordship. But when you think about it, mission is also about offering my world back to God. As a result, discipleship, too, involves me “offering my world back to God.” They (worship, mission, discipleship) are simply dimensionally different aspects of the same phenomenon. We shouldn’t have to qualify it with adjectives to somehow make sense of different types of discipleship.

To recover discipleship means to recover true worship and mission as well. Much is involved.

If many of our deepest problems can be traced from a lack of discipleship—what Dallas Willard called the “non-discipleship of the Church”—then is it also equally likely that a recovery of discipleship can signal significant renewal in the life of God’s people?

We need to get back to basics. Discipleship must take us beyond our need for privatized worship services and an otherworldly spirituality of “quiet times in quiet places” to help transform the many “churchly” admirers of Jesus into true followers of Jesus. Admirers of Jesus are hard to motivate and need to be constantly entertained; only real followers of Jesus will go the distance and make a lasting impact on the world.

Reimagining Evangelism

So how do we get from “admirers” of Jesus to “followers” of Him?? I suggest that we start with remaining evangelism through the lens of discipleship, which requires that we let go of seeing salvation as something we can deliver on demand, or when a person says a certain formulaic prayer. Rather, we need to reconceive discipleship as a process that includes pre-conversion discipleship and post-conversion discipleship.

A person’s salvation really is God’s business, isn’t it? Our part in it is to simply devote meaningful time and commitment to making disciples of whoever wants to share the journey with us—as we go.We don’t need to rush to share the standard formulas in an unnatural, non-relational, forceful way.

Surely, if we love our Lord Jesus and love the people we are investing in, we will get to share the Good News of His saving impact on our lives in a less forced manner. And surely we believe that it is the Holy Spirit who awakens interest in those that He is calling into God’s kingdom?

Reframing mission and evangelism around discipleship really does make space for long-term, authentic, loving relationships with people in our lives. This in turn gives credibility to our message and cultivates meaningful friendships—virtues we can certainly use in greater quantities at any time.

The really intriguing thing for me as a movement guy is that if every follower of Jesus simply did this with just two or three people in their lifetime and asked those people to do the same—disciples-making-disciples-making-disciples in a “pay-it-forward” style movement—we would actually get the job done in one or two generations! That’s Great Commission ministry as Jesus intended it!

However, we don’t do it simply because it works, but rather because it’s right for us to do to be authentic. This is what Jesus commissioned us to do. Yes, discipleship always works … it has always worked in world-changing movements (the Early Church, Celts, Moravians, Methodism, Chinese underground church, etc.), but we have to be willing to recalibrate our churches around it. It’s not a quick fix, but it is a strategic decision with significant medium- to long-term consequences for the future of the Church in the West.

But lest we think of this merely in pragmatic and strategic terms, there is a much deeper reason for the recovery of Jesus-shaped discipleship in the church.

Read about this deeper reason in the FREE eBook by Alan Hirsch, Disciplism: Reimagining Evangelism Through the Lens of Discipleship. Download it here.

Alan Hirsch is the founding director of Forge Mission Training Network. Currently he co-leads Future Travelers, an innovative learning program helping megachurches become missional movements. Known for his innovative approach to mission, Alan is considered to be a thought leader and key mission strategist for churches across the Western world. Hirsch is the author of The Forgotten Ways and The Forgotten Ways Handbook; co-author of The Shaping of Things to Come, ReJesus and The Faith of Leap (with Michael Frost); Untamed (with Debra Hirsch); Right Here, Right Now (with Lance Ford); On the Verge (with Dave Ferguson); and  The Permanent Revolution (with Tim Catchim). His experience includes leading a local church movement among the marginalized, developing training systems for innovative missional leaders, and heading up the mission and revitalization work of his denomination. Alan is co-founder and adjunct faculty for the M.A. in Missional Church Movements at Wheaton College (Illinois). He is also adjunct professor at Fuller Seminary, George Fox Seminary, among others, and he lectures frequently throughout Australia, Europe, and the United States. He is series editor for Baker Books’ Shapevine series, IVP’s Forge line, and a contributing editor of Leadership Journal.