Understanding the ‘How-to’ of Discipleship: Part 8 of a (probably) 10 part series on Discipleship

Over the next three blogs (which will take us to 10) I want for us to explore the ‘How-to’ of discipleship. We have already talked about the necessity of the body of Christ for our continued sanctification; a church that faithfully preaches teaches and ministers the gospel. We have also understood that a disciple of Christ needs to develop relationships that are focused on sanctification; relationships that allow us to “grow in the grace anddiscipleship knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) These last blogs will explore what is at the heart of true discipleship relationships; the things that are necessary for building a relationship that allows each person to grow maximally in their faith in Christ. At the heart of discipleship is a relationship in which one or more believers assist or invest in each other in order to grow to maturity in Christ. (cf. Ogden, Transforming Discipleship, ch 6)

(NOTE: I will conclude this blog with a word to Pastors and church leaders regarding how to foster these kinds of relationships in your church)

Before we can explore what should be involved, we need to eliminate some ways of thinking that are typical of many approaches to discipleship, particularly if they are part of a specific focus within a church. A discipleship relationship involves different elements than simple friendships, or the relationship between a pastor and a churchgoer, or the relationship between a ministry leader and those who take advantage of the ministry (eg. youth leader and youth). Discipleship, as we will see, is malleable as it cannot be forced or programmed. Thus it is hard for a church to formally enact. Typically when a church decides it wants to take discipleship seriously it enacts a program, which is actually counterproductive. For example, I know of a church whose women’s ministry decided to make discipleship a central part of what they were doing. The leadership of that ministry paired all of the women in the church who desired to participate thinking that within these pairings discipleship would develop. Guess what happened? Very little. After only a short period of time, none of the women continued to meet together and the desire for discipleship in that particular ministry dissolved in frustration and disappointment. While structure is needed for discipleship to be maximally effective, a program is not. Let me explain what I mean with the help of Thomas Ogden.

Discipleship can never be approached as a ten-week, 6 month or year-long program. Programs tend to be overly-rigorous, attract certain kinds of people, and tend to unnecessarily complicate things. Programs tend to be information or knowledge-based, they lean towards one person preparing for others (one for many is more about mentoring than discipleship). They also typically require regimentation or synchronization and foster an atmosphere of low personal accountability. The more structured the program the greater the tendency to sap the development of true relationships and thus discipleship.

This relational emphasis needs to be at the heart of our discipleship. When we think about our own discipleship and the way in which we participate with others in their discipleship, we want to move away from the following types of things:

  • structured / formal – as in a program specifically designed to make discipleship happen in the church or in a specific ministry
  • authoritarian – directed by an individual or a curriculum which is relied upon to provide the direction of what is done
  • official – as in the clergy does this for the people, or the leader of a group takes charge so that the group gets something delivered to them
  • small group oriented – as in a group with mixed company; large groups (3-5 couples or families) are usually the norm here. Small groups have a place in the life of the church (I think), but they also have a tendency to push us away from what we should be as a church.

What we need to become disciples is to engage in relationships that are much different than what I have just described. These relationships will dovetail perfectly with what the church should be doing — focussing on the gospel in all things, expositional sermons, and ministering in ways that promote true discipleship. This is where, as individual believers, we do our church a favour – we seek to develop true discipleship relationships with others as a supplement to what our church is officially doing. Here is what is needed to do such:

  • informal relationships – not programmatic, but naturally developed relationships for the foundation of our discipleship
  • mutual relational commitment– in the sense of not being forced. What brings us together is the desire to be engaged with discipleship. Nobody is randomly put together, nor forced into a relationship.
  • natural relational bonds – relationships are developed and the hard work of discipleship is undertaken in obedience to Christ’s commands rather than as obedience to a church’s mandate. Each person sees the value of being together and so they want to be together.
  • a small number of participants – what has worked best for me in the past, and what I have observed to be the best situation for others as well is a maximum of 3 people of the same gender

Please note, this is not an exhaustive list but they are ideals that will provide the best possible environment for growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Once again, the key here is relationship; informal, natural, focused relationships. In order to be a true disciple of Christ, we need to be in relationship with others who have the same focus. We need to develop intimacy with people who desire sanctification in themselves as well as to see it happen in us, so we come together with the mutual desire to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

In the next two blogs, I want to explore the differences we articulated above, and expand on the nature of the relationships that foster true discipleship.

(NOTE FOR PASTORS: I want to address any Pastors or church leaders who may read this. There is a danger for us to turn discipleship into a program. We know that programs attract people and that it gives us a measure of control over what our people are doing. It also allows us to do a cost-benefit analysis of our program and to change it or scrap it as needed. But we must avoid turning discipleship into a program at all costs. Discipleship needs to be something that bubbles under the surface of our programs; it needs to be the air that our church breathes; it needs to be the culture that we seek to develop rather than the infrastructure of our culture. So how do we avoid doing this? To properly answer this question would require a blog series of its own but let me offer a few quick words. First, we need to recognize that discipleship among our people cannot be forced, it must happen naturally. This doesn’t mean we cannot encourage it from happening, only that we cannot make it happen. Second, our people need to see it happen in us and in the leaders of the church and every ministry. If they see us involved in discipleship, they will be encouraged to do the same. Third, we need to be actively suggestive of discipleship. In our sermons talk about discipleship, what it means and its importance. It needs to be a meta-focus (part of our culture that permeates everything), rather than micro-managed (program). Last, seek to guide rather than control discipleship. We must remember that true discipleship happens when people come together on their own.

Soli Deo Gloria

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