Discipleship involves a personal commitment to sanctification, involvement with a church that preaches and teaches the gospel, and relationship with other people that goes beyond Sunday morning. These relationships are as unique as the individuals involved, but they do must have certain elements present. There are some principles that can guide us in developing healthy discipleship relationships, but only as we recognize that uniqueness and the freedom to adapt to the needs of the individuals involved are as important in creating vibrant discipleship relationships.
I want to take the last two blogs in this series and outline some necessary elements of a discipleship relationship. (A nod to Greg Ogden is necessary here as much of my direction is taken from him)
Discipleship relationships can be of different types but with a single purpose
The heart of discipleship is relationships, but these relationships do not all look the same. Thankfully there is no one-size-fits-all for discipleship. They may be consistent or sporadic, formal and structured or informal and free, between similar-aged people or between those with a significant age difference, they can be between natural friends or people who simply click on a spiritual level. Discipleship relationships are as different as the people in them. We need to be careful to define what discipleship looks like; this is to make it into a program and completely miss the true nature of discipleship.
Yet we must be aware of a danger inherent in this reality. While it is true that we can have a relationship with a whole bunch of people, and these relationships all look a bit different, discipleship relationships have a certain unique quality. They involve the lives of the people involved becoming part of the message that we bring (the gospel) and the sanctification that each one seeks. The word “incarnational” is often used to speak about this aspect of discipleship. In this context, we are not talking about Christ’s incarnation, but of the necessity to dwell together with another person, to engage them in their lives wherever they are living them. By giving relationship priority, we need to change our short-cut approaches to making disciples. It is not an instantaneous solution. It takes time and energy to help others grow in Christ.
Discipleship relationships need to involve our everyday lives
The difference between a men’s meeting or a ladies study or a Sunday morning sermon and discipleship lies here. We need to allow others access to our everyday lives, no matter what they look like. In fact, the success or effectiveness of discipleship is often directly related to the openness that each individual allows themselves to be with the other person(s) concerning their everyday life. When we allow others below the surface, when we allow others within our hearts, thoughts, and motivations then there is the potential to have our relationship with God go to incredible depths. As Eugene Peterson has commented, in a slightly different context, the work of discipleship specializes in the ordinary. It’s when we allow others and God to speak to the mundane, ordinary aspects of our everyday existence that we are able to really see ourselves and others. This makes sense since it is in the ordinary, mundane parts of life that we struggle with sin, doubt, and lose faith and hope.
A strong discipleship relationship is one where we are able to “read between the lines” for the hidden and the quiet things that often reveal the real truth about another person. This means that we need to be involved in all of the real world, ordinary moments that happen in life — family, jobs, bills, hobbies, etc.. A discipleship relationship that is genuine will help us do this as we allow others to help us see into and through the events of our lives. It is often within discussions of these kinds of ordinary things that patterns of sin or growth can be seen. It is these patterns that, once identified, can provide us with areas to either attack or be encouraged by and continue growth within.
Discipleship relationships need to be imbued with the Holy Spirit
Discipleship is primarily the work of God. This means that the task of helping another person deepen their relationship with God belongs primarily to the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is not something done by me to another person or vice versa, it is something that God continually does in all true believers. We need to recognize a simple fact before we appear on the scene of discipleship in another personas life – God has been working, diligently, redemptively, and strategically to grow that person in the image of his Son before I even realized that I could develop a discipleship relationship with that person. To put it bluntly, I am no one’s sanctification process. The Holy Spirit begins working in the other person to sanctify them independent of me upon their conversion and will continue to do so as the primary agent of change even as I engage with that person. It changes everything if we understand that God initiates and we respond. When we are in a discipleship relationship with another person we are inviting them to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their life and we invite them to do the same in us.
This is an incredibly freeing realization. We are called to act as an optometrist for others. The optometrist does not invent the light or create the patient’s eyes; rather he or she helps focus the patient’s attention on the light that is already present. That is our job in the discipleship relationship. To put it into more spiritual terms, our responsibility is primarily a ministry of discernment, attention-getting, and attention-giving, not of creating or forcing growth. We are to help others focus on God, the gospel, and Scripture, and to help others see their life in light of these things and to allow the Holy Spirit to go to work in them. Ours is the privilege to be involved in this, but the fruit is God’s alone.
Soli Deo Gloria