We are not called to make converts. Jesus commanded His church to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Pastor Greg Laurie says, “Not all believers are disciples, but all disciples are believers.” In other words, it is possible to be a believer in Jesus but not follow Jesus in the everyday aspects of life.
Discipleship is to be a big part of our mission and vision as a church, as well as individuals. But do we really know what it means to make disciples? What is a disciple anyway? The best definition I have ever heard is that a disciple is a learner who follows someone else for the purpose of becoming like him.
In Matthew 11:29, Jesus invited His followers to, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me.” That is the essence of true biblical discipleship. It is yoking ourselves to Jesus and learning from Him with the intent of becoming like Him. I believe that many discipleship programs fall short of this aim, ignoring the model of discipleship that we see in Jesus.
Modern Day Discipleship Programs
A lot of churches, like the one I have the privilege of pastoring, have discipleship ministries. I, for the record, am a fan of discipleship that brings people together to study the Word. But often, the main focus is the learning aspect of discipleship. We take believers who desire to be a disciple and we study with them the basic foundational truths of Scripture and teach them how to study the Bible for themselves. That is all very important information to go through. But if we are not careful, it can become just that; information to go through that misses the true heart of Christianity, which is a relationship with Christ. In fact, I think it is possible for a person to go through an eight week discipleship program or book, and not become a disciple.
The Greatest Disciple Maker?
The greatest disciple maker there ever was, was none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. He spent three years pouring His life into a group of men who literally re-wrote and shaped human history. They were described in the book of Acts as the guys who “turned the world upside down” or right side up, depending on your perspective, and all were martyred for following Jesus.
Discipleship Should Involve Doing Life Together!
For Jesus, discipleship wasn’t just about teaching Bible studies, although He often taught them. It was also about doing life together. Jesus spent time with them as they traveled on foot, shared meals together, and fellowshipped in homes. He literally became a part of their lives and allowed them to become a part of His. I believe this is such an important part of effective discipleship. When we are doing life together with people we are seeking to disciple, it gives us the opportunity to move from simply going through information to showing them relationally how Jesus can and should be the center of our entire lives, rather than merely a part of our lives.
What My Youth Group Taught Me about Discipleship
When I was a youth pastor, I had a goal to see at least half of the kids in our youth ministry involved in discipleship groups. I announced our vision, explained what discipleship was all about, and then challenged the kids to sign up to be a part of a discipleship group. My team of counselors and I were very excited when over 60 kids signed up! We divided the kids into groups of three, placed them with an adult leader, and purchased these cool little books for the groups to go through.
Everything started out great and I was super excited that my goal was being achieved. Our leadership team would meet once a week to discuss how the groups were going and pray for all the kids who were in the discipleship groups. About a month into this new program, I started getting reports that the groups were dwindling and a few of them were no longer meeting. The problem, from the leaders’ standpoint, was that the students were not ready for or committed enough to be in this type of a discipleship program. I was really bummed and definitely feeling like we were failing in our vision and mission.
The Need to Build Relationships
Over the next several weeks, I began to talk to some of the kids who had a heart for Jesus and who had signed up to be in a discipleship group, but who were no longer involved. I asked them why they had dropped out of their group and why they were no longer interested in the discipleship program. I kept getting the same response. The impression from the kids was this; they felt our adult leaders were only interested in getting together with them to discuss the book and in their minds, “to see if they had done their homework.”
I knew that wasn’t the heart of our adult leaders. They loved Jesus, they loved these kids, and they had a passion to see them grow in their relationships with Jesus. So the motive of my leaders was great, but the impression of most of the students was that this discipleship program only reminded them of school and homework, which they already had enough of! The last thing they were looking for was a church experience that felt more like school!
Blow Up the Program
After a few weeks of praying over this and reading through the gospels, I realized that our approach to discipleship was missing a key ingredient that I saw in the ministry of Jesus. The ingredient was doing life together and being relational. I called my leadership team together and threw out a new vision. I challenged each of them to start building relationships with at least 3 students in our youth ministry. I told my youth leaders, if the kids are into surfing and you surf, take them surfing. If they like to play basketball, go play basketball. I wasn’t sure what to tell the girls, so I said, if they like to shop take them shopping. Go on hikes, or spend the day at the beach.
The goal was to show these kids that we wanted to be a part of their lives. We wanted to know them. I also explained that in each one of these “doing life together” situations, we were getting to model what a life that revolves around Jesus looks like. Discipleship could actually happen as we were having spontaneous conversations driving in the car, or taking a break in-between games, or while walking on a hike together. I instructed the leaders to focus first on building a relationship with the kids, building trust and modeling what a follower of Jesus looks like outside of the “church environment.”
Once that relationship was established, I encouraged them to look for an opportunity to introduce some more formal Bible study into their time with the kids, but to continue to include the relational aspect of spending time together. I reminded them that for some of my leaders and the kids they met with, it would take a couple of weeks to reach that point in the relationship. For others, it would take a couple of months before the walls were let down. We also decided that we were not going to go through any formal book or program, but center our time together around looking at Jesus by reading a chapter each week from the gospel of Mark.
Discipleship Takes Off!
What happened was absolutely amazing. My leaders totally went for it and starting making time to hang out with kids in fun settings. Guys would go surfing and afterwards grab a bite to eat and discuss what they had been reading in the gospel of Mark. The “doing life together” model helped the kids feel comfortable enough to ask questions that previously they might have felt “stupid” asking. This led to great discussions about the foundational aspects of the faith. We were covering all of the material in the books in a way that was natural and it was allowing us to really make sure that we stayed focused around having a relationship with Christ.
The thing that really amazed me about this approach is that it was contagious. Kids who had previously not signed up to be in a discipleship group were hearing about the fun that their friends were having. They were seeing how their friends were growing in the Lord and it made them want to be in a group as well. The groups starting growing and we ended up with close to 80 students being in a discipleship group for at least a year and half time period. I have had the privilege of seeing many of those same kids go off to college and on into life, and to this day continue to follow Jesus. I believe the impact was because following Jesus wasn’t simply information in the head, but a real living relationship in the heart.
True Discipleship Takes Time
The problem with the type of discipleship that I just described in the adult world is that it takes a lot of time. For adults, time is a precious commodity. Most of us, myself included, rarely feel like we have enough time and usually wish there were more hours in our weeks. However, the nice thing about adults is that “relationship building” can usually happen quicker than with high school students.
I want to encourage you, that if you are a mature believer in Jesus, that you ask the Lord to show you one younger believer that you can reach out to and begin building a relationship with. Invite that person over to your house or out to coffee. Ask them how you can be praying for them. If you are going on a Mexico mission trip or serving in some capacity in your church, ask them to join you. When the time is right, incorporate discussing a chapter of the Bible, a good Christian book, or even a more formal discipleship material into your time together, but keep it relational.
Once they reach a point where they have matured in their faith and are walking strong with Jesus, encourage them to do the same thing with a younger believer that you did with them. Then, you can start all over again and find another person to do the same thing with for another year or so. That type of discipleship is, in my opinion, the most effective and resembles more clearly what we see modeled by Jesus. It will take more time and sacrifice, but in the long run it will produce more solid, mature, and effective disciples of Christ. And who knows, should the Lord tarry another 100 years, if maybe it will be written of our generation, that we turned our world upside down, or right side up.Discipleship