Discipleship: Five Guiding Themes

If you cut me off in traffic, it will irk me — unless I know you’re rushing to the hospital. And, if you live next door, we’ll keep quiet at night so we don’t wake you — unless your apartment is on fire. Then we’ll be shouting and pounding on your door.

What we understand about our circumstances makes all the difference. This is the root of discipleship. Jesus’ every word, deed, and miracle reflected His knowledge of reality. He knows what’s real, and His life signals reality to the rest of us. When He was direct with someone, it was because He knew that person’s life was “on fire.” When He healed the centurion’s servant from a distance, it was because the centurion understood and appealed to what was true about Jesus.

By learning from Jesus what’s true, we’re more able to live as He would in our shoes. Because not everything He teaches is as obvious as an apartment fire, discipleship is a lifelong learning process. We learn from Scripture, experience, and others.

Here are the five guiding themes from Jesus’ life I see as foundational to any discipleship process. They reflect the “reality” He demonstrated and passed to His disciples:

  1. Love God wholeheartedly and others as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40)
  2. Abide in Christ (John 15:4-5)
  3. Walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 22-25)
  4. Identify as family with those who follow Christ (Matthew 12:48-50)
  5. Seek the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33)

Each of these themes represents a worldview and a practice. Many of the common practices of following Christ fall under one or more of them (e.g., reading the Biblespiritual gifts, fellowship, and prayer). Taken together, these practices and perspectives can bring dramatic change to any community of believers.

Discipleship: Character Qualities

Business books are big business. They help you hone skills, build winning teams, and improve your game. Every title boasts great stories and lots of win-win.

Biographies and histories are similar. Learning from others is entertaining, provides context, and yields wisdom. It’s hard to beat having examples to follow.

Discipleship books are a hybrid of both. They highlight best practices, tell stories, and inspire vision. They’re also very different from each other. I recently read the tables of contents from eighteen popular discipleship books. Not one of them was the same — evidence that there’s more than one way to do it. What’s crucial is to do it.

During our interviews with ministry leaders, my friend and I distilled this general description of discipleship: a group of believers who, through their close association with one another, are intentionally becoming more like their Leader.

That’s an excellent model because it reflects the group’s dependence on each other. It also keeps every eye on the goal — becoming like our Leader. We can’t “do” discipleship without knowing what He’s like.

So, what is He like? Here’s where the “character qualities” of discipleship emerge. Jesus Christ is loving and kind. He is humble, wise, and good. A man of peace, patience, and kindness. Yet, also strong enough to authoritatively wield justice and righteousness. He is the kind of person you trust, respect, and want to be like.

Consider someone who knows the Bible well, yet also has a strong temper. That’s not what Christ was like. That temper needs to be discipled away. Or, take the guy who avoids sinful habits, yet is highly self-centered. Was Christ self-centered? What about someone who is eloquent in prayer, and also in criticizing others?

All the features of our human sinfulness fall within the purview of discipleship. It informs the kind of persons we become. If I’m an angry person, it will take a learning process and a loving community to guide me toward patience and grace. This is hands on, carefully biblical, courageous, and loving work. It’s both personal, and communal. That’s why it takes shepherding, gifting, and love to make it happen.

It also takes the mind of Christ, so we’re not simply trying to “be this way instead of that way.” Discipleship runs deeper than behavior. It’s rooted what’s true.

Discipleship: Healthy Habits

When my friend and I interviewed ministry leaders about spiritual growth, many outlined habits that help us grow. Three habits in particular received the most mention — reading the Bible, talking to God, and learning together with other Christ-followers. Consistently doing these things is to spiritual maturity what diet, exercise, and rest are to physical fitness.

Each of these three habits are relational. With God in conversation, and with others as we learn Christ together. Like the best relationships, they never run dry or wear out. The oldest of saints derive as much pleasure from them as “on fire” new believers. We were created for these relationships.

For those just beginning, here are a few basic recommendations for each:

Reading the Bible: Many new Bible readers begin with the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) or Psalms. Some enjoy narrative books like Ruth and Esther, while others find the “letters” helpful (Philippians, Colossians, James, 1 John). Long term, I recommend reading the Bible through regularly — with someone close by to answer questions.

Talking to God: First, do it all day long in every setting. He is always with you, understands you completely (Psalm 139), and loves you unconditionally. You can talk with Him constantly. If you prefer a guide or talking points, I use the Lord’s Prayer:

  • Praise God for what you know or notice about Him
  • Ask Him to spread His influence throughout your world
  • Ask Him to meet your needs (and the needs of your family, friends, and others)
  • Confess your sin and failures
  • Ask Him for protection from temptation and evil.
  • Affirm His ability to do all these things.

Learning Together: We grow best when we grow together. Get together often with others who follow Christ — and talk about it. Ask questions, share your insights and experiences, learn from those with more experience, and lean on them when you are weak. Finally, always pray together and for each other. Always.

More can be said, but shared experience will serve as its own guide. Keep these healthy habits alive in your life, learn how to thrive in them, and do them with others — as if you were joining a gym or finding a running partner. They are not the main thing, but they’ll keep you focused on the main thing, which is learning Christ.

Doing discipleship as a church

Let’s say the goal of church is to help us become like Jesus Christ. Not just a few of us, but all of us, together. This theme is signaled by Jesus and repeated elsewhere in the New Testament. But what does it look like?

A friend and I once interviewed scores of authors, pastors, and ministry leaders about the results of their work. We asked what they expected to see as the fruit of their ministry. Nearly all responded with some form of spiritual maturity. When asked what that looked like, their responses varied between healthy habits, character qualities, and core convictions.

One of the people we interviewed also explained how he did it. He said he wanted to see people become like Christ, so he tried to follow Christ’s training model:

Self-discovery. Where am I starting from?
Jesus met people where they were. Fishermen. Tax collectors. A man in whom there was no guile. Thirsty. Leprous. Demon possessed. Greater in faith than any in Israel. A teacher of Israel. A rich young ruler. One who is persecuting Me. He gave them a reference point from which to begin their journey with Him.

Training. Learning about the issue.
Whether with parables, by comparison, or in answering questions, Jesus always revealed truth, often using Scripture.

Modeling. Watching someone demonstrate how it’s done.
From the moment of their call, Jesus’ disciples watched Him live, speak, and demonstrate “the gospel of the kingdom.”

Experience. Practicing what I’ve been taught.
In a micro sense, Jesus gave them opportunities to participate. Let down your nets. You feed them. Go to the sea and throw in a hook. Come to me on the water! More significantly, He sent them out in pairs with kingdom authority to act in His stead.

Mentoring. Passing my knowledge/experience to another.
Once His disciples were trained, Jesus sent them “into all the world” to disciple others. They became the disciplers.

This process is not linear. It becomes iterative, with each of us at various points in different areas, helping others as we’re being helped. It reaches beyond book learning, is hands-on, and it’s flexible enough to sync with each member’s life experience. I start where I am, learn as I go, watch how it’s done, practice what I’m learning, and teach the next group.

Many have found this model a helpful “how” in the discipleship process. It can serve large groups or work with one-on-one engagement.

Circling back, it’s also useful to review the habits, qualities, and “worldview” perspectives that inform our journey as disciples of Jesus Christ. I’ll touch on these in the next few posts.

The fifth church essential: my own willingness to belong

It’s easy to write about church essentials. It’s like writing about exercise, or parenting. Until I’m committed, I’m only shouting from the stands. The reality of church for most of us is that we play a passive role. We’re the audience. Attendees.

The best church on earth is only as healthy as the mindset of its members. Do we belong to one another? Are we closer than family? Does our regular interaction make us Christlike and fruitful?

The lasting work of the church is believers maturing together in Christ. Whether it’s through the use of His distributed gifts, the fragrance of His influence, or the fruitfulness of abiding in His Word, church is an organic entity. It’s family. There’s a culture to it. It includes care and nurture, training and instruction. It involves serving, encouraging, healing, and correction. You’ll find room to develop gifting, and opportunity to use it for the common good.

Western culture is big on programs and presentations. People generally “sit through” events rather than “contribute to” groups. I once asked a drifting friend why he left his large church. “They don’t need me there,” he said. Family gatherings are different. Everyone participates. The idea of not showing up would make as much sense as a pitcher skipping the game, or an orchestra member making other plans for the evening of a concert.

This poses a cultural tension. Will anyone sign up for something more demanding than sixty minutes of being served? They will if they realize something important is happening here. You wouldn’t think anyone would go out to eat if they had to prepare their own food, yet thousands do every summer weekend in city parks. You can’t walk ten paces without passing a family picnic.

When we gather as the church, we gather as kin. Few relationships lay greater claim upon us. We spend time with, invest in, sacrifice for, and benefit from family. We can call anytime, ask anything, be forgiven much, and be accepted regardless. We loan cars, share meals, shingle roofs, babysit kids, and stand vigils together. The biggest idea to embrace about church is that we are family.

Many church groups achieve this culture, and I’m guessing all church leaders hope for it. But what about those of us who simply attend once a week? Are we willing to accept a radically different experience? To set aside our independence in favor of a shared identity?

Soldiers often forge intimate bonds during battle, as do expats in rough countries, crisis survivors, and persecuted believers. In such settings you need one another. In truth, we’re all expats in a hostile country — we just don’t realize it. The prince of our world hates us. He knows where we live and harbors heinous intent against us. Imagine the worst, most frightening movie or experience you’ve ever endured. It’s nothing compared to his intentions against all who follow Christ. Which is just one of the reasons we need one another.

The even greater reason, of course, is that there’s kingdom work to be done everywhere we look — and the gates of hell cannot resist us. We can face threats, dangers, opposition and opportunities together. Our shared identity even removes the barriers that separate us from each other.

Circling back, the starting point to finding the right church is with me. If I find the best shepherded, gifted, discipled, and loving church on earth, but don’t see myself as belonging to the others in that fellowship, I’ll dim the lights there. If I prefer my independence and anonymity to commitment and contribution, I’m the hand abandoning the body. Where’s the winner in that story?

Ultimately, the best church in town — the one featuring all the essentials — can only thrive when its members (e.g., me) embrace their true identity. We are brothers and sisters, and our Father is the King.

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