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. By learning from Jesus what’s true, we’re more able to live as He would in our shoes. While not everything He teaches is as obvious as an apartment fire, faith, practice, and the examples of others help us along. Together, we grow.

Here are the five guiding themes from Christ’s life and teachings I see as foundational to discipleship. They’re not the only ways to learn Christ, but they capture the worldview He modeled and taught.

  1. Love God wholeheartedly (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 a member of Christ’s family (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 more common facets 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.

Four essentials of a church: love

Love is like heat. So many things in life seem wonderful — pizza, a shower, a cup of coffee, a seat by the window, an iron — until you realize they’re cold. After all, what do you call a morning when you step into the shower and find there’s no hot water? A bad way to start the day.

Love is the warmth of life. It sustains us, inspires us, redeems our weakness, revives our hope, restores our strength, and animates our relationships. Inversely, its absence is its opposite in effect, which is why love matters in a church.

A friend was visiting a seriously ill relative at an out-of-state hospital. After a week-long bedside vigil, she excused herself on Sunday morning to find comfort and encouragement at a local church with a friendly website. Sixty minutes later, after no greetings, zero eye contact, eight songs, and a trendy talk on gender identity, she made her way to the door. There, she was handed a plastic egg with a note inside: “Join us next week for Easter!!!”

A bit of love would have found more traction.

So, where is all the love? There’s nothing more important than figuring this out. Scripture delivers sturdy reminders on the topic. Without love, spiritual gifts mean nothing. Knowledge means nothing. Faith, generosity, and sacrifice mean nothing. Toil and perseverance and discernment and endurance mean nothing. Love must come first.

On the positive side, who wouldn’t want to belong to a group known for its patience, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, humility, and grace? Who wouldn’t welcome friends and family who see the best in you, believe in you, root for you, pray for you, honor you, accept you, care for you, serve you, forgive you, build you up, bear your burdens, comfort your soul, lift your spirits, and do you good? Sign me up!

If this is all true of love (which it is), where is all the love?

First of all, there’s plenty of it throughout the church. One sad story doesn’t mean there’s no love anywhere. But it’s not always easy to find, and it’s even less easy to practice. Love is costly, and for most of us (including myself), it needs to be learned. What is the meaning of love? Where does it come from? How does it work? What’s the right way to do it? Are there wrong ways to do it? How do you know you’ve loved well, even when it isn’t reciprocated? How do you keep loving when your tank runs dry?

These questions are worth answering because love can be learned. After all, it’s a byproduct of walking in the Spirit. But it requires intentionality.

Back in the day we heated our house with a wood stove. Fuel was everywhere (we lived in a forest), but felling, cutting, carting, splitting, stacking, fetching, arranging, igniting, and cleaning up the mess were neither easy nor natural. But once the effort was made, it brought warmth, satisfaction, self-confidence, strength, and legendary tales of log-splitting exploit. Plus, “free” heat!

The church that learns love will be a church without enough seats. But that’s OK. I’d be willing to stand in the back of such a church.

Four essentials of a church: discipling

I know a flight instructor. His goal is to work himself out of a job. Through months of instruction, discussion, and simulations, he pours his experience and expertise into his students. They cover everything from engines to air frames to instruments to navigation to pilot-speak. Eventually, they go airborne together, and then the student goes it alone.

And that’s just the beginning. Hours of flight time follow, along with new ratings, more complex procedures, and larger planes. Over time, the student learns to think like a pilot, becomes the instructor, and trains the next generation of pilots.

This captures the idea of discipleship. Choosing to follow Christ begins the process of learning to become like Him, usually under the influence of someone farther along. The process takes time and involves sacrifice. It’s transformational, not behavioral. The goal is not to act like Jesus, but to become the person He would be in our shoes.

Discipleship isn’t orderly or systematic. No two people are alike, human nature resists submission, and the world works to erase it all. Which is why the church is crucial to the discipleship process. It takes the support of skillful shepherds and the shared gifts of the Holy Spirit to bring us to maturity in Christ.

On the technical side, there are essential habits that feed the process, such as ceaseless prayer, studying the Bible, spiritual conversations, and allowing wisdom to inform lifestyle choices. There are also major themes and practices to master. For example, a maturing disciple is a person who is learning to:

  1. Love God wholeheartedly, and others as oneself
  2. Abide in Christ
  3. Walk in the Spirit
  4. Live in community with other believers
  5. Identify as a kingdom citizen

Each of these themes is central to Christ’s teachings, New Testament writings, and the Old Testament narrative. Together they form the core worldview and daily lifestyle of a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Flight instruction doesn’t require a Ph.D. in flying. What it calls for is the skill, experience, and willingness to help others through their paces. Often, it’s a team effort with different instructors covering the various elements. This provides a blending of strengths while mitigating individual weaknesses. The crucial thing is not to have a roomful of aces, but a culture of investing in one another.

A church that sponsors such discipleship is a church that brings the compounded influence of Christ to its members and community. Neither will remain unchanged.

Surprisingly, on top of all this — shepherding, shared gifting, and discipleship — there is one more thing I’d look for in a church. Something assumed, yet worth calling out. It’s the cultivation of love. For all the right things we might do as a gathering of believers, it’s love that gives it life.