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: 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.

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.

Setting examples

I work with two men who are weeks from turning eighty. They travel the world, zealous for a cause, influencing millions.

Both are humble, friendly, sincere, and generous. They live in the present, tell the truth,  love their enemies, and view challenges as opportunities.

Both attended Moody Bible Institute back in the day, follow Jesus Christ today, and live to meet Him some day soon.

But not too soon. There’s much yet to be done.

What’s their secret? One told me, “God keeps opening doors and I keep walking through them.” The other quoted a verse from the Bible. That I may finish my course well.

Giants in the land. Serving others. Like their Lord.

Invasive technology vs. humans

Many of the recent classics feature invasive technology. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Giver come to mind. The speaker on the wall, the camera in the room, the eye in the sky, always watching.

Today, we live with all of these things. We’re living the classics. The only difference is who’s watching, and why. In the right hands, invasive technology is a welcome convenience. But not all are right handed.

The threat isn’t with the technology, but with the humans who use it. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil. Which means the question of our time (and of every time) is not how to use technology, but how to redeem humans.

Here are a few words describing what “redeemed” looks like in day-to-day life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Dig deeply into any of these qualities and they grow even more appealing (e.g., love).

These are all descriptions of Jesus Christ, whose birthday is marked by Christmas. He was born to redeem humans, and December is a good month to read about Him.

Following Jesus • 44 / A question of kingdoms

Read This: John 3:1-8

Nicodemus: We know that you have come from God.
Jesus: Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Like all devout Jews, Nicodemus was seeking the kingdom of God. Scripture pointed to a God-anointed leader, like David, restoring the kingdom to Israel. Since God was with Jesus, Nicodemus wondered if Jesus might be that leader. The Messiah.

Nicodemus was right — Jesus was the Messiah. But he was also wrong, because his understanding of the Messiah was incomplete. The Messiah’s work wasn’t limited to restoring Israel’s political sovereignty. He was here to restore all people to right relationship with God. Everyone.

Nicodemus was an intelligent, well-educated man. His coming to Jesus was a discerning and honorable thing. But his expectations were too small. Jesus helped him see the larger story. Here’s how the conversation went.

Nicodemus: “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

He was investigating if Jesus was the promised Messiah who would restore the “kingdom of God” (Israel).

Jesus: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God is not a national or political thing. It’s a spiritual thing. “Born again” refers to spiritual birth. You have to be spiritually alive to perceive God’s kingdom.

Nicodemus: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

He’s essentially asking, “What do you mean?” Being born a second time is absurd. No one can be born twice. He’s thinking about physical reality, and he’s right.

Jesus: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus knew the Scriptures. He would have immediately recognized “water and the Spirit” as a reference to Ezekiel 36:24-27, which described spiritual regeneration. This is a paradigm shift. Jesus is revealing that our lives and relationship to God are rooted in the spiritual realm. We are spiritual beings who express our spiritual life in the physical world.

Spiritual reality was not new to Nicodemus. The Scriptures spoke of spiritual beings, activities, and the spirit as the life of the body. This was familiar territory. Yet, the nation of Israel had been a reference point for God’s kingdom for over a thousand years. That’s where God’s involvement with the Jewish people had occurred, and, based on biblical prophecy, it’s where they expected it to continue.

Now Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom is not physical, political, or geographical, but spiritual. One is “born” into God’s kingdom spiritually.

This conversation continues, but it features themes not native to our daily conversation. Kingdom. Flesh. Spirit. To provide context, we’ll need to take a quick look at those themes.