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.

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.

“They began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”*

Following Jesus isn’t learning a new lifestyle, it’s becoming a different person. A person who does what Jesus would do by learning to think like Him. It’s not enough to know about Jesus. We have to understand Him — because He’s the only person who understands what’s real and true.

This is called discipleship. Spending time with someone to become like them. Listening, asking questions, and watching carefully. What is He about? Why did He say that? How did He do that?

When Jesus didn’t resist crucifixion, most people took Him for a fraud. But disciples are not so easily thrown off. They look for clues. Why did He let that happen? Based on Jesus’ absolute authority over everything, He could have avoided death. Why didn’t He?

That’s how disciples think. They dig in, sift through the Gospels, research the Old Testament, and learn to see what Jesus saw.

Which sets up a choice. Do I want to follow Jesus? Do I consider myself a disciple? If so, it’s likely I’ll be learning from Him. In the Gospels, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Revelation, and so on. Because it’s not about knowing about Him. It’s about becoming like Him.

* Acts 4:13

“Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it.”

That’s Jesus Christ inviting us to follow Him (read it here). What would that look like?

When you read about Jesus, you notice that people were drawn to Him. Crowds followed Him around and felt safe with Him — even the outcasts. He was kind to children. He served His followers. His words brought healing.

When challenged to condemn, He offered grace. When hated, He loved. When tempted, He remained true. Though some were offended by His message, none could fault His conduct. Lacking self-interest, He cared only for God’s will and glory.

Jesus wielded authority over demons, death, disease, the weather, natural law, and every human limitation. When His followers were hungry, He fed them. Thousands of them. With bread that He created.

Jesus brought the kingdom of God to earth, and defeated all our enemies — Satan, sin, and death. He made peace with God possible for all who accepts it. And now, at this moment, He invites us to follow Him. To walk and work with Him. To do as He does, by His strength, for His glory. That’s the meaning of life for all who follow Him.

Were Jesus Christ to walk in your shoes for a week, how would His influence affect your family and friends, classmates and coworkers? Try to picture it for a few minutes.

Deciding to be that person is the choice we were created to make.