Discipleship is a journey, not a course

Discipleship is a journey into the heart of God's love.

Fence with a gapThrough the Spirit, Christians are drawn into the life of the Trinity as they become brothers and sisters of Christ and children of the Father. Perhaps it is like three children playing with a ball. A fourth looks on wistfully, wishing she could join in. Suddenly, one of the children throws her the ball. A big smile creases her face. She is now part of the game.

If discipleship involves being drawn ever more deeply into the Godhead, it has to be far more than a course. It has been defined as follows.

The term 'discipleship' designates the whole life response of Christians to Jesus Christ. Everything a Christian believes and does is an aspect of discipleship; the goal of discipleship is to grow ever more Christ-like in every aspect of life.

Time to Talk of God, a report of the Methodist Conference, The Methodist Church, 2005, p19

Discipleship is about having your character formed by the Spirit. It involves responding to God, living in fellowship with other Christians and having your entire personality - your instincts and everything - shaped by Jesus. Increasingly, your character should reveal more of Christ. Such character develops by:

  • living 'in Christ', as the Spirit forms us through Scripture and the influence of fellow Christians;
  • becoming like Jesus in our attitudes and behaviour;
  • growing in the fruit of the Spirit;
  • learning and living kingdom values, as we support God's mission to the world;
  • discerning where the Spirit is at work in contemporary culture and where culture is a block to the Spirit;
  • dying to self so as increasingly to live a Spirit-filled life.

You can think of discipleship in terms of the individual: 'What does it mean for me to become more like Jesus?' Or you can think of it from the standpoint of the church: 'What can we do to help people become more Christ-like?' In all these pages on discipleship, we shall be using the term mainly in this second sense.

Christian character is formed by the making of consistent choices, within a community of faith, where there is mutual encouragement to live a distinctively Christian life.

Graham Cray, Disciples and Citizens, IVP, 2007, p104

Discipleship starts before conversion

FruitChristians sometimes distinguish between coming to faith (which is encouraged by evangelism) and the process of maturing in the faith (discipleship). We use 'discipleship' mainly in this narrower sense to differentiate it from 'evangelism', which in due course will have a separate place on this site.

But it is worth emphasising that the Bible doesn't make this distinction. Discipleship is the entire process by which people become more like Christ. Often the point where 'evangelism' ends and 'discipleship' begins is blurred.

So discipleship is a journey that starts before conversion or commitment. The Spirit will have been active in a person's life before they came to faith - what theologians call 'prevenient grace'. Effective discipleship listens to what the Spirit has already been doing in an individual's life and builds on it.

If the Spirit has been awakening an interest in environmental issues, for example, discipleship will start with that rather than launching in at a completely different point. As individuals are helped to discover God who is passionately 'green', their desire to know God more fully may well grow.

This means that fresh expressions can be in the business of discipleship from the outset.

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If a venture starts as a parenting support group, for instance, those involved can be helped to become more like Christ by the way in which they are encouraged to relate to each and through the principles of parenting that are affirmed.

Many people want practical help in making the best of life - from managing debt, to coping with stress at work, to supporting each other as photographers. A fresh expression that starts by responding to such needs can implicitly encourage people to be more Christ-like almost from day one.

Discipleship continues throughout life

RecyclingOften the church has tended to think of discipleship as something that is done with young converts. New Christians need discipling to get them started on the journey.

How can Christians' needs be met without diluting the mission focus of the venture?

But this radically downplays the central place that discipleship should have in the life of individual believers and of the church. Followers of Christ never stop being disciples. Being discipled is as important for long-established as for new Christians. It is a task for life.

So pioneers need to ask how mature Christians will be discipled, as well as recent converts. If well-established Christians are in the core team or are actively supporting the fresh expression, for instance, how can their needs be met without diluting the mission focus of the venture?

It may be that some of the discipling will have to be done outside the fresh expression - through the sending church perhaps, in co-operation with other local churches, through conferences, courses and festivals, through mentoring by wise Christians within inherited church and by using the mushrooming range of Christian resources available in printed form and online.

Pastoring the team and volunteer helpers may involve putting individuals in touch with these wider sources of spiritual support.

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As they keep travelling towards God and become more Christ-like in the process, individuals will be at different stages of the journey. Some will have just entered the faith; others may have been travelling for a number of years.

Support for the journey should take account of these differences. Relying on a single meeting to disciple new and long-term Christians would be a tall order!

Support for the journey should take account of people's differences

Do you know of a good example where a fresh expression has ensured that both emerging and established Christians are discipled effectively? If so, perhaps you could provide details in the Comments section at the bottom of this page.

Discipleship has four dimensions

Four arrowsThe four dimensions are:

  • upward to God, as believers learn to listen to the Spirit, get to know Jesus better and grow in love with the Father;
  • inward to the self, as believers gain insight into what makes them tick and pray that the Spirit will bring their passions into the embrace of God's love;
  • outward to the world, as believers grow in compassion for those in need, and become more active in promoting justice, protecting creation and shaping culture in line with kingdom values;
  • sideways to other Christians, as believers contribute to the whole body of Christ and are strengthened by the body.

Discipleship is a central task of the church

BaptismSee also

Jesus told his followers to 'go and make disciples of all nations' (Matthew 28.19). This was to involve bringing people to baptism and teaching them to follow Jesus (Matthew 28.19-20).

Discipleship should therefore be a vital part of fresh expressions.

Emerging churches are challenged because with all their vitality and commitment, unless they become communities that... produce Christian disciples they will fail at the deepest level to be true churches at all.

Martyn Atkins, Resourcing Renewal, Inspire, 2007, p164

In all forms of church, including fresh expressions, our calling is not to increase the number of attenders, notch up converts on an evangelistic score card, nor recruit more people to pay the church bills. Our calling is to make more disciples who can live out their faith in every aspect of their lives.

This involves encouraging very new believers to take responsibility for their spiritual lives and to lean on the Spirit. As emphasised in Discipleship encourages a dependence on the Spirit, it is all too easy for new Christians to become over-dependent on more experienced believers. They remain spiritual children or adolescents rather than growing into full maturity.

Encouraging new believers from an early stage to exercise their spiritual gifts, assume leadership within the body and to discern for themselves what the Spirit is saying to them through Scripture can help them to 'grow up' more quickly.

As a leader within a fresh expression, it can be easy to think you have the answers. Whilst Christians new to the faith may appreciate support, they may also have the ability to understand faith through fresh eyes. Their insights and questioning can actually catalyse discipleship in others who have been Christians for a while.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre

They can be helped in this by being 'companions' to one another.

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So what about discipleship courses?

School signThey certainly have a role to play, as long as they are suitable. There are many excellent resources available. But they are far from the whole story.

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Some churches have put such an emphasis on courses that discipleship has come to be equated with doing a course - start with an evangelism course, follow it with a discipleship course, top it up with a course on marriage, and the job is done.

But if discipleship is a journey into the heart of God's love, if it involves becoming Jesus-shaped in your character, if it touches every aspect of life, if it involves upward, inward, outward and sideways dimensions, if it continues throughout life and if it is the central task of the church, then it will be much more than the occasional course. 'Making disciples' will steer almost everything a fresh expression does.

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The key message? Discipleship should be at the heart of fresh expressions.