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Discipleship:Program or Process?
A ll preachers know that their task is to learn what the Bible meant when it was written and then proclaim what it means now. It’s taking the historic truth and presenting its contemporary relevance. So how do we interpret ‘make disciples’? Does it require a curriculum? Is it a program? Or is it a lifestyle or process? Read this helpful article to find the answers.
We have stated that from Matthew 28:19-20, we can conclude that 'disciple-making' is intended to be the major activity of every believer, in every church, in every place and in every age until Christ returns. But how does that translate into 21st century church life? How do the discipleship methods of Jesus and the practices of the New Testament believers convert into modern-day church situations?
The wide diversity in defining discipleship has resulted in a variety of different approaches and practices. For some, discipleship means little more than becoming a Christian and being faithful in church attendance, personal devotions of prayer and Bible reading and living a comparatively godly lifestyle. Others view discipleship as something that is done with young people or new converts - a time-limited course explaining the basic beliefs and practices of the Christian faith. Others use the words ‘discipleship’ and ‘mentoring’ synonymously and concentrate on one-to-one training in aspects of Biblical truth or activities. Still others see discipleship as small group discussion, a kind of group mentoring. At Definitive Discipleship we believe that all these definitions and practices are good, but none of them are complete or sufficient in themselves.
For this reason we advocate what many call a ‘systems’ approach to discipleship, an holistic method which includes all of the above and which can - and should - be advocated by all church leaders and experienced by all Christians. Discipleship-church leaders have learned to employ a system which includes teaching, training in character, spirituality, lifestyle and ministry skills, as well as caring pastorally for their members.
Our definition of discipleship: An intentional training of disciples in biblical knowledge, character, skills and spirituality, in an environment of accountability and loving relationships.
This definition includes all the ingredients of New Testament, Jesus-style discipleship. This is what Jesus did with the first disciples and this is what they ensured happened to new converts
Dictionary definition: Done with intention or on purpose. Synonyms: deliberate, calculated, conscious, planned, meant, considered, studied, knowing, wilful, purposeful, premeditated, pre-planned, thought out in advance, prearranged, preconceived, predetermined.
Discipleship should not be left to chance, though it is in most Christian congregations. Nor should it be relegated to enthusiastic youth or leadership trainees. Discipleship isn’t one of many things the church can choose to do. It is not optional. Neither is it something that happens without any thought, planning or participation. Rather it should be at the top of the church’s agenda because it is what the church is supposed to do. It should also be the top priority of every believer. It should be understood, defined, organised and intentionally implemented.
2. Training in Bible knowledge
The single, most important element of New Testament discipleship is teaching. Christianity is a ‘teaching religion.’ Jesus was a teacher. He was recognised as a teacher. Of the 90 times Jesus was addressed directly in the gospels, on 60 occasions he was called Teacher. He spoke much about the importance of his words. They were ‘spirit and life.’ They brought freedom and eternal life. They will last forever and obedience to them assures a successful and victorious life. His command to the first disciples was to teach others all that he had taught them (Matthew 18:18-20). The Apostle’s doctrine was one of the cornerstones of the first church (Acts 2:48). The practice of teaching in the book of Acts and its reference in the apostolic letters shows the crucial role it played in the conversion and growth of the early believers.
Any modern discipleship must include a teaching element. Discipleship must never be confined to mere observation or chance. Ministry training, character improvement or spiritual development cannot be conducted without reference to God’s eternal Word.
3. Character training
In Jesus first sermon Jesus presented ‘the Beatitudes’ as his first discipleship training. Character is important! Jesus focussed on character before charisma and commission. Character training for Christians is not something to be learned from a book, a sermon or seminar. Neither does it come automatically or accidentally. Character qualities can be taught but to be effective they have to be developed in relationships with other believers and on the anvil of life.
Jesus’ method was to teach and to gather his disciples into a group situation where he could observe their behaviours, address their weaknesses and encourage their strengths. Their motives were exhibited by their words and actions. He was able to bring example, inspiration, loving confrontation and outright rebuke in a small group situation that would never have been possible in a large group or crowd situation.
Today's disciples need to do the same. Character development can shift from slow to exponential within a committed relational small-group. Whether one considers John Wesley’s class-meetings or a modern cell-group, the interaction and accountability essential for Christian character development can be found in such groups.
4. Skills development
To sustain pastoral care or leadership training, to facilitate growth in spirituality and equip people to be effective witnesses in the community, (to name a few of the tasks of church leadership) a vast array of skills have to be developed in every church. Any Sunday morning meeting requires cleaners, greeters, stewards, musicians, singers, a PA operator, a convener, an administrator for notices, a preacher, a team responsible for refreshments, a caretaker and so on – and that’s just for 90 mins on a Sunday morning! The entire ministry of any local church in any year multiplies these needs enormously.
It’s no wonder that the apostle Paul speaks of the church as a body with many members and the role of leaders ‘to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.’ Eph 4:12-13 NIV
This ‘preparing God’s people for works of service,’ or as the NASB version of Eph 4:12 has it ‘the equipping of the saints for the work of service’ requires group training and often personal mentoring, to develop these ministries. Unless this aspect of discipleship is practiced, the church will always be compared to a football match - 22,000 people who desperately need exercise watching 22 men desperately needing rest!
When Jesus called the first disciples they were completely inexperienced and uneducated. Within three years and six months they were ready to spearhead a dynamic movement destined to change the world. How? Because Jesus spent himself developing these men in the basic skills necessary for the advancement of the new church. Paul extended this method and applied it his churches using terms such as 'model', 'example', and 'imitate'. This 'apprentice approach' ensured the churches had a full quota of well-trained ministries ensuring their health and growth.
5. Spiritual growth
The personal spiritual growth of a believer must be at the heart of any discipleship activity. A person’s relationship with God is the most important thing about him. It determines his success in service, in prayer and in every area of his walk with God. No one who accomplished something great for God did so without giving priority to this aspect of his life.
But how does spiritual maturity happen? It certainly isn’t a result of chance, or personality or upbringing. Spirituality occurs only when a person learns how to approach God, how to pray, how to deal with personal sins and sinfulness and how to apply God’s Word to his life.
General preaching should always have this goal in mind. Seminars can be given to educate and encourage believers to grow in the grace and knowledge of out God. Small groups provide incentive, example and inspiration for each believer to go deeper with God. They also offer an unspoken accountability to all who share in the group’s life.
6. The place of small-groups
Jesus-style discipleship requires small group participation. He chose 12 to be with him and to learn from him. They benefitted from close contact with their mentor. They could ask questions that were not appropriate in larger public gatherings. They could be challenged and motivated by their peers and they could be admonished and corrected safely in an environment of love and trust.
Functional small groups, based on loving relationships and focussed on discipleship have the power to transform individuals and sharpen them in every aspect of their lives. Each participant can grow in Bible-knowledge, in character, skills and spirituality in a small group, far more than in any other Christian environment. This was one of the secrets behind the success of the first church, the pietist movement, the Wesleyan revival and the current cell-church movement which is escalating throughout the world.
Discipleship: Program or Process?
Returning to our original question: Is discipleship a program or a process? This article was written to clarify the fact that discipleship is a process – it takes a long time and it uses lots of methods to produce mature believers and to become a successful means of church growth and health.
But it does need programs – sequential teaching on the major areas of Christian growth and development. This may be short courses in small groups, larger seminars for whole days or weekends, requiring written curricula (curriculums if you are from US!) taught to individuals or groups and so on – but there must be programs that support the process!