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What is Definitive Discipleship?
Over recent years the term ‘intentional discipleship’ has been used throughout the world to describe the deliberate, pre-meditated, planned and purposeful process of Christian discipleship.
It describes a discipleship model developed by Christian leaders who believe that pursuing a robust, accessible and achievable program to grow disciples at local church level, fulfils the command of Jesus.
These leaders have recognized the discipleship deficit in western evangelicalism and their passion to fulfil the Great Commission has produced a plethora of discipleship models - some good and some not so good!
Some are excellent group approaches, but mostly they are incomplete, focussing on one or two aspects of the Christian life. Many emphasise personal devotions and spiritual disciplines. Some highlight witnessing and evangelism. Occasional conferences in every nation major on single aspects of the Christian lifestyle, like prayer, spiritual warfare, prophecy, understanding the Bible and so forth. Others have produced superb materials designed for one-to-one discipleship, omitting or ignoring the group model that was initiated by Jesus and modelled by the early church.
We believe there a need for a more comprehensive and holistic discipleship model which can be applied in small groups and in any local churches context. God wants every Christian and every church on a clear path toward spiritual growth, but the evidence suggests that this is not a widespread experience in the Christian church.
In addition to ‘intentional discipleship’ what is required is ‘definitive discipleship.’ Intentionality highlights the motivation of the disciple or disciple. It requires a deliberate, planned and considered approach. Definitive discipleship emphasises the need for a syllabus or program, a specific training track for individuals and churches to follow.
Spiritual growth in the New Testament
The problem of perpetually immature believers is not a new problem, for even the first churches had to deal with this lack of growth amongst their people.
The writer of Hebrews bemoans the lack of application to spiritual development that many believers encountered. They were still babes in Christ, feeding on milk, when they should be on solid food. (Hebrews 5:11-6:3) The apostle Paul speaks in a similar vein in 1 Corinthians 3:1–2 1 ‘Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly — mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.’
The apostle John refers to different levels of maturity: dear children, young men and fathers 1 Jn 2:12-14
Peter encourages personal character development which requires effort and enables any believer to become effective and productive in their Christian life. ‘For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ 2 Peter 1:5-
Paul often uses analogies of athletes or soldiers to describe the energy and effort of training and improvement which is necessary to be successful followers of Christ (1 Cor 9:24-26, Gal 2:2, Gal 5:7, 1 Tim 4:7-8, 2 Tim 2:3-4 see also Hebrews 12:1)
If discipleship is to be intentional, it also has to be defined and measurable. If leaders are to move believers from spiritual immaturity to maturity they need to have a clear understanding of what maturity looks like.
Maturity is the goal of leadership (Eph 4:11-16). This maturity must not be confused with mere attendance or financial giving, nor is it just having a desire for spiritual growth. Rather Christian maturity means actively pursuing personal spirituality, spiritual disciplines, growth in the knowledge of God and His word, a life that is a reflection of God’s grace, being a sacrificial servant and being fruitful in all aspects of life, purposefully blessing Christians and unbelievers alike.
This is Paul’s passion for those under his care:
‘For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. Col 1:9-12
Using this comprehensive view of discipleship and the group context of discipleship practiced by Jesus and the first Christians this brief definition is helpful:
Discipleship is an intentional training of disciples in knowledge, character, skills and spirituality, in an environment of accountability and loving relationships.
David Watson, a great Christian leader, now in heaven, once said, ‘Christians in the West have largely neglected what it means to be a disciple of Christ. The vast majority of Western Christians are church-members, pew-fillers, hymn-singers, sermon-tasters, Bible-readers, born-again believers or charismatics - but not true disciples of Jesus. If we were willing to learn the meaning of true discipleship and to actually become disciples, the church in the West would be transformed, and the resultant impact upon society would be staggering.’ We agree! It is time for the church to return to her true roots and prepare the church for her greatest harvest time before Jesus returns.