If we accept that our God-given mandate is to make disciples, the big questions are how do we make them and into what do we make them. One of the laws of creation is that kind begets kind. We can only reproduce in others what God has worked into us. It is commonly understood that Christianity is a relationship, not a “religion.” By this is meant that when we come to Christ in faith, the Holy Spirit comes to live within and through us. God removes us from the performance treadmill called the Law and adopts us into his family, making everything primarily relational. The big question has become, “Who is your Daddy.” It he is not Abba, you are not part of Christ’s kingdom. It should not surprise us, therefore, that discipleship is also primarily relational. A working definition of discipleship could be the following: discipleship is the art and practice of making and maintaining relationships in order to help people to grow in their knowledge of and obedience to Christ.
It is unlikely that we will have much ability to influence people toward God unless we are in relationship with them. Large gospel crusades can be effective in proclaiming the good news about Christ and calling people to make a faith commitment to him, but discipleship takes place one-on-one or one-on-few. The discipleship relationship is built on mutual trust and commitment, as illustrated by Paul’s words to Timothy, one of his disciples.
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 2 Timothy 3:10-11 (ESV)
What we live and model is at least as important as what we teach, and people only know how we live when we are in relationship with them. Jesus’ followers spent enormous amounts of time with him and were radically transformed by the experience. True discipleship is more about doing than studying. Jesus discipled his followers through a combination of instruction followed by practical application, all in the context of relationship. The reason he did this was that he was not trying to produce theological scholars isolated from everyday life whose primary responsibility is preaching, but missionary servants of the kingdom who were able to relate to people in such a way that they would learn to follow and obey Christ more fully. The same is true today.
Jesus call to his main followers is instructive.
And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Matthew 4:19 (ESV)
First of all, let us consider what Jesus did not say. He did not call his disciples to become students of the Bible first and foremost. He called them into a relationship with himself on mission with him to “catch” people. He did not call them into a theological system, but into a relationship in which “follow” is the operational word. Following Jesus requires us to be with him on a journey. He did not call his followers primarily to a Christian community, but to a fishing trip, a journey. All those who take the journey will automatically be in community (communitas) with one another, a community whose focus is the joint mission of making disciples.
The church, to a large extent, has missed the mark (the definition of sin, by the way) when it comes to the mission of God, which is the most basic measurement we should use in determining “success.” We have emphasized a wide number of good things, often at the expense of following Christ as a community which is on mission together. We have made Bible study more important than connecting with people outside the fold. We have made worship in our church services more important than fishing for men. We have made the fellowship of the saints more important than impacting our neighborhoods for Christ. We have “holed up” in our Christian fortresses (church buildings), huddling around our comfortable relationships, traditions, and practices while the world goes to hell, all the while feeling really good about ourselves and our Christianity. We have often measured success by the three B’s – buildings, bucks, and bodies, but who told us to measure success this way? Not Jesus…
Let’s take a look at what is known as the Great Commission, the last command Jesus gave to the church before ascending into heaven.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV)
The first word is “go,” but we live as if he commanded us to “stay” in the confines of the local church where we feel reasonably safe and secure. Jesus did most of his ministry while he was out and about in the community, not while in the synagogue. So did Paul. Following Jesus means that we pattern our lives around the first word of the Great Commission. Jesus told his followers to wait until they received the Holy Spirit and then go into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and, finally, to the ends of the earth. It is very unlikely that we will go to the uttermost parts of the earth if we have not even been able to follow Jesus into our own neighborhood.
The second part of the Great Commission is the command to baptize and teach our new disciples how to obey Christ. I am very sure that Jesus did not have in mind a seminary or classroom when he spoke this. Discipleship is similar to family life. Parents do not usually depend on classroom settings to develop their children into disciples. They use “teaching moments” to tell them about God, in addition, hopefully, to regular times of reading and discussing the Bible with their children. Kids learn more from how their parents live than they do from the words they speak. Talk is cheap, but living with conviction leaves a lasting imprint. Likewise, as we spend time with the people we are discipling, we will get opportunities to share truth with them this is related to the things they are going through at the moment. This coupled with reading and discussing Scripture will be a good way to impart truth with conviction to our disciples. But they also need to be with us while we live our lives so they can see our convictions and passions lived out before them. Discipleship without relationship is not discipleship at all.
The last part of the Great Commission is Jesus’ pledge to remain in relationship with us forever – to be always present. Discipleship is a lifelong relationship. It may change over time; in fact, it should. As children mature, the relationship with the parent radically changes. The same is true in discipleship. But just as parents and children continue to relate, so should disciplemakers and those they mentor.
The call to follow Jesus is a call to surrender to the Person of Jesus, not to a doctrine, a denomination, a local church, or a particular leader. Secondly it is a call to obedience to that Person, the Lord, and his teachings. But what is more relevant to this article is the purpose of the call, because it is the purpose of discipleship. It is to make us into fishers of men. If that is not the goal of our discipleship, we are not on the same page with Jesus and may actually be working at cross purposes with him.
As we follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit, will transform us more and more into Christ’s image, which is definitely a significant part of God’s eternal purpose. Nevertheless, the goal of discipleship remains what Jesus declared it to be – to make us into fishers of men. To put it another way, disciples are not really disciples unless they are leading others to follow Christ and to make disciples themselves.
We are not called to make people into good church goers. Our goal is not to help people simply become good, moral people. Nor is our purpose merely to fully educate them in God’s Word, or even to help them cooperate with the Holy Spirit in character transformation. Rather, it is to help them grow in their knowledge of and their devotion to Jesus, and to instill the Great Commission into them in such a way that it becomes the overwhelming purpose of their lives. It is to teach them to rely on God with all their hearts so they can join in the journey and the adventures of faith associated with following Jesus. It is to develop their ministry skills so that they are competent when praying for people and expect God to work in and through them. It is to help them to reach out to the needy, the “least of these,” with arms of love and works of faith. It is to properly represent Christ to our neighbors, colleagues, and friends – ambassadors for Christ, preachers of the gospel, and representatives of God’s kingdom. Nothing else will do.