Discipleship Isn’t What You Think It Is

I'm fascinated by the parts of the Bible that leave us to wonder what happened when the story is over. For example, how did the formerly demon-possessed man live after he moved out of the cemetery, gave up his chains, and returned to family and community? How did Lazarus live once he'd removed the wrappings? What was Zaccheus's life like after he started giving the money back to those he'd robbed? And how did that prodigal son and his snarky older brother work out their future in their father's house?

We can all speculate on what happened next because we know that something happened next, because we know something important about Jesus: he makes disciples. Christian faith and experience take on a form in the world. That form, which we call Christian discipleship, is the next chapter, the next act, the next destination in the ongoing experience of belonging to the living Christ.

Jesus didn't invent the concept of being a disciple. The rabbis of Jesus' time undertook students and followers in a "follow, listen, imitate" relationship as a typical form of rabbinic training. John the Baptist had disciples. The graduate seminar was replaced with meals together, weeks on mission, and hundreds of hours of conversation. Disciples in Judaism were not learning three hours a week. It was a life-consuming, life-transforming vocation.

What Is Discipleship According to Jesus? 

Christian discipleship grows from that historical soil, but it is distinctively shaped by Jesus. It's clear in the Gospels that many of the disciples experienced a dynamic call from Jesus to "drop their nets" and "come follow me." Discipleship with Jesus was crucially focused around coming to understand Jesus himself. The midterm exam was not "tell me what you've learned about the kingdom," but "who do you say that I am?" This reflects the primary course material in Jesus' brand of discipleship: Have you come to grips with what it means that God has come to you?

Promptly upon getting the answer to that question, the Gospels tell us that Jesus refocused his personal journey toward the cross and began to teach his disciples with new intensity the complete course of discipleship. Where their first semester homework was to get with a friend and go heal the sick, now they were signing up for classes such as "Being Servants," "Carrying Your Cross," "Washing Feet," and "Starting Over When You've Betrayed Me."

The entire discipleship experience with Jesus was ironic. Once they had captured his rabbinical teaching method and bought into his kingdom message, he became the Messiah who would disappoint those wanting a political kingdom, who would be rejected, spit upon, tortured, and killed. To be his disciple was to take all of this upon oneself willingly in a full understanding that cross, kingdom, and New Creation were joined together in and by Jesus.

In other words, the disciples were probably puzzled at times as to what it meant to be a disciple. The longer they were at it, the less sure they were as to what this meant. Were they changing the world by the power of the Spirit? Were they throwing themselves against the evil powers that ran the world and likely to end up like Jesus? Were they proclaiming something done entirely by Jesus, something to which their own discipleship had been only an inadequate prelude?

All the Gospel writers love the word "disciple," but Paul never uses it as noun or verb. How does a term that is used throughout Luke and Acts not appear in a single epistle in the New Testament? Does this mean we aren't disciples today, that the term is restricted to those who were with Jesus in the first century? That's unlikely, because one of the most famous statements about discipleship in the Bible tells the apostles to "make disciples" of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded in the context of Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 28:17-20).

What We Get Wrong About Making Disciples

Today, "discipleship" is one of the most common terms in the Christian vocabulary, but scratch the surface and you'll find confusion and uncertainty are never far away. For example, discipleship is a constant concern among Christians; perhaps one of the largest concerns among Christian leaders. But ask typical church leaders how many intentional discipleship ministries they have that are not strictly classroom shaped. The answer likely will be awkward, with the standard confession that this is an area where "we need improvement."

The contemporary model of the pastor is, on the one hand, the entrepreneur, the "vision caster," and the likable, unifying motivator. For others it is the ideal of the "Edwardsian" pastor, spending hours alone in his study to emerge on Sundays preaching sermons with irresistible theology. What about what Bill Hull called the "Disciple Making Pastor"? The Epistles and the Book of Acts show leaders taking intense interest in the process of the behavioral/devotional formation of their converts. Paul's own methods reveal an intense concern for discipleship using the methods of Jesus, investing hours, months, and years in developing relationships that allowed him to say "follow me as I follow Christ" and to use himself as a living illustration of applied Christianity.

Contemporary church life seems designed to create a kind of Christian who looks to the church itself for information, motivation, and direction. If the church can produce its own brand of disciples, then it has done its job. But are church programs imitating the discipleship we see in the Gospels, or are they redefining discipleship into church-sponsored activities?

Where is all of this going? Let me summarize: We appear surprisingly unsure of how discipleship fits into the New Testament as a whole. While we know Jesus was a disciple-maker, our contemporary versions of Christianity often struggle with or omit entirely any meaningful process of discipleship that can't be labeled as teaching/preaching or supporting a church program. As a result, the continuing emphasis on Christian doctrine takes place in the midst of a movement that is clearly shaped far more by the surrounding consumer culture and its own church-centered interests than by any recognizable process of discipleship. Obviously, this is a multifaceted subject that could be taken up any number of places. I would like to consider the question of how discipleship affects the Christian's lifestyle. 

I chose this subject partially because the term "lifestyle" is a particularly American/Western term, with a number of connotations related to how we live in a variety of visible areas where the consumer culture particularly asserts itself. Lifestyle has to do with money, houses, discretionary spending, our use of leisure time, consumer spending, conspicuous consumption, clothes, money spent on children, vacations, toys, cars, and entertainment. Lifestyle intersects with our sense of entitlement. It puts our ideas of "what we've earned" on display. The phrase "the lifestyle to which I am accustomed" is often humorous, but only because so many of us don't take it as a joke.

American Christian culture often sees no problem with defining our conceptions of normal Christianity within our assumptions about lifestyle. When we discover this, the implications for discipleship are obvious and far-reaching.


Read Part 1, Why Calls for Discipleship Make Us Feel So Guilty

Adapted from Michael Spencer, “Lifestyle and Discipleship" Modern Reformation, Sept/Oct 2009. Used by permission. 

Photo of Michael Spencer

Michael Spencer

Michael Spencer (1956-2010) was the founder, the primary writer, and editor of Internet Monk, Jesus Shaped Spirituality, and the moderator of the Boar's Head Tavern.

Internet Monk is consistently rated in the top twenty Christian blogs in the world.

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