What is True Discipleship?
What is true discipleship? The question sounds obvious at best. But that is precisely the slippery little problem of discipleship in the modern church. Discipleship SHOULD BE clear; it should be obvious, it should be so well understood by the Church that its definition can be taken for granted. The difficulty is that in reality, true discipleship is in fact not so obvious.
If you were asked the question “what is discipleship?” how would you answer it? Here are some typical answers: Discipleship is…
- preaching a sermon
- a beginner class on basic Christian doctrine after accepting Christ
- a class someone takes before they accept Christ (see what I did there!)
- a bible study
- a small groups
- accountability groups
I think you get the point. If we take this shortlist of typical answers, we can make two primary observations: (1) many of these are to one degree or another contradictory, like how some would see discipleship as something that happens when we ingest a sermon during a Sunday service while others would contend it only takes place a small group, accountability group, or bible study. (2) Many of these things overlap to varying degrees and are also not entirely contradictory. For example, both a sermon and a small group bible study have to do with teaching the contents of the Bible.
When Close Enough is Too Far Away
The problem here is twofold, namely having enough truth to feel comfortably right, and enough error to never fully arrive at a holistic understanding of true biblical discipleship as Jesus envisioned it for his Church. Sometimes being close enough, in the end, leaves us too far away.
I remember watching an episode of the reality show, the Amazing Race where teams of two raced around the globe. In one episode, there were multiple clues in this particular area of the city. Somehow one team stumbled on the next clue before they found the one before it. As they stood excited they had arrived at the end of this stage first, their hopes were suddenly dashed when the host had to tell them that they missed a clue and had to return to do it. In the end, though having originally arrived first by a stroke of luck, the backtracking for the missing clue forced them to be last and they were eliminated from the race.
That is often how our attempts at discipleship are today; we are so close, living in the neighborhood, we are not on alert to look for anything deeper for something more challenging, more engaging, something pressing the soul into intimacy with Jesus and his Church.
Discipleship without Parallel
When we take the time to consider discipleship and formation of the earliest Church, it really has no modern parallel. Part of the problem of describing discipleship to you is that there are few modern parallels to point to. We cannot point to this or that Church today and say “see there it is.”
Sure this does not mean there is no discipleship going on at all. What I am talking about here is a distinction in degree.
Let’s say that the discipleship that the Apostolic disciples experienced with Jesus equaled 100%. If we say that, then we could theoretically measure all forms of discipleship by that gold standard.
Further, assuming that no Church has ever disciplined at the full 100% capacity as Jesus did with the 12, we might still say, “hey the Apostolic Church probably scored a solid 85%–95%” depending on the day of the week. Again we do not want to come off to idealistic here; no church or ministry EVER disciples perfectly. At the same time, if we are honest enough to recognize a sliding scale, then it clearly implies that some ministries will disciple better than others. Hence we can all agree that disciplining at 75% strength of what Jesus did is better than 40%, and so on.
This leads us so far to a simple question, namely… do we think there is always room to improve our discipleship? I think there can be only one possible answer to that. That is YES.
But there is more. If the Church looks very little like it once did, especially at a time when it was particularly fresh and healthy, might our room for improvement be profound? I think so too.
Some Key Considerations
This question, the level of quality or functionality in our discipleship is critical for several reasons. First Churches have a tendency to mimic the same activities, without serious assessment to the resulting outcomes. For instance, if your Church A. does X, what fruit is it actually bearing. In other words, what observable difference is X bible study, small group, fill-in-the-blank, actually producing.
Second, how does one even begin to measure such things such as “godliness,” “behavior,” “life-change? This is some food for thought, for all Christians, but especially Church leaders. We will consider these issues in our next post.