Christian Discipleship   Leave a comment

That word “discipleship” is much on my mind these days. What does it mean? Are Christians simply saved when we say we believe in God and given a free pass to heaven with nothing further required or are we expected to conform ourselves to Christ’s image?

Depending on what church you become a Christian in, you may get either answer or something in between. Many emerging churches today teach an easy believism whereby if you feel good about your relationship with God, you’re good enough for Him.

I think that’s crap, honestly. There is more to it than that and if you don’t know it, you’ll miss out on salvation altogether.

Discipleship is the process of the Holy Spirit drawing Christians deeper into the life of the Trinity. It is a whole life response of Christians to Jesus Christ. Everything a Christian believes and does is an aspect of discipleship and the goal of discipleship is to grow ever more Christ-like in every aspect of life.

Christians sometimes distinguish between coming to faith and the process of maturing in the faith (discipleship). We use ‘discipleship’ mainly in this narrower sense to differentiate it from ‘evangelism, which encourages to the faith. The Bible doesn’t really make that distinction. Discipleship is the entire process by which people become more like Christ. Often the point where ‘evangelism’ ends and ‘discipleship’ begins is blurred.

Discipleship is a journey that starts before conversion. The Spirit was active in a person’s life before they came to faith – what theologians call ‘prevenient grace’. Effective discipleship listens to what the Spirit has already been doing in an individual’s life and builds on it. For me, I see that God occasionally put Christians, or books, or circumstances in my life all through my childhood before I encountered The God Who Is There in a trapper’s cabin in the Alaska wilderness. Now, that was a clear Holy Spirit moment — that I would be stuck at a remote cabin by freaky weather and the only book available to read that remotely looked interesting was a book that had only been published maybe six months before — the odds … I’m not that good of a mathematician, but high.

For other Christians, the first bread crumb was something different. My husband was drunk off his butt in a Houston apartment complex and a neighbor witnessed to him. It didn’t take until he got to Alaska and fell in with Christians, but he remembers distinctly that the neighbor prayed for God to follow him and speak to him when he was ready to hear it. My cousin the biologist listened to his roommate’s dad (a pastor) one time and then weeks later, in a biology lab on the cell, had God speak to him so clearly that he had to call that pastor and accept the Lord that very afternoon. Others, like my cousin the research doctor, take years of just gradually moving toward salvation before they accept Christ personally.

Modern churches often offer classes that are meant to drawn in the unsaved and unchurched Debt management, parenting, a food bank field, even a lady’s quilting club can all allow Christians and non-Christians an opportunity to interact and provide Christians an opportunity to show how a relationship with Jesus Christ might help with debt management, parenting, or hunger. I don’t know that God really has any quilting advice, but the ladies at my church produce some lovely quilts that they give to charity. It’s also given them many opportunities to share their faith with quilters who don’t know Christ.

Often the church tends to think of discipleship as something for young converts. A kid walks an aisle and we direct them into a “discipleship course”, but really, discipleship is a lifelong process that involves having your character formed by the Spirit. It is a response to God as you live in fellowship with other Christians, whereby you allow your entire personality to be shaped by Jesus. Increasingly, your character should reveal more of Christ. Such character develops by:

  • living ‘in Christ’, as the Spirit forms us through Scripture and the influence of fellow Christians;
  • becoming like Jesus in our attitudes and behavior;
  • growing in the fruit of the Spirit;
  • learning and living kingdom values, as we support God’s mission to the world;
  • discerning where the Spirit is at work in contemporary culture and where culture is a block to the Spirit;
  • dying to self so as increasingly to live a Spirit-filled life.

Discipleship is an individual journey. You must ask yourself ‘What does it mean for me to become more like Jesus?’ But it is also a church journey. The church (local congregation) should be asking itself ‘What can we do to help people become more Christ-like?’  Either way, it is a journey that is never complete. Whether you’re eight and just accepted the Lord two days ago or 80 and have known Jesus for 70 years, you should still be growing, still striving to be more Christ-like. There’s man in our church in his late-70s who recently made the statement that God had taught himself new that week. He’s been a Christian since he was nine, but he hasn’t stopped growing. Followers of Christ never stop being disciples. It is a task for life.

As they keep travelling towards God and become more Christ-like in the process, individuals will be at different stages of the journey. Some will have just entered the faith; others may have been travelling for a number of years.

In today’s church, the task of discipleship gets short shrift. We’re focused on other things — sometimes on evangelism and salvation, but for some churches it is all about the numbers. A friend of mine just quit the largest evangelical (and non-denominational) church in town because she’s been attending a year and nobody has asked her if she’s saved. She is, but that nobody would care if she is sort of freaks her out.

Jesus told His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). This was to involve bringing people to baptism and teaching them to follow Jesus. He didn’t tell us to build massive edifices to our own egos and pack the pews. Marie discovered the challenge of emerging churches. With all their vitality and commitment to bring people in the doors, they sometimes fail to become communities that produce Christian disciples. When they do that, they fail at the deepest level to be true churches.

The Church of Christ (and the individual congregations that compose it) should never be a social club. Our calling is not to increase the number of attenders, notch up converts on an evangelistic score card or recruit more people to pay the church bills. Our calling is to make more disciples who can live out their faith in every aspect of their lives.

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