Today I continue my 2013 Discipleship Interview Series with Michael Kelley. Michael currently serves with us at LifeWay as the Director of Discipleship and is the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal, Holy Vocabulary, and The Tough Sayings of Jesus. He also coauthored Transformational Discipleship with me and Philip Nation.
Discipleship, at its core, is about following Jesus. That’s what a disciple is—a follower. It would seem, then, that we should look to Jesus and see how He defined discipleship for those first following Him. In the gospels, we see those followers listening and learning from the teaching of Jesus. We see them spending time in real life situations with Jesus. We see them being sent out by Jesus with purpose and meaning. If we want to emulate that, we have to realize that discipleship involves the whole of a person – the intellect, the physical, the emotional—these all come into play. Put together, we see that discipleship is a lifestyle. It’s not a class or a philosophy; not something you attend, but a lifestyle that you are walking in.
How do you articulate the holy tension in God’s role in transformation and the believer’s role?
I think the best passage that articulates this relationship is Philippians 2:12-13. In verse 12, Paul emphasized the effort on our part at discipleship – we are to work hard at our salvation, with fear and trembling. And make no mistake – it’s hard work. But the reason and motivation behind that work is given in the next verse—it is God working in us for His purpose. So in one sentence, we can bring those two together:
We work out because God works in. The link between those two things is faith.
If we really believe the Holy Spirit is working in us to bring us into conformity with Jesus, then our daily practices will be influenced. You might even say that the level of our effort is proportional to the extent we believe God is working in us. Put in practical terms in a given situation, we try hard to get up early in the morning to study the Bible. But we do so because we really deeply believe God is going to use our time in the Word to speak to us.
Do you see distinction between personal discipleship (a believer on his own) and corporate discipleship (a believer does in the community)?
There is some distinction, but they are also meant to work in harmony with each other. Jesus Himself often withdrew in solitude to pray; so must we. But the majority of the New Testament was written not to individuals, but to communities of believers. God intends us to grow, but He intends that growth to happen in coordination with other believers. It seems to me that too often we think of these as completely distinct. It’s been personally very helpful for me to try and find concrete ways that these come together. We might, for example, think about how we might use our personal reading in Scripture to prepare for and then process the text that is preached on Sunday to emphasize that coordination.
In your mind, is discipleship one aspect of church ministry or the totality of all a church does?
It is the totality. We are to make disciples in the church. That’s our mission. The question, then, should be not so much how can we institute an effective discipleship program, but how can we create an entire church culture that is built around making disciples. The effect will be a kind of discipling that is ingrained into the every day minds and hearts of people rather than a specific period of time devoted to a class or practice each week.