A disciple isn’t a mere learner or student of Christ. A disciple is someone who follows, not just the theological trajectory of Christianity, but also the person and mission of Christ. All too often, definitions for discipleship are restricted to knowledge and learning. This is just one aspect of discipleship. A disciple is rational (learner), relational (family), and missional (missionary). A disciple of Jesus learns the gospel, relates in the gospel, and communicates the gospel. Disciples of Jesus are gospel-centered not knowledge-centered. In order to learn, relate, and communicate the gospel, a disciple is in desperate need of the empowering and ongoing filling of the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Spirit, we won’t be motivated by grace to learn, relate, and communicate the grace of our Lord Jesus. We will just know gospel information. We will not be centered on it. No Spirit, no gospel-centered discipleship. Taking all of this into account, we can concisely describe a disciple as “a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus.”
What has changed, for good and bad, in the practice or methods of discipleship in recent years?
In some sectors of the church, discipleship is moving away from a one-dimensional, knowledge-centered approach. In its place, the multiplying disciple has popped up.
In pragmatic church culture, the modern discipleship mantra is: “make disciples who make disciples.” This mantra focuses on the practice of multiplying disciples. It marshals action and more action, provoking the question: “How can I not only make a disciple but also make one who makes another?” Some people are putting this multiplying pressure on the church–church who multiply churches.
While multiplying a disciple of Jesus is certainly a worthy goal, we have to ask: “Is reproduction Jesus’ chief concern in making disciples?” Certainly, Jesus did model, instruct, and send disciples (Luke 9-10), though his criticism when they returned wasn’t that they didn’t multiply. In Luke 9, the narrative of the sending of the twelve ends oddly, not on their triumphant return, but on their faithfulness to the gospel: “and they went through the villages preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (9:6). In Luke 10, however, the seventy-two send disciples do return triumphantly. Oddly, Jesus does not ask if anyone repented. In fact, he warns them of rejoicing in the power of disciple making and demon-slaying (seeing people delivered from the dominion of the evil one into the kingdom of God). He essentially says, “Don’t rejoice in your power to make disciples and topple demons, but rejoice that you are God’s children. Rejoice in your identity not in your activity.”
Jesus put the power of heart motivation over the power to make disciples who make disciples. He instructed them to proclaim the kingdom, not their methods.
While the kingdom of God is embedded with reproductive DNA (reflected in some of Jesus’ agricultural parables), the kingdom of God is also slow and deep. It stretches across arduous lifespans, thousands of cultures, hundreds of centuries, right into the depths of the human heart. The kingdom grows, even multiplies disciples, but at times King Jesus takes a terribly long time. Redemptive history is slow so that the gospel can “reach the nations.” Before we switch out the multiplying disciple for the knowing disciple, perhaps we, too, should slow down and consider where we are getting our power for making disciples. In our ministries, what we are we really rejoicing in?
Who has been influential to you in forming your view of discipleship?
Milt Dodson (my father), Richard Lovelace, Abraham Kuyper, John Piper, John Owen, Tom Steller (mentor), Chris Allred (best friend), and many of the faithful missionaries of the Protestant Missionary Movement.