Today I continue my 2013 Discipleship Interview Series with Nate Akin. Nate serves as Pastor for Disciple-Making at Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC, and the Church Partnership Liaison at Southeastern Seminary.
In the Great Commission, it seems that Jesus is giving the command to make Christ-followers, not just those that give a tip of the cap to Christ. Instead, He cultivates followers that submit all of their being to Him. This commands sounds similar to the mandate in Genesis 1 and 2 (fill the earth and have dominion); this Great Commission carries the idea that the people of God are to fill the earth (the nations) with worshippers of the rightful King. So the old catechism captures some of this idea, a disciple (Christ Follower and worshipper) is one that seeks “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” and does so to ends of the earth as he Images this King that has purchased him with blood.
If this is the end, then I believe this changes some of the conversations we have about discipleship, evangelism, praying prayers, etc. It seems then, that the goal in making disciples (which includes, but is not limited to, evangelism) is not a prayer prayed, or that one would have mental ascent to the truths about Christ, or even a decision made, but instead is a full-blown worshipper who is glorifying Christ and enjoying Him with their whole being (mind, body, and soul). So, in sum discipleship seems to be the way by which we form worshippers of King Jesus who grow in their worship and adoration of their redeeming King until the day when they worship fully and forever in Spirit and Truth without the stain of sin. This process can and should include a myriad of things (such as teaching them to obey all that He has commanded) and must be intentional and not passive (below I will look at some things included in this process).
In terms of discipling new believers, what is of chief importance?
I believe Scripture (proper understanding of Scripture as a Christ- and gospel-centered) and the church are of chief importance in discipling new believers. The only way we become like Christ is to know Christ, and we do that through Scripture (Colossians 1:28). Most would probably say Scripture is essential to discipleship, but we must make clear that only proper understanding of Scripture leads to discipleship. It is possible to “know” Scripture but not really understand it. Proper understanding of Scripture begins with an understanding that the whole book points to Christ. Thus it is essential if we are going to create Christ worshippers and not self-worshippers (pharisees/legalists or licentious) that we properly understand and interpret the Scriptures. For more thoughts on this I would highly recommend an article from Jon Akin entitled “Preaching the Gospel Every Week.” The Pharisees knew and memorized the Bible but they missed the central figure of the Bible. We must avoid seeing the Bible as a rulebook to follow and instead view it as one preacher says as a “Him” book.
Finally, discipling new believers has to be intimately connected with the local church. If we are not living this out in the life of a community of faith, we will not grow as disciples. Ephesians 3 and 4 are clear that the church is the vehicle by which God is accomplishing His mission in the world and that Elders/Evangelists/Spiritual Gifts etc are given for the building up the body into maturity. So in discipleship, you need someone you are accountable to (Pastor/Elders are given for your growth and so in discipleship you need a spiritual authority keeping watch over you) and others for which you are accountable. Living out the one another commands is a part of our growth in Christ as we challenge others and are challenged. The church too often has been seen as an afterthought or minimal part of our Christian life. We have for too long viewed the church as something that we do (sometimes an obligation) rather than something we are. It is essential for our growth that we see our identity as changed from a person to a person in community that is being challenged, held accountable, etc., and in turn is doing that for others. And as we enjoy this great blessing of community we grow in our worship (sanctification as we interact as a sinner with other sinners) of the King! I said this above, but if there isn’t intentionality in discipleship it will never happen and so that accompanies these things that are of chief importance. I will discuss more of this below.
In your mind, is discipleship one aspect of church ministry or the totality of all a church does?
Since I believe discipleship is the process by which we create worshippers, I do believe it is the totality of what the church does because the end goal is a people worshipping God from every tribe. I think all of our ministries should be moving towards that end. In one regard, all church vision or mission statements should be the same: Seeking the glory of God by making disciples/worshippers of all nations. Churches might say this mission statement in different ways, for instance at Imago Dei we say, “we desire to see lives changed by the gospel.” We mean by this we want to see worshippers formed through gospel-justification (conversion) and gospel-growth (sanctification) as they learn to apply the gospel to their lives. So we are seeking breadth and depth in our disciple-making, more and deeper disciples. All the things we ”do” (corporate worship, small groups, evangelism training, fellowship, etc) are not ends in and of themselves but are means to an end of a robust worshipper of King Jesus. For instance, Paul tells us in Ephesians that corporate singing is for our encouragement and edification as we sing with one another. We don’t just sing songs in corporate worship to praise King Jesus, although we do, we also do it for the building up of one another.
At IDC there are a variety of simple avenues by which we try and accomplish this end goal of robust worshippers of King Jesus (those that are worshipping King Jesus in every aspect of their life: family, marriage, job, friendships, community, hobbies, etc.). We seek this through corporate worship where we sing the gospel, read the gospel, pray the gospel, preach the gospel, and enjoy the gospel through the ordinances all so that we will meditate on the gospel that continually forms us (Gal. 3:1-3). In addition, we do this through small group discipleship time during the week of prayer, community, fellowship, accountability, and searching the Scriptures. Also, we encourage our people to practice the spiritual disciplines and other avenues by which we hope to form and be formed into worshippers of the King. We spell out these desires in our church covenant that we all sign as a way of knowing how we will hold one another accountable. We also believe this extends to our desire to send out disciple-makers to plant churches. And so we have a developing process by which the elders equip weekly those that we hope to send out to plant churches in the future through a process we call Aspire.
The final thing I would say is that there has to be intentionality. It is possible for churches to assume that discipleship just happens through corporate worship and small group study. I do not think that is enough. Instead, there has to be an intentional eye set toward mentorship, evaluation, accountability, growing in grace, etc. I do believe this can take many forms, but I do think those elements are vital to discipleship. I think we have to develop an intentional strategy for how we will do this work. And we have to be willing to hold people accountable and have uncomfortable conversations for the sake of their growth and God’s glory. At IDC, we strive to do this through our small group leaders. The elders (who will give an account for each member Hebrews 13:17) meet regularly with our small group leaders to ask them how the people in their group are growing as disciples in all areas of their life. So, I believe it is the totality of what we are “doing” as a church as we employ many avenues and intentionality towards our end goal.
How should a ministry define success in terms of discipleship? What does winning look like?
Winning in discipleship is a tough question. Often we define success in the church by conversions or baptisms, but if I say the goal is not just conversion, but robust worshippers, then winning seems to be a mature worshipper of King Jesus who is being made like Him and who is treasuring Him above all. I think this is measured in the long term and not the short term. Ultimately, we are asking questions as we begin to disciple like: what will he/she look like 2 years from now under my ministry? 5 years? 10 years? We are asking does he love his wife in a more sacrificial way today than ever before? Is he loving and serving the church more? Is he treasuring Christ more than anything else? Is he crushing his idols? Is he now discipling and mentoring and encouraging and challenging others to a greater degree? That is why I believe this a long-term project for “winning.” In many ways, we will just have to identify small evidences of grace and stay connected as elders with our small group leaders as they help us identify and celebrate evidences of growth in all areas of the forming disciple’s life.