Discipleship is such a broad term, often a junk-drawer term that has been used to describe many things. How do you define it?
Discipleship for me is learning the art of living from Jesus. “From Jesus” holds the Gospel-centered idea that everything, including the work of transformation, is truly from Jesus (keeping the definition from being moralistic). “From Jesus” also conveys the practical modeling of the lifestyle of our Savior as a human being in ideal relationship to the Father.
How do you articulate the holy tension in God’s role in transformation and the believer’s role?
I believe sailboats were invented to illustrate this spiritual truth. There is no better snapshot of rigorous human activity and discipline and planning and skill (think America’s Cup) that does not DIRECTLY cause forward motion. The wind, obviously, is the direct propelling mechanism, and all human effort is subordinate to and dependent upon the breeze of God. So it is with the learning the art of living from Jesus.
Who has been influential to you in forming your view of discipleship?
From my definition above you can probably guess Dallas Willard. In addition I would include Eugene Peterson from a distance and Howard Hendricks up close. Three strands of thinking that I enjoy learning from as checks and balances are the classic reformed guys (Calvin, Luther) the Mystics (Middle Ages and Renaissance) and folks in the Wesleyan or Holiness tradition. Through my five years of seminary, I kept a quote from Bernard of Clairveaux on my desk- “We must want to taste God more than we want to talk about Him”
What has changed, for good and bad, in the practice or methods of discipleship in recent years?
There will always be a human error of trying to rely on programs. Programs don’t disciple people, people do.
Also, as the megachurch continues to represent a larger segment of total church in attendance in the U.S., the essence of discipleship is easily obscured by the “largeness” of worship and other events. As sad as it is, it’s never been easier to spend your life in an average megachurch and really not get the basics of discipleship.
What I am seeing on the positive side is more “conversions” of church leaders to embrace a culture of discipleship. This happens for many after much outward visible success. In addition these pastors experience a “loss of first love” with regard to the front-line disciple-making that was the context of their calling to begin with. After years of running the church organization they wake up and find that they are no longer personally engaged with discipleship.
The most common application after this conversion is usually an internal roll-out of staff-modeled discipleship. Hendricks always said, “You teach what you know, but you reproduce what you are?” I often ask church leaders why they discipleship will ever happen if they are not living it and loving it.
In your mind, is discipleship one aspect of church ministry or the totality of all a church does?
Bruce Wesley was my first senior pastor-mentor as a new pastor myself. He taught me that “all processes are discipleship process.” That was his way of articulating that discipleship is everything. I have never strayed from this maxim in my own conviction.
How should a ministry define success in terms of discipleship? What does winning look like?
The first step of winning is that the leadership has defined winning in their context. Until a leader clarifies something other than “nickels and noses” in the worship service as success, they will never be “unhitched” from attendance being their motivational bottom line. Counting attendance alone is an emotional addiction for pastors that keeps their eye off of the ball of real discipleship. I cheer for growing attendance, but not to the neglect, of a clearly defined discipleship results. Simply stated, most churches don’t have a shared, empowered definition of what kind of disciple their church is designed to produce. That’s tragic.
In my experience, the limitation of our ministries after a church DOES define its success, is the lack of opportunity for actual modeling, practicing and evaluation in our typical groups or class ministries. No new skills really develop without these components in any realm- athletic, musical, military, medical, etc. That’s pretty obvious. Yet in church we think we can talk at people week after week after week, and somehow they will start living like Jesus. It doesn’t work that way.
Is there such thing as “fully-discipled” in this lifetime?
I don’t think you ever graduate from the school of discipleship. So in the larger sense you never stop learning from Jesus. Yet in another sense, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:13 of “measure of the stature” that belongs to fullness in Christ, there is a sense that a disciple matures in a similar way to the physical body. At some point you physically stop growing as an adult and then you reproduce yourself physically (i.e., have kids). I think that is true spiritually as well. Someone can reach maturity as a disciple, although they never stop learning.