I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the whole concept of making disciples. Maybe it’s the discussions my Home Fellowship is having as we dig into the gospel of John. Maybe it’s the byproduct of researching the role of the 1st century rabbi. Maybe it’s praying through who God wants me to invest in and how that should look. Maybe it’s realizing that much of the time, energy, and resources that we pour into ministry is only tacitly focused on this priority. Either way, I’m increasingly convinced that a significant gap remains between how Jesus approached making disciples and our approach in the modern church.
The word disciple literally means learner or pupil. These words instantly make me think of an academic setting- an instructor standing at a lectern sharing information (i.e. teaching) with a group of students sitting in neatly arranged desks. Maybe if the instructor is really interactive he/she will even use power point, a marker board, and set up the desks in a semi-circle. The whole process is focused on one goal: passing on information. If we look at much of our “disciple making” in the modern church, it’s often the Christianized version of an academic approach. I’m not saying that churches should do away with the classroom or curriculum, but I am saying they are supplements to making disciples. They do not in and of themselves make disciples.
For some context bible.org has an informative yet concise article on the relationship between rabbis and disciples in the first century. So as I’ve been looking at the first century rabbi-disciple relationship, how Jesus related to His disciples, and how this applies in our modern context.a few themes or ingredients for effective disciple-making seem to stand out.
- Scriptural Instruction. If we want to make discipels, we must be able to correctly handle the word of God. This requires regularly mining the depths of scripture, recognizing how God’s thoughts and God’s ways differ from ours, allowing the Spirit to transform our minds, and growing in our understanding of scripture’s meaning and application. To instruct others we must first take on the posture of a student, allowing both the Holy Spirit and other qualified leaders to instruct us. It’s difficult to emphasize this enough since most would be disciples in the first century would have memorized the entire Hebrew scriptures by the time of their bar mitzvah (age 13).
- An Open Life. To see how a relationship with Jesus looks and works, disciple-making must happen life on life. The cliche holds true that being a disciple is caught more than taught. This is the essence of Jesus’ simple invitation of follow me and later on the Apostle Paul’schallenge to the Corinthian Christians to follow me as I follow the example of Christ. The first century rabbi-disciple relationship was based on this “continual daily relational living experience.” Disciples by nature had a “deep desire to emulate their rabbi.” If we desire to make disciples, we must be an active presence in others’ lives and invite others into our lives- meaning they get to see how our relationship with Jesus impacts our friendships, marriages, relationships with our kids, work, serving others, trials, temptations, etc.
- Wrestling with Questions. The freedom to ask questions about both meaning and application is vital. This should involve the disciple-maker asking the disciple, the disciple asking the disciple-maker, and the disciples discussing with each other. As I’m typing this, I wonder what you would call a gathering where scripture focused discussion is happening between leaders and multiple disciples. Hint: in the New Testament they called this environment a church. In the first century these rabbi-disciple Q& A interchanges were not simply to gain information but to better understand God’s way or God’s will for how they should conduct their lives. We must never be afraid of questions if they are serving to help someone better understand God’s way.
- Real Life Application. We often dispense information and even discuss application without following through. We should pray through how God wants to apply scripture in our lives, encourage each other to respond in faith, and actually hold each other accountable to take real action steps (faith without action is…). As a well meaning leader I have at times prayed with and encouraged someone I’m discipling but found myself reluctant to hold that person accountable due to not wanting to offend that person. Every time I’ve made this mistake, I’m reminded of this fact: prayer and encouragement without accountability produces weak disciples.
Also, here are a few additional reminders God has brought to my mind:
- Discipleship is a process that often begins pre-conversion.
- Discipleship contains both individual and communal elements.
- All followers of Jesus by definition are disciples and called to make disciples.
- Focusing on making strong disciples makes a strong church- not vice versa.
More thoughts coming soon. I’d love to hear your feedback on this.