Part 3: Defining Discipleship


By: Justin Anderson

Welcome to part three of our blog series, “Building a Discipleship Culture.” The first two blogs covered the basics of what a discipleship culture might look like and the challenges that you’ll face if you decide to walk down this path. I hope we are all properly sobered but ready to forge ahead. There is literally nothing we can do that is more important than discipling our people. I believe that the only way to make disciples is to build a robust eco-system or culture of discipleship that seeps into everything you do as a church.

Building that culture requires us to have a clear definition of what discipleship is.

This is harder than it seems. At first glance, defining discipleship should be easy, but stop now and try to do it. Keep in mind that in order to define discipleship in a way that people can both understand and execute is the key to building the culture you want. Your definition has to be clear and relatively easy to understand. But it also must include a call to action, a way for people to engage it on a daily basis.

Simply saying that discipleship is “following Jesus” or being “an apprentice to Jesus” is simple, but it's not clear what a person would actually be doing. Conversely, laying out a definition that only outlines the action but not the end or big picture can easily become programmatic, legalistic, and mechanistic. So a definition like, “discipleship is going to these classes” or “going through our discipleship process” won’t work. It makes the means into the ends, or the tools into the product itself.

You should work with your team to define discipleship in a way that is consistent with your convictions as well as describes the process you intend to take people through. A definition that I have used in the past is, “Discipleship is knowing, loving, and being like Jesus.” This isn’t perfect by any means but you can steal it if you want.

There are a few things I like about this definition.

First, it makes it really clear that discipleship is about Jesus, not a program, or even a set of beliefs or behaviors.

Second, it engages the head, the heart, and the hands of a person. Whole person discipleship should engage the whole person.

Third, it lays out expectations for the kinds of things our discipleship process will move you towards. You know that you will be learning things about Jesus, that your heart will be engaged in love for Jesus, and that you will be expected to commit to behavior change. It lays out the stakes clearly.

Fourth, the actions required are implied. I know that I’m going to read books or listen to podcasts, I know that I will likely be put in a situation where I have to be vulnerable and honest about what I love, and I know that I will have to change some habits in my life to better reflect the way of Jesus.

Fifth, for the church, this definition also lays out a clean framework for how we are going to do discipleship. It defines the structure in a way that reinforces the definition itself. My definition means that my discipleship process will have three parts: learning modules, loving modules (heart and affections oriented) and action modules (focused on ethics and spiritual disciplines). The structure itself reiterates the definition and vice versa.

Sixth, and finally, it defines how we will measure progress.

If you think defining discipleship is hard, just try to measure it. What does progress in discipleship look like? How do you measure maturity? Is it through Biblical and Theological knowledge? Partly, but all of us know a theologically astute jerk. Is he mature? Or how about the caring and sacrificial woman who doesn’t believe in the resurrection? Is she mature? What about the educated, pious, cold-hearted woman? Is she mature?

The truth is that there isn’t one measure of maturity. There are multiple vectors, and a disciple should be growing along all of them. How to measure those things is a topic for another blog, but when you are building your definition, try to include measurement as a part of it.

Why am I dedicating an entire blog to a definition of discipleship? I hope by now you can see that your definition of discipleship can and should carry a lot of weight. You should not only clearly define the purpose of your work but also the process, expectations, structure, and means by which you will measure it. That’s a lot!

So again, my definition is not God’s will for you, so feel free to disregard it or steal it as you desire. But having a clear definition of what you are setting out to build is Step 1 in creating a discipleship culture.