Discipleship: Why We Are Getting It All Wrong

My wife and I are missionaries in an Asian country, so we have had to chew on this subject a lot. We hear the word time and time again in our churches, but can we describe it succinctly to someone who would ask us the question: what is discipleship, really?  What does it look like, practically?


We know that discipleship is not only important, but it is commanded for every believer in The Great Commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations” were the famous last words and commandment from Jesus before He ascended back into heaven.

For some reason, though, surprisingly few of us would be able to point to what healthy discipleship is in our own lives. Why is this?

Maybe we should start with the definitions. Lets see what ol’ Merriam has for us.

Definition From Merriam Webster


“One who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another: such as:

aChristianity one of the twelve in the inner circle of Christ’s followers according to the Gospel accounts b: a convinced adherent of a school or individual”

Hmmm. Interesting.

Definition From Dictionary.com


1. Religion

  • one of the 12 personal followers of Christ.
  • one of the 70 followers sent forth by Christ. Luke 10:1.
  • any other professed follower of Christ in His lifetime.

2.  Any follower of Christ.

3. A person who is a pupil or an adherent of the doctrines of another; follower: a disciple of Freud.

Ok so now we know what discipleship is, right?? Not really. Actually, one of the reasons that we have discipleship all wrong is summed up in the first definition: “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another.”

Myth #1: Discipleship means teaching the Bible to someone

Now before you start writing angry comments at the end of the post, let me say this first: (Then you can post the angry comments J) Is Bible teaching a part of disciple making? Of course! But just like a lot of the other lies that we tend to believe about our faith, we are quick to put discipleship into a category and make it a curriculum.

In order to become a disciple, we have to learn the ways of Christ, and that comes through study of the Word.  But then comes the true test…are we able to LIVE as Christ lived?  Are we able to LOVE like Christ loved?  When we are discipling others, are they able to see your example of following Christ?  Are they close enough to you that they can experience Christ’s love flow out to others? 

If your version of “discipling” is meeting with someone once a week and going through the Bible with them, then you are not discipling, you are simply indoctrinating. 

Let’s take a step back and look at the life of Christ with His disciples.  What did discipleship mean to Him?  Did He do His own thing for the week and then Saturday nights go to the local synagogue with them, teach them from the scrolls, and then say “alright, that was great guys…see you next week at the same time!”  I hope you are laughing by now at that scene, because it is ridiculous! 

Jesus lived His life alongside those he discipled. They experienced everything with Him, and they witnessed how He handled each and every situation.  They learned how to read the scriptures, they learned how to communicate with each other, they learned how to pray, they learned how to help the poor, they learned how to be servants, and most importantly, they learned how to love.

Discipleship means living life in close proximity to another, and learning from the experiences that you face together.  We draw on God’s Word to help us through those situations, but the pinnacle of discipleship is the relationship with Christ, not the knowledge from the Book. How do we come in close proximity to others?  Who do you work with?  Who do you volunteer with? Those are most likely the people that can enter into a discipling relationship with you and make it meaningful enough to change a life.

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.  Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.  But whoever loves God is known by God. 1 Corinthians 8:1-3

Myth #2: Churches Make Disciples

In the western world, the center of the problem begins with our culture. Our culture has created a wonderful educational system…and that system has been transferred to educating the Church how to lead the organization that is the Church.  Training seminars, seminary degrees, and conferences teach us how to preach sermons, get people in the doors of the church building, form organizational structures, and how to counsel those who need emotional help.  The problem is that most church leaders (and members) have actually never been trained to make disciples. 

I’m taking a lot of this section from “Building A Discipling Culture,” by David Breen.  Here is one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Here’s the thing that can be difficult to wrap our minds around: If you make disciples, you always get the church.  But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.”

Wow. Take a few moments to chew on that. 

He then goes on to say this:

“Most of us have become quite good at the church thing.  And yet, disciples are the only thing Jesus cares about, and it’s the only number Jesus is counting.”

What do our congregations look like?  As you read through Acts, do you think they would resemble the lives of the believers of that time? Are lives being transformed regularly, or are we too focused on the seats and the offering being filled and making sure that our “disciples” are being nice attendees?

Ok one last quote from the book:

“Effective discipleship builds the church, not the other way around.  We need to understand the church as the effect of discipleship and not the cause.  If you set out to build the church, there is no guarantee that you will make disciples. It is far more likely that you will create consumers who depend on the spiritual services that religious professionals provide.”

But I believe that this is something that we already inherently know, but fail to change.  How many of us are simply consumers instead of fearless disciple makers? How can we change this?

Myth #3: It takes years of discipleship for a pupil to start leading and discipling.

Let me start this off with a question: if you are a church member, how often are you challenged to “go and make disciples?” How many of your churches have ever told you that you can only be a part of your current church for a certain period of time before you are sent out to disciple and lead others?

 If we are being honest, not many of us want to hear these words.  It seems super scary and out of our comfort zones… “I don’t have the gift to be a pastor or teacher or leader in a church,” you may think. You are probably also thinking: “Plus, I need to be here in this comfortable chair for a long time before I am ready to be a disciple maker.”

We have strategically found the people within Christianity that are gifted at speaking, have lots of power, or have the gift of singing, to become the leaders of a large “church.” When we look at this model, there is little room for an individual to become a disciple maker. Instead, we are content to sit in our chairs and let these people put on a show for us every Sunday.  We then go home, eat our lunches, and talk about how good or bad the message was that day.

Let’s now contrast this with the Bible. 

Only a few months after calling His disciples, Jesus sent them out in pairs.  Does this mean that they had crammed their studying and knew all about who Jesus was and the theology that He was spreading throughout the region?  No. They made mistakes and were far from perfect (As we will see later on). No, Jesus didn’t wait until they were “ready,” He sent them out as a part of their training.  Jesus was not worried about making sure that it was easy for them or that they wouldn’t face any trials.  In fact, he promised them that they would face trails.  In Matt. 10:16-22 He said that He was sending them out as sheep among wolves and explained that they would be hated and persecuted.

Jesus sent his disciples out months after He called them on difficult missions that would test them beyond anything they had experienced before. Does this sound like the American church?  I cannot think of many churches that would resemble something similar to this, if not the exact opposite from this.

What if our focus would change from “let’s create nice comfortable cages for people to sit and listen and drink their coffee in,” to “let’s train warriors for the actual battle that is happening right in front of us.”

The training is just that; training.  We were made not only to train but to fight.  We were made to be relentless slaves of Christ.  We were made to leave our comforts and go to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Good News, that is, that Christ is risen!  

After reading all of this, it seems to leave us in a sort of depressing state.  So if this is true, and the models and structures that the west has set up for church is not actually making disciples, then what can we do? 

Remedy #1: Discipleship means doing life together

Who are the people in your life that you see regularly? When I say regularly I mean either daily or for extended periods of time each week.  Often times this means that these people will be fellow coworkers, children, or neighbors that you spend a lot of time with. A good litmus test for this is asking one question: Are they able to see how you handle the difficult situations that life throws at you?  If so, then you are already in a discipling relationship with that person. 

A good example of this is your children.  No matter if you are a Christian or not, you are discipling them.  You are showing them a way of life that you believe in, by your words and by your deeds.  Every parent has values, and they speak those values into their children, and they live out their lives and go through challenges based on these values.  If you are a Christ follower, then you will speak His truths into their lives, and you will model that in how you love others and how you face tough times.  That’s it. 

If we aren’t close enough to anyone around us, if we don’t let them in, then we will never be able to disciple anyone.  The hardest part of discipleship is not transferring knowledge; the hardest part of discipleship is building and maintaining Christ-centered relationships with each other.  The stronger your relationship with Christ is, the easier it will be to maintain Christ-centered relationships with those who you let into your life. 

Remedy #2: Start with Discipleship

I found this image on a very popular blog as I was doing research for this blog post.  His summary sums up the problem with our mindset in the west.  Somehow God starts with a church and then we join in and help… This is exactly how we get to men starting organizations, naming them churches, and then looking for people to come in so that they can disciple them. (Disclaimer: The post itself is actually really good and I agree with all of it, but the heading shows that we are still blinded by our way of doing church.)

How do we keep ourselves from falling into the same old trap of trying to make a church before we make disciples?  Is it possible to separate ourselves from our western Christian culture and instead choose to start with the mandate that we were given to make disciples of all nations?

Maybe one of the ways to start thinking this way is to do away with the thinking that only the “Specially called” should actually make disciples.  When we get caught up in this, we begin to think that if we are starting to become really godly, then we should “do ministry full-time.”

There is nothing that I hate more than those 4 dirty little words.  You are (or at least should be) doing ministry full-time no matter what the doing is; whether that means preaching on Sundays or filling the shelves at your local grocery store.  Those two things are equally ministerial.

This is important: you do not need to leave your job in order to start a church so that you can disciple others (And be paid to do it).  If you are working in a business somewhere, then you have a fantastic opportunity to be discipling people within that business.  God may then take that discipling process and turn into a community of believers that supports and builds each other up (the church).

I’m going to end this section with the same verse that was talked about in the blog post that I mentioned above:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Matthew 16:18

It is our job to make disciples.  It is Christ’s job to build the community of believers. Let’s let Christ do His job and let’s take care of our own.

Remedy #3: Begin with the goal (and the end) in mind

If our goal is to build a church, then we would naturally want it to be as large as possible, showing that it is successful. This would mean that you would want to retain everyone, and make it as inviting and comfortable as possible so that they never leave. 

Is this what we see in Christ or Paul’s life?  Or do we something completely different?

When we take a look at Christ’s life, what we see is a person who plucks specific people out to follow Him.  They learn from His teachings, His experiences, His reactions, and so on for around three years…and then? He’s gone. He leaves everything to them.  The fate of the Good News lies completely on them…or does it? 

The spreading of the Good News IS left to the disciples, but they are also given a helper, The Holy Spirit.  When followers of Christ are sent out, they do not know the Bible perfectly, but then again neither do you.  We are all still human and we will all make mistakes, but one thing is clear: Go!

If we are not sending our disciples out after a specific period of time and challenging them to make disciples of their own, then we are not allowing these brothers and sisters in Christ to fully obey Christ’s command.  It is the job of the disciple maker to give freedom and challenge to leave the comfort of the pew and to go and replicate what you have done for them.

There are no perfect formulas for how or when this happens, but ensure that somehow or some way it does happen. 

Our goal is not to hoard people; it is to send them out.

 Lord please change our hearts and minds to accomplish your will and your commands in our lives. Let us go and make disciples of all nations, and bring your church to our communities and towns.

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