If we are to make disciples in obedience to Christ, we should look to Jesus to learn how to accomplish such a task. He is the master discipler. He showed us how disciple-making is done. It is wise for us to consider and make sure we are learning from him in every way. To evaluate our process, here are two helpful questions:
- What are the guiding principles of disciple-making?
- What is the relational context of disciple-making?
In his classic work, The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman outlines the process our Lord used with his disciples in terms of guiding principles, such as association, demonstration, and delegation. These principles have rightly been used by God to train many in discipling others. If you have not read Coleman’s book, I recommend it as your next read.
The purpose of this post, however, is to look at the second question. Alongside the matter of guiding principles, there remains the question of context. In what relationship setting are we attempting to disciple others? Does the relational context of our discipleship process look like Christ’s?
The Context of Discipleship
For many, the thought of discipling someone brings to mind the idea of a regular one-on-one meeting, perhaps over coffee and books. The plan entails a schedule of personal training objectives. The primary focus is on personal spiritual disciplines. While the church is a topic to be discussed, it is just one “book on the shelf” among other emphases. The primary context of the discipleship process is a single relationship with individual personal goals. What often stands out as a strength with those who use this approach is the level of intentionality and a definite plan for the individual’s future.
A better approach is to combine this same level of intentionality and plan with a group context, with that of the community of faith. When the church is the context, the intentional discipler includes the disciples in a whole network of relationships in the church, ideally from the very beginning, before they even begin to follow Christ. Even as they are discovering what it means to be a Christian, they are seeing baptisms and the Lord’s supper, they are experiencing prayers in a group setting, they are observing worship together and they are hearing about people serving alongside each other in various ways. The discipler is still just as intentional, and may still seek out one-on-one time, but instead of life in the church being just one training topic among many, it is the overarching setting for the Christian life. As the disciple begins to grow in faith, this community-of-faith context is the primary life setting for them as they reach milestones of growth.
Note the differences between the two approaches. The first is an individualistic approach that encourages group life, and the second is a group life approach that encourages the individual. The first approach sees church life as a part of individual devotion to Christ, and the second sees individual devotion to Christ as a part of church life. They are aimed at the same Christian life, but they are coming at it from different angles.
Learning from Jesus and his disciples
Which of these better represents the process of Jesus with his disciples? Did Jesus use an individualistic approach? When we think about the calling of the disciples, the recorded dialogues with them, the settings of teaching and ministry, the travels, the meals, and the commissioning of his disciples, the answer becomes clear: Jesus used a group approach. He was not simply showing them how to live for him as individuals; he was showing them how to live for him together.
This is not to say that Jesus did not think about each and every one of his disciples, that he never had moments alone with them individually (though those are hard to find in the gospels), or that he treated them all as if they had the same personality, strengths and weakness. The gospels, especially John, contain statements or questions that Jesus directs to one specific disciple, though almost always in a group setting with the others (for examples see John 1:42, 6:5-6, 13:8-10, 25-26, 36-38, 14:8-10, 18:11, 19:27, 20:26, 21:15-19). Jesus knew how to stretch and shape each of his men. Even as he cared for them individually, Jesus’ chosen context for the tailored discipleship of his men was the group context of life shared together.
What about the work of those disciples after Jesus ascended? What approach did they use? We find throughout the rest of the New Testament a culture of prayer together, shared witness, and one-another life. It is the story of the early churches. The most famous discipleship pair, Paul and Timothy, co-authored letters that are filled with life-together guidance for the community of faith. The two epistles named for Timothy are letters for him as a pastor, full of admonitions for the whole community. Life together in the church is the flavor of the New Testament.
Getting a head start
Once we realize that church context discipleship is biblical, that is really all we need to settle the question. Even so, it is worthwhile to point out several ways in which we see the benefits of the wisdom of God in this matter.
One of the key benefits of church context discipleship has to do with sequence. The individualistic process for a disciple is often in the following order:
Step 1: Understand the need for Christ
Step 2: Hear about and understand baptism
Step 3: Understand the need for Christian community, etc.
When the church is the context for discipleship, however, these things happen somewhat simultaneously. This is because there is an intentional networking with the community of faith as soon as possible, typically before conversion. Often, at the moment of trusting in Christ, the brand-new believer already understands baptism because they have seen it practiced and have heard it taught. They already have an understanding of Christian community because they have been tasting it, in a pre-conversion sense. They do not need to be introduced to the church, because they already are. They have a head start on so much of what they need to thrive as new believers in Christ.
Amplified Encouragement and Challenge
Another benefit is the encouragement and challenge that happens in a group setting. This has important implications for the disciple-making process both before and after conversion. We think about our own development, and of all the people God used along the way in our story. Most of us did not come to faith in Christ after hearing the gospel from just one person, but after experiencing what I call the amplified witness of multiple Christians showing life for Jesus and speaking of him. The witness of Christ consisted not only of how people treated us, but also how believers treated each other. This points to the value of introducing people to a network of believers, the community of faith, as early as possible in our relationship with them.
This benefit from a community of believers continues after conversion. Most of us have learned not only from an older intentional teacher, but also from fellow younger believers. God even uses brand new believers to encourage us and to remind us about faith and zeal. Seeing brothers and sisters going through various life experiences while clinging to faith in Jesus encourages our own faith. God has used influences from many within the church in our own lives, and church context discipleship intentionally sets up the disciple we are investing in to benefit in the same way.
One of the biggest benefits concerns the question of the future. We are all constantly preparing disciples for their next chapter in life. People graduate schools, they get job transfers, they move for other reasons. We have no guarantee that they will have reached a certain level of maturity before that happens. Will they thrive once they are no longer with us?
If their primary context is a one-on-one discipleship relationship with us, we face the challenge of our limited help from a distance and the serious question of whether or not they will find a similar discipleship relationship with someone in their new setting. If we have our people becoming grounded in personal spiritual disciplines, but yet they are not yet successfully seeking out a good church community, those disciplines will suffer in isolation.
If, however, their primary context has been a community of faith, and we have set them up to instinctively think of the Christian life as an experience together, they will be prepared to immediately begin a search for a Christian community in their new setting. Even if they are not yet fully grounded in personal spiritual disciplines, they will be experiencing shared witness, shared prayer, shared learning from God’s word, and an environment of faith that will support them in their personal life for Jesus as well.
The Wisdom of God
There are more benefits we could list than these, but these serve to demonstrate what we already know – that God knows discipleship better than we do. Though as Americans, we have a tendency toward individualism, and we therefore gravitate toward individual training aimed at individual growth, individual testimony, individual evangelism, and individual prayer life, we will do better at nourishing total faith at all levels when we, like Christ, go about discipling others in the primary relationship context of life together.