What & How of Discipleship

Discipleship. A big word with a lot of ambiguity and misconceptions.


Technically speaking, discipleship means “to be a learner.” It’s what a disciple does. A disciple is a follower or student of a teacher, leader or philosopher. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand how and why Jesus used the term in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. Unfortunately in our world, the term has lost the clarity and power it carried when Jesus used it, contributing to a crisis of hope and lack of transformation in the church today.


Discipleship is not about a small group. It’s not about accountability. It’s about learning from Jesus. And, as a word used today only in the religious context (with a heavy cult affiliation) that alone should merit it being tossed out. If you can’t take your language and drop it into a bar or the subway and have it be understood without translation, you’re speaking the wrong language.


So let’s talk about being an apprentice because that is a word most can understand and relate to in today’s society…outside of the church as much as inside it.


An apprentice is someone learning a trade from another, usually, from a master. He's learning to do his job from someone who does it extraordinarily well. Jesus is our Master Teacher in the school of life.


As an apprentice of Jesus, I am learning from the Master how to live my life as he would, if he were I.

It’s really that simple. Think of the way Jesus lived – his character, the way he interacted with others, walking through life with grace, integrity, strength… there’s so much good to describe.


If you had only one word to describe Jesus, may I suggest the term, “relaxed.” Not in a couch-potato type of way obviously, but rather in an abundant life type of way…completely relaxed and resting in his understanding of who God is, who he was, and what he was there to do. He knew his purpose and his identity and of course manifested the fruit of the Spirit as detailed in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I could go on forever, but you get the idea. And guess what – that beautiful life can be ours, too, now. Yes, really.


(Still unclear on what that might look like? Don’t think we really have the hope or expectation of transformation to Christlikeness? Check out this post, on the life that an apprentice of Jesus lives or this one on why so many mean Christians.)


We can learn to live our lives as he would if he were us. But we can only do this if we see him as Master Teacher in addition to Savior. The 90’s phrase, “what would Jesus do?” comes to mind here, however, it is much, much more than that. It’s not simply acting as Jesus would on the spot….that doesn’t work and is a recipe for legalism, frustration and heartache.


Instead, it’s about change, at the heart level.


If I’m going to learn from Jesus how to live my life as he would, if he was me, I have to become the type of person who easily and routinely lives as Jesus modeled and taught.

And yes, I said “easily.”


As we pursue transformation into Christlikeness, we discover that it actually becomes hard to NOT respond as Jesus would.


Feels like a stretch, huh? Don’t worry. It doesn’t happen overnight (have you ever considered how long it takes fruit to grow? It's not a fast process!) Also, fortunately, it’s not on us to force the transformation. But we do have a role to play…he’s not going to just zap us into Jesus Junior.


Walking With God


The first priority as we chase this character transformation is our daily, intimate, conversational walk with God. We must be continually walking with and yielding to Holy Spirit who's living within us.


We’ve discussed this in other posts so if this concept is murky for you, please take some time to study these: Enough with the Sin Talk Already; Jesus Return: Will You Know Him?; What is Salvation?; The Transformation Triangle; WHY My Hope is In Jesus. Romans 8 and Galatians 5 are also incredibly helpful in the area of living in step with Holy Spirit.


Training and Disciplines


The second priority is training. In training, we partner with Jesus by engaging in various disciplines. Yes, another word with a commonly negative connotation, but Dallas Willard defines it well: a discipline is simply any activity within our power, that we can do, that then enables us to do what we cannot otherwise do by direct effort. For example, today I couldn’t go out and immediately run a half marathon. But if I train for it, eventually I will be able to do so.


A discipline is any activity within our power, that we can do, that then enables us to do what we cannot otherwise do by direct effort.

By engaging in key disciplines we retrain our mind and body, creating new habits, new ways of thinking, and we make the space to allow Jesus to transform our heart.


To dive deeper into this, you may want to read Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines or Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline – both are excellent. You’ll find that there are a number of disciplines, and they aren’t all for everyone. You have to find what works for you…disciplines are wisdom, not righteousness, as Willard says. And with all disciplines, he says, we should approach them in a prayerful, experimental attitude, confident that we’ll be led into the right use for us.


That said, following are a few disciplines that, from all that I’ve studied and experienced, seem to produce the greatest impact. I’ll summarize them briefly here, and go into more detail in another time.


Disciplines to Train With


  • Solitude is the most fundamental discipline, and an obvious one to start with as we see it practiced by Jesus frequently. Read the New Testament and notice how many times he seeks out solitary places so he can be alone with God. If Jesus, although fully human still indeed fully God, needed to seek time alone with the Father often, how much more so must we do the same!

  • Silence sometimes involves the absence of speech, but always involves the act of listening. In today’s world, we are very busy and very distracted, inundated by noise. Yet for the most part, God will not shout at us…just like any friend, he wants us to seek him out. Only silence allows us life-transforming concentration upon God and trains us to better hear him.

  • Prayer is quite simply, talking with God about what we are doing together. We must train our mind to keep God constantly before us, centering our mind on him always, like a needle always points back to north.

  • Scripture Memorization – Willard makes the astonishing claim that memorizing passages of Scripture is more important than daily quiet time…because then, any time can be quiet time. This is how you allow “the words of Christ to grow in you richly” (Colossians 3) and how Jesus’ “words live powerfully in you” (John 15). There is more literal truth here than we realize.

  • Fasting is the willful refrainment from eating for a period of time. It is not giving up something that controls you, although that is a good discipline, and it is not about trying to get God to do what we want. Actual Biblical fasting…is fascinating.

Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God’s word to us is a life substance, that it is not food (“bread”) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).

That's from Spirit of the Disciplines, and the two pages on fasting in that book absolutely justify buying the entire book. Although, Foster's book actually goes into more depth on the topic...I’ll have to write more about fasting later! It’s amazing. You abstain from eating, instead consuming God’s word and conversing with him…and indeed, it is feasting on God. The whole supernatural energy thing is for real.

There are many more disciplines of both abstinence and engagement explained in the books, but the ones above are an excellent place to start. I have personally found them to be incredibly rewarding and transformative.


But again, because the wrong approach to these disciplines results in deadly, ineffective legalism, let’s close with what Foster says:


The life that is pleasing to God is not a series of religious duties. We have only one thing to do, namely, to experience a life of intimacy and relationship with God.

I encourage you to start exploring a few of the disciplines! Take advantage of little moments of solitude throughout your day, and move into intentional moments as well. Treasure your moments of silence and use them to recenter your thoughts on God. Choose a passage of Scripture to meditate upon daily...and then take on the challenge of actually memorizing it as well. You'll be so surprised at what you can do, and what it does for you. (John 15:1-15, Psalm 23, The Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6, or Colossians 3:1-17 are good places to start).


May you walk and talk with Jesus daily, experiencing a dramatic change in your heart as you partner with him, and discover the abundant life and easy yoke he offers us.