What Is a Disciple?
Dallas Willard is famous for saying that every church that seeks to be faithful to its calling must ask two questions: 1) What is our plan for making disciples of Jesus? and 2) Is it working?
When we talk with pastors about what their plan is for making disciples, we often hear them describe it in terms of programs:
- “We have a six-week on-ramping course for new believers that gets them up to speed on what a new believer needs to know.”
- “We have a ton of book studies, Sunday school classes, and teaching environments where people can learn more about the Bible.”
- “We have weekly discussions about the sermon in our small groups.”
- “We have an assimilation process that moves people from sitting in the seats each week to serving at our church.”
There’s nothing wrong with programs, of course, but running programs isn’t necessarily the same thing as having an effective plan for making disciples of Jesus.
Unless we know what discipleship is, we won’t know if our plan is working. We run the risk of assuming that a disciple is simply someone who completes the program.
To know whether or not our plan for discipleship is working, it’s vital to answer a prior question: What is discipleship?
From a biblical perspective, a disciple is a learner (mathetes in Greek), someone who is committed to being with a “master” (rabbi) in order to learn from them and take on their entire way of being.
First-century Jews had an expression they used to describe a disciple who followed their teacher closely: they were “covered in the dust” of their rabbi. Disciples are “apprentices” of a master, learning to do what the master knows how to do.
If Jesus is our rabbi, our “master”, what is it that he knows how to do? What is he “good at” that we learn from him? Jesus knows how to live abundantly in God’s kingdom. Jesus shows us what it looks like for a human to live in constant, loving communion and openness with God and others. Jesus lives his human life entirely rooted in the love of God.
What is discipleship to Jesus, then? It is to commit oneself to being with Jesus to learn from Jesus how to be like Jesus in every aspect of one’s life. Discipleship to Jesus is learning to be at home in God’s love and to allow that love to radiate from our lives to everyone we encounter.
Thus, as Willard noted, being a disciple of Jesus is “not a matter of special ‘religious’ activities, but an orientation and quality of my entire existence.”
What It Means to Be a Disciple
We won’t know if our discipleship plan is working unless we have a clear picture of what changes we should expect in someone’s life when they commit to following Jesus. What would it mean for someone to become more like Jesus in every aspect of their life? What would that transformation look like?
There’s no definitive list of characteristics of a disciple, and we would encourage every church to look at the Scriptures and church history to craft their own description of a fully-formed disciple of Jesus, both in terms of character qualities and competencies.
But some of what we might expect to see in the life of a disciple would be:
- The fruit of the Spirit becoming more and more habitual and characteristic in one’s life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23)
- God’s love and power increasingly flowing through one’s life (2 Pet 1:3-4)
- An increasing sense of being “at home” in God’s love ( John 15:1-8)
- Reactive attitudes and behaviors that harm others steadily falling away, and one’s capacity to contribute to the good of others growing (Col 3:1-17, Eph 4:1-6)
- Love for others and even enemies increasing (Matt 5:43-48)
- Patience and endurance in the face of suffering (Rom 12:9-21)
We could also add emotional health and self-awareness, which increases our capacity to love others. What else would you add?
Discipleship in the Bible
But how does one grow in these capacities of a disciple? Discipleship relationships in the New Testament give us a few clues, especially the way that the early church practiced discipleship.
- The apostle Paul spoke often in his letters about how he and his missionary companions didn’t just share information with those they preached the gospel to. They shared their lives (1 Thess 2:8).
- Paul wasn’t just a tutor passing along knowledge to students; he was a spiritual father passing on a way of life (1 Cor 4:14-17).
- Paul urged people in the churches he planted not just to listen to his words, but to imitate his way of life (e.g. 1 Cor 11:1).
Discipleship Is Inherently Relational
It’s the same today: discipleship can never be reduced to running a program or sermon series. It isn’t a matter of conveying the information or incentivizing behavior.
Programs don’t automatically make disciples. Groups don’t automatically make disciples. Techniques don’t make disciples. Methods don’t make disciples. You can’t automate discipleship.
People make disciples. Disciples make disciples. Discipleship is inherently about real life relationships in the everyday normalities of life, not just the rarified atmosphere of church services and programs.
Nothing can ever replace the actual training of people, in wisdom and love, to become more like Jesus in character and competence. Every church needs wise, adaptive leaders who are full of love for those they’re discipling.
Because although none of us ever get a perfect example, we all need a living example of what life in Christ looks like.
Grounding your disciple-making efforts in this deeper place, in who you are becoming, is what we spend 12 months training leaders to do in our coaching. Your leadership can never really become transformational until you find the center of your leadership in your life with God.
What Are the Benefits of Discipleship?
Talking about “benefits” might seem like an awkward way of talking about discipleship, but in our work with leaders, we’ve noticed that many churches dive straight into a plan for discipleship without considering why anyone would want to become a disciple of Jesus.
Discipleship should be the obvious way to say “yes” to the good news of the gospel, but the gospel most churches preach doesn’t naturally lead to discipleship, because usually it’s focused on “going to heaven when you die.” This sounds more like an insurance policy than good news for today.
The truth is that the gospel is so much more than a post-mortem insurance policy! The gospel Jesus preached (the “gospel of the kingdom”) sounded more like this:
You can participate right now in the life God shares with us. You can join in with what God is doing in and around you. Abundant life in God’s kingdom is available to you now. You can start immediately by trusting me.
Saying “yes” to this gospel naturally leads to discipleship, because Jesus is the one who knows how to live in God’s kingdom. Who else would we learn it from? How else would we learn to participate in the life God shares with us?
The “benefits” of discipleship, then, are myriad! Who wouldn’t want to join a community of people learning together to allow God’s life and love to flow through them to each other and the world around them?
That kind of love is transformative for people, and disruptive to oppressive powers that seek to isolate and exploit. Discipleship in this way can change the world.
It’s like treasure hidden in a field: when someone finds it, they hide it again, and in their joy go and sell all they have and buy the field (Matt 13:44). The prize of discipleship is more than worth the price of discipleship, in other words.
With all this in mind, how can leaders begin to craft a discipleship plan that actually works?
Join a Discipleship Group
Because discipleship is inherently relational, it can never be something that leaders outsource. For this reason, it’s vital for any leader wanting to develop a discipleship plan to actually experience a discipleship group for themselves.
Our Gravity Leadership Academy coaching functions as this kind of discipleship group for leaders. Over the course of 12 months, you learn how to discern God’s activity in and around you, as well as opening space for others to do so as well.
Find a Discipleship Program or Workshop
It’s also often helpful to host a discipleship workshop for your church. A structured learning environment that everyone experiences together can be a generative catalyst for further development and growth.
Gravity offers a discipleship workshop called Follow the Way, where we focus on the missing ingredient in most discipleship plans.
It’s not just gaining knowledge and modifying behavior; discipleship must reach into our desires if it’s going to be discipleship in the way of Jesus. In our Follow the Way workshop, we teach you how to create discipleship environments that do this.
Create a Discipleship Curriculum at Your Church
All by themselves, knowledge and behavior are insufficient for a good discipleship plan, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant or optional! There are some knowledge “basics” that every Christian should learn in their journey of discipleship.
Throughout church history, these have been encapsulated in “catechisms” that outline the basic doctrines of the faith, usually in question-and-answer form. Traditionally, the Apostles’ Creed is used to teach on Christian doctrine, the Lord’s Prayer is used to teach on Christian spirituality, and the Ten Commandments is used to teach on Christian ethics. (We recommend substituting the Sermon on the Mount for Christian ethics.)
However you choose to do it, we encourage church leaders to have some kind of discipleship curriculum that teaches the basics of the Christian faith as part of their overall plan for making disciples.
Seek Out Additional Resources for the Journey
There are lots of discipleship resources out there, some good, some not so good. Here are a few we recommend:
- Our forthcoming book Having the Mind of Christ: Eight Axioms For Cultivating a Robust Faith by Ben Sternke and Matt Tebbe (you can preorder now!)
- The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard
- Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World by Lee C. Camp
- Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians by Lee C. Camp
- You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
Podcasts about Discipleship
Here are some podcast episodes on various aspects of discipleship:
- Becky Castle Miller on the Role of Emotions in Christian Discipleship
- How to Disciple People With Trauma with Heather Davediuk Gingrich
- Keeping Discipleship Simple with Derek Vreeland
- David Gushee: Christian Ethics in a Pluralistic World
- Curt Thompson: How Naming Desire Leads to Transformation
- Mark Scandrette: The Beatitudes For Today
- Andrew Arndt: Learning to Live in the Trinity With the Ancient Church
It’s vital not just to learn about discipleship, but to journey with others in discipleship. Joining a community of people committed to learning from Jesus how to be like Jesus will help Christians stay connected and learn from each other.
Joining a Gravity Leadership Academy cohort is a “deep dive” way of joining a discipleship community, but if that isn’t in the cards for you right now, consider joining the Gravity Commons, our online membership community for Christians who want to stay connected and learn together how to follow Jesus in today’s turbulent times.
Articles about Discipleship
For further learning, here are a few of our articles about discipleship:
- Why the Cost of Discipleship is Lower Than You Think
- Why Passion Isn’t Enough For Discipleship
- The Missing Ingredient in Discipleship (video)
- Let’s Break the Cycle of Non-Discipleship in the Church
- Why Would Anyone Want to Be a Disciple of Jesus?
- The One Question Every Disciple of Jesus Must Answer
- The Dangerous Hidden Power Dynamics of Discipleship
- Why Compassionate Curiosity is Vital For Discipleship
- Discipleship is Not Replication, Development is Not Cloning
- What to Do With Negative Emotions In Discipleship
- What To Do With Desire in Discipleship
- 3 Lessons CrossFit is Teaching Me About Discipleship
- We Need a New Imagination For How to DO Discipleship
- How Down Syndrome Is Teaching Me About Discipleship
- Why You Can’t Make Disciples
- Groups Don’t Make Disciples, Disciples Make Disciples
- Why Discipleship is Best Done In Groups (Not One-on-One)