Defining discipleship can be difficult. At times, I feel like jazz great Duke Ellington, who was asked for a definition of rhythm. “If you got it, you don’t need no definition,” he responded. “And, if you don’t got it, ain’t no definition gonna help!”
Most of us in youth ministry have a tacit understanding of what we want our students to know/believe/experience/do before they leave our ministry; but many leaders lack a clear definition of discipleship, and this lack of clarity may hinder efforts to guide students toward being full-blown disciples of Christ.
The Bible tells us about three key aspects of this important topic:
• Dimensions of Discipleship (What knowledge, experience and relationships are essential?)
• The Process of Discipleship (How does one become a disciple?)
• The Marks of a Disciple? (What is the nature Christ-likeness, and what curriculum can we use to teach this?)
In reality, most of us emphasize one dimension of discipleship more than the others. Some of us default to the practices that helped us grow. Perhaps taking a serious look at the subject will help us be more theological and intentional in our approaches.
The Four Dimensions of Discipleship
This two-dimensional approach is superior to the one-dimensional “Jesus-and-me” approach promoted by some leaders. Although the vertical dimension is critically important, no one can grow as a disciple of Christ in isolation.
Still, I don’t think the two-dimensional model goes far enough in describing the multi-dimensional reality of human experience. I prefer a four-sided approach modeled on the pyramid, which has three visible sides and a base. I use the pyramid model to illustrate the following four dimensions of discipleship.
A) Belief—This is the cognitive side of making a disciple. What are the core beliefs students need to know to provide them with a biblical foundation? Teaching and rehearsing these foundational truths is a critically important dimension of discipleship.
B) Relationship—Accountability comes with relationship. Fruit of the Spirit is exhibited in community. In
C) Conviction—This backside of the pyramid may be unobservable at times, although vital to discipleship. This is the passion that drives our obedience. Without it, students are simply duty-driven in following Christ. Paul speaks of this dimension of discipleship in
Here are three concepts you need to understand. Orthodoxy means I know the right things. Orthopraxy means I do the right things. Orthopathos means I have right passion and conviction to motivate me. If we ignore this attitudinal dimension (as difficult as it is to observe or measure), our discipleship endeavor is simply the dead obedience of legalism.
D) Mystery—This fourth dimension of discipleship is the hidden base of the entire pyramid. Though often overlooked, the role of the Holy Spirit in discipleship is an essential dimension that we cannot orchestrate, manipulate or control.
How often have you planned a discipleship event that seemingly fails to produce any fruit? Then later, at a time and place when you least expect it, God decides to move in and students are profoundly changed. We plan, plant and water, but growth and sanctification are under God’s control (
The Path and Pace of Discipleship
God has wired each of us differently; although we might embrace this conceptually, we don’t always acknowledge it practically when we disciple students. Each of us experiences God differently; and the rhythm and pace of our growth will vary, as well.
In his book Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas identifies nine paths of spiritual formation. The naturalist grows closer to God while summiting a 14,000-foot peak in the Rockies or looking in awe at a spectacularly starry night. The intellectual finds God most profoundly in the pages of the Bible and books of theology. The enthusiasts encounter God when they participate in full-throttle, unashamed worship. The ascetic finds spiritual growth in the places of quiet solitude with God.
Students who may experience nothing while having their “quiet time” may be profoundly deepened in their relationship with Christ while actively helping the poor or building a home for the homeless. One size does not fit all.
One of the most common and costly mistakes made by youth leaders while discipling students is the assumption that their students will encounter God most profoundly in the same way the leaders themselves did.
Part of the cure is to accept the idea that God has wired students differently. The other part is to identify how our students are wired and lean into their lives appropriately. Youth ministries that focus on a single type of spiritual path will frustrate the discipleship of those who need other paths.
The New Testament depicts the disciples’ variety of pathways and pacing.
The Apostle Paul was biblically accurate and theologically sound. He was well-trained and wrote letters filled with deep truth and instruction. Maybe you have some students in your group who find spiritual growth through profound study of God’s Word. How should you disciple them?
Thomas seemed to experience God most profoundly when he could see, touch and speak with Him. Although some of us have been a bit skeptical and suspicious of our senses, there are those such as Thomas who find in them an important part of their spiritual growth. Henri Nouwen sat in front of Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal” for days, visually learning the detailed story the painting told. I’m too ADHD to spend three hours staring at a painting. However, music, strong visual presentations and experiences such as touching the roughness of a cross may be exactly the way some of your students find deep, significant, spiritual insight. How would you disciple a sensate such as Thomas?
Peter was emotional and impetuous. He had a short fuse. He hacked off ears and blurted out statements that came back to bite him. It seemed Jesus had to repeat things to Peter a few times before they stuck. He tended to act and then think. I anticipate if we had Peter in our worship service, he would be jumping on chairs or on his knees. Yet, he seemed to grow most deeply when he was actively engaged with Christ. Peter wept bitterly when he realized how he had hurt Christ, and ultimately he died a martyr’s death. How would you disciple an enthusiast such as Peter?
Marks of a Disciple
If our goal in youth ministry is to graduate fully devoted followers of Christ, then describe what it means to be such a follower. I am amazed by the quizzical looks and the pushback I receive when I have that conversation with youth leaders. Some resist creating lists of behaviors, fearing the rigidity of legalism. Others create a vague, fuzzy picture of some uber-spiritual creature that sounds wonderful but unrealistic.
I believe most leaders never have articulated a clear description of a discipled student. When students graduate from your ministry, how will they be defined? What is your curriculum for Christ-likeness? If you don’t have a clear understanding of where we want them to be when they leave our ministry, they will have a difficult time knowing what is expected. Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it.
Sometimes we better grasp a concept by understanding its opposite. In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard includes a chapter titled “Curriculum for Christlikeness” in which he describes what this curriculum is not:
It is not simply external conformity.
It is not special experiences.
It is not faithfulness to the church or a profession of perfectly held doctrine.
When I have asked students in my courses at Denver Seminary to begin writing a definition of a fully devoted follower of Christ, their descriptions include the Fruit of the Spirit (
Let me challenge you to do a similar exercise. Create your best definition of discipleship, keeping your “finger in the Text” and resisting the press of political correctness, as well as cultural relevance.
New Testament Models of Discipleship: Paul and Jesus
Explore with me the words Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica and the words of Jesus as He defines those who would be His disciples.
First, Paul cites his perseverance under great persecution (
Second, Paul is pure in his motives and his statements (
Third, he is a God-pleaser not a man-pleaser (
Fourth, Paul was a giver, not a taker (
Fifth, Paul claims to have lived a blameless life before a watching world (
In these two passages, Jesus describes those who follow Him:
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple” (
“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be my disciple” (
Following Christ requires dying to our agenda and comfort. As Bonhoeffer suggests, when Jesus calls us, He bids us come and die.
Finally, Jesus says, “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be My disciple” (
A fully devoted follower of Christ surrenders everything to Christ. As we pray the Lord’s Prayer and we get to, “Thy Kingdom come,” we must first pray, “My kingdom, go!” We cannot be fully devoted until we have fully surrendered our agenda, our life, our rights and our expectations.
The dimensions of discipleship, the path and pace of discipleship, and the marks of discipleship provide a solid foundation on which we can discuss methodology. Without that foundation, our discipleship endeavor will be susceptible to fads and formulas that may provide immediate but unsustainable growth.
For further reading:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal
Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways
Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy