How Disciples are Made Today

“Discipleship” is rapidly becoming one of those irritating buzz-words, like missional, inclusive, and green, guaranteed to get people asking with a certain edge in their voice, “But what exactly do you mean by that?”

In the case of discipleship, at least we can blame Jesus. His Great Commission is often cited as justification for our interest in the topic.  And as you might expect, Jesus sheds some light on what we mean by the word. After all, Jesus had twelve disciples.

Disciple simply means learner or student. In our world, however, “student” too easily conjures up images of (generally) young people sitting in rows taking notes on a lecture. You may know the old definition of a lecture: the means by which the professor’s notes become the student’s notes without passing through the minds of either. Certainly Jesus gave lectures (think Sermon on the Mount—though I rather doubt the twelve took notes, and I’m quite sure their minds were engaged) but that wasn’t his main teaching technique.

What the disciples experienced was closer to what we would call an apprenticeship.

I was preaching about this in my own home church not long ago. I invited my friend Ken to\"\" come up from the congregation so that I could interview him. Ken is an electrician. The interview really only had one question: “So, Ken, how did you learn to be an electrician?” The answer was, “Well, on Mondays, we went to class and were instructed in the theory of electronics. Then, from Tuesday to Friday, we were out on the job with a master electrician, learning in a hands-on kind of way how to be electricians.”

Bingo. There was the parallel with how Jesus taught his disciples. Yes, there was talking, but there was also action, and the two were integrated.  And the end product was not an expert on the theory of electronics, but someone who was a competent professional electrician.

When Jesus, after three years of putting the twelve through a rigorous apprenticeship, says, “Go, make disciples,” he presumably meant, “Go and put others through the same kind of training process that you had.” And what was the end-product of that process? People who (to some extent at least) understood the meaning of the Kingdom, and had some experience of living and practicing the ways of the Kingdom, under the tutelage of Jesus. Not that they were perfect, but that was one of the very lessons they were supposed to have learned: the Kingdom is for those who understand their own weakness.

What does all this say about discipleship today? In one sense, nothing has changed: the heart of discipleship is still being an apprentice of Jesus Christ, learning from him how to live the ways of his Kingdom. But, of course, in another sense, everything has changed: we cannot follow him around the hills of Galilee and watch him at work.

So how do we learn to be his apprentices today?

One way is through community. There are no “lone ranger” disciples. We need one another—to challenge, to encourage, to teach and (basically) to love each other in the ways of the Kingdom. But the primary purpose of the community is not to help me. In fact, it is the other way round: since the Kingdom is essentially a new kind of community, God calls me to be a part of the community. The community is the end, not the means to an end.

Secondly, we cannot do without the Bible. Why? Because the Bible is the story of God at work in the world, shaping people in the ways of the Kingdom for thousands of years before we ever came along. We read of their successes (a few), their failures (many), and their wrestling with God. Jesus’ original disciples would have known these stories well. They formed the background against which the twelve understood his ministry. Today we cannot take that for granted. There are many other powerful stories all around us that compete for our loyalty—stories of self-fulfilment, stories of playing it safe, stories of how to be powerful—and we need to be reminded daily of what story we truly belong to.

Next, prayer and worship form us in our discipleship. In worship, we celebrate God and God’s renewing, redeeming, restoring work in the world—of which we are privileged to be a part. In worship, we hear again the stories of our Teacher, we remind ourselves of the big story (and what is the creed if not a point-form summary of it?), and we confess where we have failed in our apprenticeship. Every single time we are given a fresh start. And then, at the climax of worship, we come to Jesus’ table to be refreshed and renewed by the sacrament. Finally, we are sent back out “to love and serve the Lord” in his mission in the world. Worship and discipleship are intimately connected.

Obedience is the fourth and sometimes toughest element. Obedience has a bad rap in our world: it smacks too much of authoritarianism and loss of personal freedom. Yet we are all obedient every day, and hardly notice it. We obey traffic signals, the exhortations of our personal trainer, the directions on the medicine bottle. Why? Because we know these things are good for us, and they have become habitual.

Being an apprentice of Jesus means obeying Jesus. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” If Ken had not obeyed the directions of the master electrician he would never have become an electrician. We will never be shaped by the values of the Kingdom unless we learn that same kind of costly obedience: love your enemies, forgive seventy times seven times, go the second mile, care for the poor.

Every one of these instructions requires a conscious, deliberate choice to obey—often the opposite of the choice we would naturally make. And it hurts—just like a new exercise at the gym hurts—until it becomes second nature to us. But the ways of the Kingdom, which in general are not natural to us, need to become precisely that—second nature to us. Developing that second nature is what the forming is all about,

Those then are core elements of discipleship—community, scripture, worship and obedience.

But there is another—and it is somewhat different. William Temple, once Archbishop of Canterbury, said something like this:

It’s no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it; I can’t. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it; I can’t. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like his. And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, then I could live a life like his.[1]

The work of forming us in the life of the Kingdom is not something we can achieve by ourselves. Indeed, it’s not something we would naturally be interested in—it is so counterintuitive and demanding. It is God’s idea, conceived in love and mercy, that we should be apprentices in the Kingdom. And though Jesus is not present to train as he did the first twelve, he is still present by his Spirit to do that same work—through community, scripture, worship and obedience.  Our job is to be responsive to our Trainer. This is the way of joy.

This article is based on a workshop given at the Vital Church Planting conference on February 4, 2012.


[1] Paraphrased in John R. W. Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of our Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 37.

2 thoughts on “How Disciples are Made Today”

  1. Thank you John for your straight from the shoulder, written in plain English description of Discipleship. It’s the best I’ve come across in my 79 years and is one that will get forwarded.

  2. Thanks John for your grounded and great teaching helping apprentices like me to be directed to the Master pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

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