Discipleship

What It Is and How to Do It

I love the simplicity of Mark Dever’s definition of discipleship: discipling is “helping others to follow Jesus.”[1] But sometimes actually doing discipleship is as complicated as this definition is simple. You are dealing with real people in the real world, and reality is broken by sin. So, a discipleship relationship, like any other relationship, is oftentimes messy. But investing your life into the life of another is well worth the effort and sacrifice. After all, loving others with such effort and sacrifice is what we are called by God to do (John 15:12; Gal 6:2). And thankfully, we are able to do this work because effort-filled, sacrificial love was shown toward us in Jesus’ life and death (Eph 5:2; 1 John 3:16). In order to tease out what discipleship is and how to do it, we begin with the following definition: discipleship is teaching and modeling for another how to live for Christ. 

Live for Christ Yourself

Before you can help someone else live for Christ, you must live for him yourself. Of course, you will never follow Jesus perfectly, but you must follow him truly. Then to the men or women you disciple, you say with Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). But what does it mean to live for Christ? It means you love God with every fiber of your being, having your heart, soul, and mind satisfied in God alone.[1]  And it means you love your neighbor in the same manner you desire to be loved. A heart for God, first, and a heart for your neighbor, second, are the two foundational components of following Jesus (Matt 22:37–40). As you do this, you can then call someone to do likewise alongside you.

Time Together

In order to call someone to follow Christ as you follow him, you must spend time with that person. Whether it is for one hour every two weeks or for two hours twice a week, the disciple and the one who disciples must be around one another. Jesus’ disciples shadowed him and listened to his teaching day and night for three years. They followed him, and he was with them (Mark 3:14). Robert E. Coleman identifies Jesus’ practice here as “association”—that is, Jesus associated with his disciples. Coleman states, “There is simply no substitute for getting with people, and it is ridiculous to imagine that anything less, short of a miracle, can develop strong Christian leadership.”[2] Living life with people is essential to helping them mature in their faith. Perhaps you can only use one lunch hour to meet, talk, and eat with the person you disciple. Or perhaps you are able to devote a whole evening or whole day on the weekend to developing this relationship. Regardless, discipleship takes time, and it takes time together.

Set Expectations for Your Time Together

It may be wise for you to set expectations from the beginning regarding the nature of the discipleship relationship. How often will you try to meet? How do you hope to relate to each other? In general, what do you want your time together to look like? You and person you disciple should agree on these things from the start. David Mathis offers some advice for people starting a prayer meeting that I think also applies to discipleship meetings:

As for how many weeks or months you commit, make a finite pledge together, rather than a world-without-end-amen kind of plan. When the specified time is up, renew or reconsider. Regular prayer commitments [or discipleship commitments] without an end date tend to fizzle over time, and then prove discouraging for future engagements.[3]   

Taking this advice, you may want to begin meeting with the person you disciple for a limited time period to see how it goes. You should not feel obligated to continue meeting if you both agree that you two are not best suited for a discipleship relationship. But remember, good relationships can take a long time to build; while you should not feel obligated to keep meeting, you also should not be too quick to call it off. Regardless, setting some expectations at the beginning may spare you both some disappointment and frustration down the road.

Teaching Formally and Informally

Once you have laid out some expectations, you must decide what content will fill your time. Sometimes, you and the young man or young woman you disciple will simply hang out, enjoying one another’s company, working on a project together, or doing a recreational activity. But for discipleship to truly be discipleship, you must teach. We are commanded to teach people to observe all that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:18–20).

There are two ways to teach: formally and informally. Formal teaching requires some measure of preparation and forethought. With formal teaching, your goal is to explain and discuss certain material (Deut 6:7). You may choose to study a passage of Scripture together, read a book on the Christian life, discuss an online article, or the like. This might also mean that you assign homework to the person you disciple. “Listen to this sermon on apathy, and we’ll discuss it next week.” Or, “Before our next meeting, read John 10 and write down five questions that you have of the text.” If you primarily intend to explain the material, you must familiarize yourself with the content beforehand; this will enable you to teach the material and answer a few basic questions that the person you disciple might raise (Acts 8:30–35). The alternative (or complement) to coming prepared with answers is to come prepared with questions. Develop some questions or use a resource that supplies discussion questions so that you can effectively lead a conversation about the material.[4] 

While you can teach formally, you can also teach informally. Teaching informally requires you to be thoughtfully engaged with person you disciple, and requires you to be ready to capitalize on “teaching moments” (Josh 4:21–22). You can help the young woman or young man wisely think through an issue that she or he is facing in life (Prov 15:22). You might recommend a helpful resource. As applicable experiences and lessons come to mind during your conversation, you can share those. Most importantly, you can look up, quote, or paraphrase passages in the Bible that you think apply to that person's situation (2 Tim 3:16).

Modeling Formally and Informally

In addition to a spoken means of teaching, there is teaching by example—that is, modeling. Some lessons are taught, and others are caught. The person you disciple needs to see the truths of Scripture lived out and applied in the real world (Phil 3:17). Modeling is also done formally and informally.

Formal modeling is like an apprenticeship. You will choose beforehand something that you want to demonstrate to the person you disciple; you will then invite them along as you do the task. If you decide to show the person you disciple how to evangelize, for instance, you can bring him or her with you as you share God’s saving message in your neighborhood.

However, the majority of your modeling will be informal. You will simply live the normal Christian life on a normal day in a normal set of circumstances; and the impact your example can have is glorious and incalculable (2 Tim 3:10–11). Colin Marshall and Tony Payne argue that modeling is best done within one’s own household:

Nowhere is [an honest, open sharing of lives] seen more clearly than in the home. In the home, the [one who disciples] is—the husband laughing with his wife, the father dealing with his daughter not eating her food, the cook enjoying his creative side, the homemaker fixing the tap, the exhausted man gazing blankly at the TV. He is living out life in the Spirit in the hardest context.[5]

The home is indeed the hardest and best context to model a life lived for Jesus. And yes, the person you disciple will see a myriad of flaws, failures, and shortcomings. But your imperfect life displays what it looks like for God to sanctify a sinner saved by grace. Furthermore, you can model for the person you disciple how to repent before God, and how to ask forgiveness of a spouse or child that you lost your temper toward.

Conclusion

As we wrap up, let me offer three quick words of encouragement about discipleship.

First, discipling an individual does not depend solely upon you. The person you disciple will learn how to live for Christ from the whole body—i.e., the church. In the words of one writer, “As [one who disciples] you can’t impart everything your disciple needs[;] you don’t have all knowledge nor all the spiritual gifts … He or she will learn from many others besides you, as you expose him/her to a whole body of believers.”[6] Do not feel burdened to teach and model everything, because you cannot teach and model everything.

Secondly, however, you do have plenty to offer whomever you disciple. Discipleship is complicated, but, as a rule of thumb, just remember to hand down what you have. God has given you plenty of knowledge, experience, and wisdom as you have walked with him. Pass those lessons on to the next generation (Ps 71:18).

Lastly, point them to Jesus. Let this be an encouragement: all you have to do is point them Jesus. And let this also be an exhortation: no matter what you do, do not forget to point them Jesus. Knowing God in the face of Jesus Christ is our singular goal in life (Phil 1:21; 3:8). We want to live for Christ, and we want the people we disciple to live for him as well. Jesus is all we could ever need, and more than we could ever want. May the men and women we disciple see this from us, hear this from us, and live this out for themselves.




[1] Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 13.

[2] Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1993), 41.

[3] David C. Mathis, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 110–111.

[4] Some books are designed specifically for study groups; other times, authors will publish discussion guides that coincide with their books. You can also use a standard method of question-asking, such as the COMA method (Context, Observation, Meaning, Application), as explained by David Helm in his book One-to-One Bible Reading: A Simple Guide for Every Christian (USA: Matthais Media, 2011).

[5] Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine (USA: Matthias Media, 2009), 76.

[6] See https://www.cru.org/content/dam/cru/legacy/2012/01/aprimerondiscipleship.pdf.