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2 Reasons We Should Expand Our Definition of Discipleship


When you think about creating a “discipleship pathway,” who do you imagine participating?

Christians? Your congregation? A portion of your congregation? 

For most churches, “discipleship” is the expression aligned with growing the faith of Jesus-followers. And that’s understandable. But I’d like to suggest we revise our working definition to better engage with today’s culture and your community.

There are two reasons our previous definition of discipleship needs modification.

Two Reasons We Should Redefine Discipleship

Reason 1: The Bible Defines Discipleship for Us.

In Matthew 28, Jesus offers us what we’ve labeled the “Great Commission.” I bet you know it by heart.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV)

Go and make is the commission. But where are believers and the body of Christ supposed to “go?” We all know the answer: To unreached people in unreached places. So the great commission begins with evangelism and then progresses to edification. This is important for us as a church body if we believe the great commission is part of our collective calling.

Suppose we allow discipleship to remain focused upon growing the faith of followers. In that case, we are missing the first part of the command. As a church, we need to reach and grow. Evangelize and edify. We can’t focus on one, ignore the other, and experience missional success. 

To say it another way:

If your church discipleship process focuses only on your current congregation, you’re missing half of the command.

Reason 2: Discipleship Begins Well Before People Place Their Faith in Jesus.

When you ask churches about discipleship, those with a plan explain a program for their people. Again, and this is important, this program is primarily promoted and offered to and designed for insiders.

With this in mind, there are two issues to address. One, discipleship isn’t a program at all — it’s a process. It’s actually a never-ending process of renewing our minds. But even if we could reach a discipleship destination, we’d realize our calling also includes discipling others, so again, it doesn’t end.

This means we cannot accomplish discipleship through a program. We must create a planned process of movement.

But designing this process will be a bit more complex than we may think. The reason is we need to do more than design a pathway for insiders, leading us to our second issue. 

Developing a discipleship pathway for insiders is complicated enough, but if we take the Great Commission seriously, our exhaustive discipleship journey must begin with those in our community far from God and his church. We aren’t called to “go” to our congregation. The Great Commission is, at a minimum, about our community. And eventually, even the world. 

According to Jesus, discipleship begins when we initially engage with the lost and never really ends on this side of eternity.

Backing Up the Process

Most churches fully recognize discipleship as a central calling in their church, but too few open the definition as broadly as Jesus indicated. If we back the process up to reach those far from God and our church, we can design a more holistic and biblically accurate discipleship model.

Let’s not pretend this is simple, though. I mean, if we struggle to engage church people on a discipleship pathway, how much more complicated is it to inspire non-believers to consider a faith journey?