How Do You Define a Disciple?

“Can you help me with small groups at my church?” I get asked this question on a monthly basis from pastors and small group point people.

The next question I ask is, “How do you define a disciple?” I usually get more questions than answers when I ask that. About 90% of the time, I’ve created some level of confusion for the leader. It’s very common for this question of discipleship to get lost in the shuffle of church stress and busy-ness.

The reason I ask this question is because it is helpful to know this BEFORE you begin to build your small groups ministry. Small groups are one of the most effective ways to grow disciples of Christ, but you still need to take the time to define what it means to be a disciple of Christ. As it’s been said before, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”

Allow me to share three aspects to defining a disciple:

1. Define a disciple with specificity.

Don’t answer the disciple question with, “Following Jesus,” or “Obeying His commands.” While those answers aren’t wrong, they’re not helpful for somebody who just started attending your church. They’re also not informing leaders how to help people who just started attending your church.

The way you define a disciple should be biblical but it should also be practical. It should give me immediate direction for my life and the way I plugin to your church.

2. Define a disciple with clarity.

At a recent staff meeting at my church we did an exercise. We had everyone right down what a disciple is at our church and then we had everybody read their definition out loud. Everybody was saying the same thing, generally speaking. However, all of us weren’t saying the exact same thing.

The concept is, if a new person talks to ten different leaders at your church about what they need to do next, the new person would receive the same vision and strategy ten times. On the other hand, if a new person hears ten different ideas that are generally saying the same thing, the message will be fuzzy with little-to-no traction.

Clarity is achieved when everybody, including the key influential leaders, are on the same page and speaking the same language. Remember the words of Genesis 11:6 (NLT), “The people are united, and they all speak the same language… nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!”

3. Define a disciple for laity.

People need to know what it means to be a disciple in the context of your local church. This means your definition won’t be a comprehensive explanation of discipleship; rather, it will be the initial steps that your church helps to facilitate.

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There are many examples of churches that have defined discipleship in the ways mentioned above. A great book to read for more on the topic is Simple Church by Rainer and Geiger. The following is how my church defines what a disciple is…

1. Belong in Community – Followers of Christ are formed in biblical community, which is expressed through the variety of small groups that we offer (Acts 2:42-47).

2. Believe in Christ Daily – Followers of Christ seek Jesus everyday through Bible reading, prayer, worship and obedience (John 15:5-10).

3. Become a Contributor – Followers of Christ are not consumers, rather, they leverage their time, talent and treasure for the edification of Christ’s body (1 Pet. 4:10).

4. Begin Sharing Courageously – Followers of Christ are filled with confidence to share their faith with those who don’t know Him through outreach, inviting others and world missions (Acts 1:8).

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As you can see, small groups are just one moving part of our overall discipleship philosophy. I believe small groups will help us to have sustainable success with the other pieces, but to only highlight small groups would be an incomplete picture of our church.

This is why I believe it’s important to define a disciple before you build your small groups. What are some examples you have seen or how does your church define what a disciple is?

Comments? Feedback? Questions? Leave them below.  

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amason@churchleaders.com'
Andrew Mason is the Small Groups Pastor of Real Life Church, a family of churches across the Northern CA region. He oversees Small Groups, Discipleship Ministries and Assimilation. He is Founder of SmallGroupChurches.com, an online community of leaders dedicated to growing churches one small group at a time. Andrew resides in Sacramento, CA with his wife Camille and their son.