The culture we live in today is impersonal and individualistic, and the effects can be felt in the church. Christians often struggle to experience the kind of community and fellowship that is vulnerable and sanctifying. We minimize the importance of building one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11) and sharpening one another, as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17).
The local church is made up of many members, each having its own function, who make up the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5). As Christians, we should desire to grow in the knowledge of God and to do so with fellow believers in the context of the church. To better understand what discipleship is, each believer must know at a deep, personal level what it means to be a disciple.
The word “disciple” (mathétés) is used in various ways in Scripture. Consider three different uses of the word in relation to Christ’s earthly ministry:
- In Matthew 10:1 the word “disciples” designates the original twelve men whom Jesus chose to be apostles. He gave them special authority and sent them out.
- In John 6:60–66 “disciples” refers to individuals who followed Jesus in a shallow fashion, perhaps because they were looking for blessings and gifts rather than the Giver of Life, who is Jesus himself. These “disciples” were not true followers of Christ.
- In John 13:34–35, the word “disciples” applies to committed followers of Christ who are characterized by love for one another. These are genuine believers.
It’s in this latter sense that I’m using the word “disciple.” A disciple is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, one who has believed his gospel and submitted to his lordship. Discipleship is the process of learning and growing as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Relational and Costly
Discipleship is inherently relational. As we grow closer to Jesus, we are spurred on to invest in others and to communicate the good news of Jesus to a world that is covered in darkness (Matthew 5:14). We are learners and apprentices of the Word, which means we should have a willing spirit, a yearning to grow in our understanding of the gospel. In short, disciples should have a strong desire to help one another pursue Jesus Christ.
In addition to being relational, discipleship is also costly in various ways. It demands our time, our availability, and at times it’s taxing to our emotions as we share our struggles and sins. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, we can trust Christ in the process:
And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question, we shall have to go to Him, for only He knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ who bids us follow Him knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy.
We should pray for opportunities to disciple other members and to be discipled by them, remembering that they are at varying levels of understanding and maturity in their faith.
Practical Steps for Discipleship
So on a practical level, what’s involved in a discipling relationship? Here are five suggestions:
- Read Scripture. The Word of God is our nourishment as Christians, and this is especially true in a discipleship relationship. The Word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
- Communicate effectively. Jesus was adept at tailoring his words to his audience. As a disciple-maker, you may need to change your approach or explain more if it appears that the person you are discipling is not comprehending what you’re saying.
- Remember that the Lord will bring whatever he has planned to purpose (Isaiah 46:9–11). Your role is simply to trust him and be faithful.
- Fully commit. Be vulnerable and show up ready to share the extra 2% with those in your discipleship group.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek clarification as your relationship deepens.
In addition to these five suggestions, there are other things to keep in mind. First, recognize that each person is made in God’s image (imago dei) and therefore has value in his eyes. This can help you approach the other person in the right way. Second, always rely on prayer as you are searching for, entering into, or maintaining a discipleship relationship with a fellow believer. Third, be willing to ask yourself, “Who in my life right now is ripe for discipleship, and who is the Holy Spirit leading me to minister to?” Lastly, remember that disciples are not made in the context of masses but with a committed few. Jesus himself had a small group of dedicated disciples that spent their lives learning from and living with him.
The Root and Power of Discipleship
Finally, we need to know what enables effective discipleship. The Spirit of the Living God dwells inside each believer (Romans 8:11–14), and we have been equipped to do good works that are pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:21). Amazingly, Jesus told his disciples that they would do greater works than his, for his Spirit would be with them (John 14:12–14).
Finally, just as our discipleship must be empowered by the Spirit, so also it must have the right motivation. Mark Dever notes that our discipling labors must be rooted in “our love for Christ, his love for us, and his love for them.” As Marshall Segal notes, we cannot look inside to find this kind of love. Rather, we must “draw from a deeper, fuller, living well of grace, truth, and love.” The root, or foundation, in discipleship has to be Jesus. Our ability to love others is an outflow of his love.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 38.
 Mark Dever, Discipling, 33; as cited in Marshall Segal, “Make Disciples: The Life-Changing Ministry of Why,” desiringgod.org/articles/make-disciples.
 Segal, “Make Disciples,” desiringgod.org/articles/make-disciples.