Defining Discipleship

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA[box] This post is a based on a reflection on chapter 4 of You and Me Forever.[/box] “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”—Matthew 28:18-20

Most of us are familiar with the “Great Commission.” Some of us may even have memorized it. The real question though is this: How is it impacting our day-to-day living and choices?


When it is used, this verse often is linked with world missions and the call to evangelism. The Chans write, “Jesus was telling His followers to go to those who didnot know about Him. They were to reach people who didn’t have a relationship with Him. They were to baptize them and teach them to obey His commands.” (p. 99)

And while this is certainly true, I personally think it actually means more than just that. I remember as a younger Christian, I excused myself from this verse because I did not feel called to the mission field or have the gift of evangelism, so I really didn’t give it much thought. All I really took away from this passage was that Jesus was with me always. I liked that part.

Over the years, however, God has been expanding my understanding of discipleship and what it means. I was surprised to learn that in the original Greek, the command in verse 19 is not the word, “go” but “make disciples.” So often, we focus on that word and assume that if we are not able to go on a missions trip, this verse is not for us. Actually, this verse is best understood as “as you go, make disciples.” If that's the case, then I am not exempt!

This is best exemplified in the life of Jesus. One of the most formative books in my own discipleship is Robert Coleman’s TheMaster Plan of Evangelism. Despite its title, it really is about discipleship, of which evangelism, or the conversion of disciples, is a part. If we watch Jesus, His days on earth are a study in how to make disciples that can shake the world and turn it upside down. We often focus on His death and resurrection (which, of course, is extremely vital), but we forget that His days on earth were not a random mishmash of miracles and inspiring sermons. While He walked on this planet, Jesus was all about making disciples, so when He asks us to make disciples, we should not be surprised. This was what He was all about while He was here on earth. And He is still at it today.

To make disciples, then is to make learners, followers, pupils of Christ. It is not merely making converts, but helping others move through all the stages of the spiritual life. We may play a part in a certain section of that journey, but wherever our lives intersect others', God desires to use us to encourage, deepen, and challenge the beliefs and faith of another. This can be done formally, but as I watch Jesus, I am beginning to believe that it is much more informal. He was always using fig trees, bread and loaves, and dead men to make His point. He discipled as He went with His stories, warnings, and words of hope. Likewise, God wants us to always be on the lookout, as we go, for opportunities to bring others one step closer to Him. Wherever people are in their faith journey, whether believers or not, I want to be available to be used by God to deepen their understanding of Him and how to live out what they learn.

If this is so, then discipleship ministry is really people ministry. It is not about a prescribed workbook to follow, Scripture memory cards to master, or an experience to undergo. While it can take these forms, the real focus of making disciples is about meeting people where they are with who you are and letting God speak His truth through you. Whether a Roman centurion or a pious Pharisee, Jesus focused on their faith and journey with Christ and responded in a way to take them to the next level.

This is how I personally view ministry and discipleship. For me, this has then eliminated the “saved” and “unsaved” differentiation people make when they read the command in Matthew 28. This keeps me from looking at non-Christians as special projects to convert. It keeps me from thinking my job is done once they have “prayed the prayer.” It also keeps me from forgetting to nurture and deepen the faith of those who are strong leaders. My job as a discipler for Christ is to listen to others as I listen to the Lord and speak the words they need to hear to draw them closer to Christ. It is not about tallying how many people I have saved. It is about pointing others to Him.

So this could mean processing with an unbeliever who doubts God’s goodness in a world full of suffering. It could mean grounding a new Christian in the basics of faith. It could mean challenging a growing believer in dealing with sin. And it could mean equipping leaders with the heart and skills they need for ministry.

Of course, this presumes that I too am growing as a disciple. I cannot give away what I do not have. For that reason, I need to commit to being a disciple of Christ and make it my highest priority. I do this by letting Him fill my mind with His truth, learning to practice His presence, dealing with sin that hinders, and responding to invitations to act. As I do so, He shapes my mind and thoughts, fills my heart, and teaches me through my life’s experiences.

Little by little then, I build up what I can give away, or overflow, to others. As I learn to lean on Him, He opens my eyes to those teachable moments that are around me as I go through life. In my self-centeredness, I may not always take them, but I am much more aware of them nowadays.

This has resulted in many exciting moments. I have seen it in my sons when they shed tears of repentance and desire to live differently.  I have seen God work overseas in the lives of teen girls who grasp the good news of Christ and are now young mothers discipling their own children. I have seen eyes brighten, relationships restored, wounds healed. Nothing on earth can match the thrill of seeing God at work right before your eyes.

I know that I cannot reach everyone, and not every encounter ends in glowing results. I am learning to be content with knowing that I can be used by God to merely sow seeds without seeing the fruit. Sometimes I walk with people for just a season in their lives. This understanding of discipleship has opened up a new way of looking and thinking about life that has been an exciting journey with Jesus.

“You exist to make disciples. Your marriage exists to make disciples. You don’t want to stand before God at the end of your life with no disciples. Restructure your life. Re-prioritize. You exist to influence others.”—Francis and Lisa Chan

Are you ready to join Him in the adventure?