By Michael Kramer
Three years ago, my job title was changed from adult education pastor to discipleship pastor. I was happy. Discipleship is a trendy term, but no one quite knows how to define discipleship. I realized this a couple months ago at an education conference put on by LifeWay. The presenter made the off-hand comment that discipleship seems to be the fad in evangelicalism. He had my attention.
The presenter explained that there have been several church growth models over the last 50 years, and he thinks discipleship is the current trend. Yet, he lamented, everyone has a different take on discipleship. He then produced a two-page handout offering his own definition. This made me chuckle. Why is discipleship such a tricky term?
I once watched a ministry leader draw a pie chart depicting Sunday school. He then put discipleship as one-sixth of the pie alongside community, shepherding, evangelism, teaching, and service. Discipleship had been relegated to a narrow slice. If I were discipleship, I think I would be offended.
We wrestle with discipleship because it is a relatively new term that is, at best, tenable and, at worst, divisive. First coined over 150 years ago by a well-meaning church educator, the term has come to distinguish the “two wings of the plane” which give flight to evangelicalism. These two wings are evangelism and discipleship. Sadly, this has created a division within disciple making, and we have yet to recover from the schism.
It’s not about ‘me’
Fast forward a century or so, and attempts at wordsmithing are causing confusion. You may wonder if discipleship is a biblical term. Nope, it is not. Jesus made disciples and called us to make disciples in Matthew 28:19-20, but “discipleship” is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. That’s just a little problematic when we seek to define discipleship in a consistent or biblical fashion.
Most church members will say they are involved in discipleship. After all, they participate in youth group, Bible study, women’s ministry, life group, or Sunday school. But this definition of discipleship is about personal growth or finding a niche within community. Reduced even simpler, discipleship is all about the participant. Discipleship at this level is designed to help “me” follow Jesus.
If a pastor refers to discipleship, most likely he has the spiritual maturity of church members in mind, relying generally on programs to foster maturity. Most pastors would say that the sermon, serving in the church, and going on mission trips are vital parts of the process. In some church cultures, discipleship may focus on spiritual disciplines coupled with some degree of intentional accountability. Again, the focus is on “me.”
My job title says it’s what I do, but do I?
At the leadership level, discipleship and disciple making are often used interchangeably, but the terms have dramatically different focuses or applications. While discipleship focuses on the participant, disciple making focuses on reproducing others. As leaders, we need to decide if we are calling people to invest in themselves or replicate others.
Words matter, especially when used by leaders.
So, is discipleship an evil term? No, not really, but it is unfortunate, because the term tends to not move beyond “me” and my walk with Jesus.
Discipleship places emphasis on the Great Commandment, me loving God and others, but misses the intentionality of the Great Commission, me making disciples. Ultimately discipleship is an unfortunate term because it fails to call people clearly to reproduce themselves in the lives of others.
While I doubt my title will change any time soon, as a leader who wants to communicate clearly, I have decided to call people to disciple making, which I believe carries a lot more weight. Disciple making begs the question, “Who or what am I reproducing?” I, for one, want to reproduce disciple makers.
While discipleship will continue to be a moving target, the term disciple making is biblical, offers a clearer vision, and is measured by reproducibility. Maybe we would save ourselves a lot of trouble if we focused less on the wings of the plane and more on the engine that makes the plane soar, disciple making.
Michael Kramer is discipleship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Benton. He recently completed a Ph.D. in leadership at Southern Seminary.