One of the oddest things about church life is that we have no good way of measuring how well we are doing what Jesus told us to do. It’s not as though we don’t know how to count or are unwilling to count. We count almost everything. My denomination, for example, can cite reams of statistics down to children’s choir attendance and other such details. But we have no good way of measuring the main task with which Jesus left us: to make disciples (Matthew 18:19-20).
Attendance figures are not an accurate reflection of how many disciples are in our group. Some of those who attend are, in fact, disciples, while others are not yet believers. In addition, even the best of disciples don’t show up for every single class or small group. Although we might describe them as living the disciple’s life, they only show up on attendance rolls when they actually come. Attendance merely measures how many bodies show up.
This is why we need disciple-making teachers. Teachers can draw close enough to people to know whether they are living the disciple’s life. Disciple-making teachers can influence people to make the next step in the learning and maturing process. Teachers can get close enough to help people become disciples of Jesus Christ.
Fundamentally, the biblical word for “disciple” means learner or student. Of course, few people aspire to be lifelong students. Many become students for a short while, but generally as a means to an end. They usually have some larger goal in mind. But Jesus called us to be permanently in the classroom. The word “disciple” does not imply a static state. It implies someone who is growing, improving, reaching, stretching.
The word “disciple” also means follower. In Jesus’ day it was customary for a teacher to travel around while his students literally followed him. They would ask questions and dialogue as they walked along with him. Thus, a disciple was one who followed Christ, who walked in his ways and sought to imitate him.
Today the word “disciple” is used in a wide variety of ways with reference to everything from evangelism to Scripture memory. It is even used in secular literature, as it was in Jesus’ day. Because of this, we need to carefully define the kind of person we are trying to create. We need to define “disciple” in terms of the etymology of the Greek word and in terms of the entire gospel message. We also need to define “disciple” in a culturally relevant way that makes sense in the place and time God has called us to serve.
I encourage you to work out your own definition of “disciple.” Ask yourself what it means to be a disciple of Jesus today and every day. What are the minimum requirements of discipleship? If possible, try to devise some linguistic or visual means of communicating these in a memorable way.
For example, Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, did this with the wheel illustration. Christ was at the center of the wheel. Branching out from him were four spokes depicting the Word (the foundational spoke), prayer, witnessing, and fellowship. The words “The Obedient Christian” were written around the rim. When I first saw Trotman’s illustration, I thought that it defined discipleship in a helpful way. However, at least one thing seems to be missing: the articulation of an emphasis on family life. These days, we need to spell this out. So I looked for other definitions of discipleship.
Eventually I came across Bill Hybels’s definition of discipleship. He defines discipleship in terms of five G’s:
Grace. A disciple has experienced grace (salvation) and is walking in grace.
Growth. A disciple is growing in his or her relationship with Christ.
Group. A disciple is vitally involved in some sort of Christian group.
Gifts. A disciple knows what his or her spiritual gifts are and uses them in ministry.
Good Stewardship. A disciple gives his or her time, talents, and resources to kingdom causes.
Hybels’s list also provided useful insight into what it means to be a disciple. However, it didn’t seem to be detailed enough. I believed that we need to clearly articulate that part of discipleship that relates to people’s everyday lives. With the help of my friend, Lance Witt, I developed a rough definition, an acrostic based on the word DISCIPLES. I taught this at various seminars and then asked for feedback. I asked if there were anything unnecessary in our list or if we had left out any issues essential to a biblical definition of discipleship. In time, with the help of numerous people, I decided on the version that I would like to place before you. I am confident that if we can create people who are characterized by these nine traits, we will be fairly close to the biblical model of making disciples. So here are the nine traits I feel are critical to being a disciple of Jesus:
D – Disciplined
A disciple is disciplined in his or her daily life.
I – Intimate Friendships
A disciple enjoys intimate friendships with others.
S – Self Image
A disciple’s self-esteem reflects God’s view of him or her.
C – Corporate worship
A disciple is involved in corporate worship.
I – Intimate family life
A disciple experiences an intimate family life.
P – Passion for God
A disciple feels true and compelling passion for God.
L – Lay Ministry
A disciple is involved in some sort of lay ministry.
E – Evangelistic Heart
A disciple has an evangelistic interest.
S – Sacrificial Giving
A disciple is committed to sacrificial giving.
Check out the Discipleship Course on Amazon.
The Spirit-filled Christian (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1977), 47.
Lynne and Bill Hybels, Rediscovering Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 199–200.