Articles Discipleship General

Discipleship: The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary People

I overheard someone say with great disdain, “They’ll let anyone be parents!”   I remember thinking it is strange no tests or licensing or training are required before someone can be entrusted with another human.  Later, as I brought my first child home from the hospital I also fearfully wondered, ‘Who in the universe was thinking I could adequately perform this job of parenting?’   Then I recalled the God of the Bible said children are a gift from him.[1] God was “the who” in the universe who gave me this child as unwise as that entrustment seemed!   Alongside the idea that God gives children to people without credentials, the importance of parenting is expressed in the familiar quote, “The hand that rocks the cradle, Is the hand that rules the world.[2]”  I hoped that sentiment was an exaggeration but realized some truth remains in the idea that parenting is significant labor.  From a biblical perspective, a parent is entrusted with helping to nurture and shape an eternal being.

Discipleship is like parenting. In discipleship, God uses ordinary humans to co-labor with Him in helping grow an eternal being into maturity that resembles Jesus Christ!  Every ordinary person, as in parenting, can be engaged in the significant work of discipleship.

Ordinary humans

What is discipleship?  At its base level, discipleship is simply building a God centered relationship for the purpose of growth.  In discipleship, our need for growth is primarily spiritual and relational. In parenting, a child’s first needs are physical but quickly become relational and spiritual.

Building a God centered relationship is something all ordinary people can do. No special gifting is required. One doesn’t need a certain level of intelligence or expertise as in rocket science or surgery; or a certain physique like height for basketball or muscular girth for football. A particular personality type or temperament or economic status doesn’t give an advantage.  All that is required to labor in discipleship is the willingness to invest the time to build a friendship with God at the center.  How to center a friendship on God is often where insecurities arise.

Although examples and principles of discipleship exist, the bible does not lay out a specific ten point plan or program for growing a disciple.  Do we study the word? Do we pray? Do we ask help from the Holy Spirit and other believers with experience?   Since these are the means of growth in our own relationship with God, doing these together would be a natural course to follow.[3] But beyond these general guidelines, the Bible is vague.  Perhaps such ambiguity keeps us from following an impersonal program and compels us to operate more like God who deals with us intimately and individually. More to the point of this discussion, a program would likely require qualifications and expertise. Although the lack of specific direction might make us uncomfortable, it is important to remember that God has not left us alone in this work. He has given us his Holy Spirit and one of the expressed purposes for doing so is to build one another up.[4] Although we might feel as if we want a precise program, no plan could ever be as helpful as the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling help of the Holy Spirit has been described as the difference between Michael Jordan teaching us basketball or playing basketball through our bodies.  Yet, the Holy Spirit does both: instructs us[5] through the word and manifests the life of God through us for the common good.[6] Thus all ordinary people can practice discipleship since God himself through the Holy Spirit empowers sinful, frail human creatures without extraordinary abilities or qualifications.

Significant Impact

Not only is God gracious to give this work to ordinary people, discipleship is far more significant than we consciously recall on a regular basis.  We know an infant would die without substantial involvement from one or more people for an extended period of time or until some level of maturity is attained. So too when we experience new birth in relationship to God, we are mere infants.[7]  While a new believer won’t physically die without discipleship, and a relationship with God is forever secure because of Christ’s finished work on the Cross, the importance of discipleship is hard to overstate.

For example, a person who learns to love and forgive like Jesus avoids tremendous personal and relational damage. Intimacy with God and others may deteriorate and eventually die without continual nourishment which may in part be provided through discipleship.  Stagnate growth in maturity would lessen the potential eternal impact of a Christian’s life. In short, discipleship is saving work.  We naturally view evangelism as saving work; and sharing the good news of Christ indeed may help rescue someone from spending eternity apart from their loving Father.  But when we engage in discipleship, helping another person see and live God’s perspective, we are helping save them from their flesh, the pull of the world and the lies of God’s adversary, the devil and all the resultant destruction. Discipleship continues the saving work of the cross insofar as this life is about working out that salvation in preparation for the full and eternal enjoyment of Christ’s redemption of us. Through discipleship, we assist one another in this process of sanctification.

Moreover, discipleship may result in further evangelism effectiveness since the growing disciple would be more likely to extend the good news to people whom the mentor would never have access.  So in discipleship, not only does a mentor potentially contribute to the spiritual growth of one person, but a ripple effect swells beyond the individual’s life to families, co-workers, neighbors and anyone that connects with the discipled individual bringing the character of Jesus to those relationships also.

Another view of discipleship understands that such work continues the healing ministry of Jesus.  While no amount of good parenting or discipleship can entirely coach the sin out of us, we can make progress toward Christ-likeness or “substantial healing.”[8]  We can begin to see wholeness in ourselves and our relationships.  As image bearers of God, our somewhat healed characters and love relationships potentially enlighten a dark world.

Discipleship also is the foundational method with which God builds his church.[9] Jesus spent three years and forty days instructing and serving his disciples. He sent them out on their own and committed them to make disciples.[10] In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a small seed that grows and flourishes into a bountiful shade-giving tree.[11] The seed is God’s word.[12] Discipleship persistently plants God’s word, his grace and all its implications into the seasons of one another’s lives.  One example of persistent planting in the early church is Paul with Timothy.  Then Paul instructed Timothy to continue this kingdom building labor with reliable men who would also teach others.[13] Discipleship then is not only then saving work for individuals but the primary method for God’s building his kingdom.

Discipleship is vital to our own spiritual growth and thus saves us as well.  In discipleship we are reminded of God’s truth and see anew God at work in us and through us and others. We thrive in our walk with the Lord not only because a mentor helped us to grow but in duplicating that labor with someone else, God continues his sanctifying, saving work in us.  Many times as a parent nothing else but the desperate and immediate needs of my children helped me to climb out of bed, climb out of my self absorption and find life in serving them. Discipleship gives us the opportunity to imitate Christ through sacrificially giving to others and thereby find life and growth in Christ-likeness.

If discipleship is important work with such extensive benefits, why then is it often minimized or forgotten?  A few reasons are apparent.  Discipleship is largely unseen and so does not reward our tenacious desire for self recognition.  Also like parenting, discipleship is a long term investment with slow results and no guarantees of successful outcomes.   Since it is also non-programmatic, it requires creatively and continuously relying on the Holy Spirit from which our sin nature rebels, so committed we are to self sufficiency and independence.  Investing in people will require time, energy and thought when we all feel so busy and exhausted. Yet when Jesus prioritized his activities under the constraints of earthly time, his consistent expenditure of the hours in his days seem focused on growing and preparing disciples. Can we do less than imitate his example?

Finally, discipleship will cost us emotional pain. I feel great sadness as I remember a close friend of many years who decided to no longer follow Christ. While none of us owns responsibility for another’s spiritual growth or choices, my failure to warn my friend certainly didn’t help. When God exposed my failure was a result of wanting to protect myself, the pain and sadness were multiplied.  The reality is as we draw close to people our sin will negatively impact them. Some failure on both sides of the discipleship relationship is inevitable.

All these difficulties will often make us question whether a lifestyle of discipleship is worthwhile.  But loss, pain and discomfort are part of the cost of our own discipleship to Jesus. Jesus described following him as taking up our cross.[14]  However, the author of Hebrews tells us Jesus endured the cross for the joy in the end.  Despite the challenges, discipleship produces much joy. John remarked, referring to people in whom he invested, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”[15]  I have tasted a little of this joy in discipleship.

When this life is over, more joy and much celebration and praise will spill over to God in eternity as we continually uncover the glory and beauty of restored and renewed individuals and marvel at a transformed humanity.  “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”[16]  Such magnificent transformation will have occurred only by the power of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit but accomplished in small part through the means of discipleship.

Because of discipleship difficulties that often overwhelm our motivation and joy, we repeatedly need reminded of the honor and privilege of participating in this extraordinary work: for discipleship is a significant, saving, kingdom-building co-labor with the Holy Spirit who shapes and restores eternal beings into health and wholeness that resemble Jesus Christ. Yet God entrusts this work to every ordinary, average person who wants to follow Him into it.  How gracious is our God!

[1] Psalm 127:3 (NASB). All other scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version,   Copyright, 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

[2] This line is taken from a poem by William Ross Wallace, “The Hand That Rules the World”, Stanza 1.

[3] Many excellent books have been written to help with discipleship. See for example, Dennis McCallum and Jessica Lowery, Organic Discipleship, (Columbus, OH: New Paradigm Publishing, 2012).

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:7.

[5] John 14: 26.

[6] 1 Corinthians 12:7.

[7] See I John 2:12-14 where John seems to recognize different levels of spiritual maturity.

[8] This term was used by Francis Schaeffer in True Spirituality (Wheaton, Ill : Tyndale House Publishers, 1971, 2001).

[9] Multiplication through discipleship is a premise of the book by Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1993).

[10] Mark 6:7-13; Matt. 28:19-20.

[11] Mark 4:26-32 contains two parables comparing growth of the kingdom of God to growth from a seed.

[12] In Mark 4:14, Jesus had previously defined the seed as the word of God.

[13] 2 Tim. 2:2.

[14] Matt. 10:38.

[15] 3 John 4.

[16] 2 Corinthians 3:18.

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