Discipleship – why and how

Discipleship-talk is trending amongst church leaders. Why is such an old-fashioned word now so current? And what might effective discipleship involve?

Talking about discipleship is prominent now thanks to Covid lockdowns. During those lockdowns, pastors could no longer depend on Sunday services to disciple people. Despite the mass ramping up of online church, it just wasn’t the same.

As churches and Christians weathered the social isolation, this weathering exposed their foundations. For some, these foundations were shaky. This naturally led to the need to form churches and Christians with deep and strong foundations, that is, discipleship-talk.

Discipleship-talk is also trending because of rapid social change. Some decades ago Billy Graham could make his famous appeals for people to be born again, with great success. Graham lived at the end of a long epoch of the church’s history known as Christendom. In Christendom, the organs of cultural power inculcated people into a Christian worldview. In this context the primary need was evangelism, reconnecting people with God. Their worldview was, very roughly, already Christian.

Now our culture shapes people away from Christlikeness rather than toward it.

In recent decades, the winds of culture have done an about-turn and now blow steadily in an anti-gospel direction. Our culture still disciples people into a worldview through its organs of power – particularly education, entertainment and media. Now, however, our culture shapes people away from Christlikeness rather than toward it.

There is active positive pressure into a kind of formation that spiritually, is a deformation. Adapting a quote from Lesslie Newbigin: “Any mind that has been shaped by our modern culture will be fully furnished with beliefs and assumptions that make Christian faith untenable.”[1] This is even truer now than when Newbigin wrote this over 25 years ago.

Discipling people can no longer be outsourced to culture, if it ever could. The resurgence of discipleship-talk amongst pastors and leaders is, I believe, welcome, timely and necessary.

Moving from the why to the what and how, what might effective discipleship look like in 21st-century Australia?

I know a pastor and friend who was excited about discipleship. He said he had heard of a new discipleship course and contacted me for my thoughts. I wasn’t enthusiastic. Courses and programs are important but they cannot produce deeply formed people. Only close relationships can do that.

Discipling people must be construed relationally, life-on-life, doing life together in a Christ-ward direction.

Many authors on disciple-making[2] all concur on one point. Discipling people must be construed relationally, life-on-life, doing life together in a Christ-ward direction. There are several reasons why.

Biblically, because Jesus practised relational discipleship and modelled it. Eugene Peterson observed, “Jesus … restricted nine-tenths of his ministry to 12 Jews, because it was the only way to reach all Americans [or Australians].”[3] Jesus prioritised his time by going deep with a few. Depth before breadth was Jesus’ way.

As well as practising this, Jesus commanded it. He said we are to follow his pattern of ministry – see John 20:21. “We are not”, says Newbigin, “authorised to do it in any other way.”[4]

Practically, relational discipleship is irreplaceably powerful. Life-on-life influence – whether it is called imitation, modelling, mentoring, life exemplars or peer groups – is more formative than any other influence in shaping people’s beliefs and practises.

Author Gunter Krallmann said Jesus “viewed discipling as life-transference through the channel of relationship”.[5] Others have described making disciples as “relationship with direction”, that is, toward becoming like Jesus.

In the context of close relationship with his disciples, Jesus taught them. When Jesus commissioned them to do as he did, to go and make disciples, central to this was “teaching them to obey all I have commanded” (Matthew 28:20). All is a big word.

In their recent book Becoming a Missionary Church, authors Goheen and Sheridan say that to be effective in reaching Australia for Jesus “the church must take its stand within the biblical story and understand its culture in light of this story.”[6]

For the church to take its stand on the biblical story, its people must first know the biblical story, and their lives in its light. Gone is the era when our wider society transmitted this story.

I suspect “as in the culture, so in the church”, biblical illiteracy is on the rise.

I remember being in a university tutorial in Princeton University when the tutor explained something by referencing the meaning of Easter. Except for me, no student in the class knew anything about Easter. I suspect “as in the culture, so in the church”, biblical illiteracy is on the rise.

Central to discipling people is an ancient word called catechesis. In Center Church, Tim Keller invites churches to “recover catechesis”.[7] It means formation through biblical and theological instruction. Newbigin spells out the process of catechesis: “We have to hear, read, mark, and learn and inwardly digest the Bible, taking it wholly into ourselves in a way that shapes the very substance of our thinking and feeling and doing.”[8]

Practically, how might this be done effectively? Sunday sermons, while important, are ineffective as the primary means of catechesis. Roughly 30 minutes per week is insufficient to counter the deformation that comes through imbibing the messaging of our culture.

Here are three possible means of catechesis:

Adult Sunday school

When I lived in New Jersey in America, two churches I was connected with, one Presbyterian and the other Pentecostal, both ran something called Adult Sunday school before the Sunday service. It consisted of in-depth biblical and theological instruction and discussion over coffee and donuts. In the Pentecostal Church, about one-third of the congregation attended. They had cultivated a church cultural value of making “every effort to add to your faith … knowledge” (2 Peter 1:5). Leveraging the Sunday morning time slot in our time-poor culture is smart. In my view, it was effective.

Small groups

Second, small groups could fulfil this important catechetical function. Biblically and theologically rich curricula are crucial here, otherwise small groups become places of rich fellowship but not biblical instruction. The downside is small groups that excel at catechesis may be weaker at life-on-life fellowship, yet both are essential.

Church podcasts

Third, I know of an Australian church that runs a weekly podcast covering in-depth biblical content that a majority of the congregation listen to. This has the potential, when combined with in-person fellowship, to be quite effective.

These are but three ideas. Now is the time for experimentation.

The resurgence in discipleship talk is timely. Relationships and catechesis are the bread and butter of disciple-making. There are other important ingredients, such as training people to critique our culture in light of the gospel (Tim Keller calls it “counter-catechesis”), but that subject deserves its own article.

Churches and Christians that are discipled well will more effectively resist the spiritual deformation of our culture, and be better positioned to bear much fruit – and fruit that lasts.

Dr Adam Dodds is Theology Lecturer at Alphacrucis University College, Brisbane. He is also Teaching Pastor at Nexus Church, Brisbane. Find out more about him here.

[1] Adapted from Lesslie Newbigin, Truth And Authority In Modernity (Trinity Press International, 1996), 23.
[2] Including Dallas Willard, Bill Hull, Gregory Ogden, Jim Putman, Steve Murrell, Bill Mowry and Robert Coleman.
[3] Eugene Peterson, Travelling Light (IVP, 1982), 182.
[4] Lesslie Newbigin, Mission in Christ’s Way (WCC Publications, 1987), 1.
[5] Gunter Krallmann, Mentoring for Mission (Authentic, 2003), 57.
[6] Michael W. Goheen and Timothy M. Sheridan, Becoming a Missionary Church (Baker, 2022), 72.
[7] Tim Keller, Center Church (Zondervan, 2012), 316-7.
[8] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Eerdmans, 1995), 86-7.