2 Reasons We Should Expand Our Definition of Discipleship

Defining Discipleship…

Quick Note: If this post creates interest, I encourage you to check out this page: Church Growth Accelerator (https://gavinadams.com/church-discipleship-model/)

When you think about creating a “discipleship pathway,” who do you imagine participating?

Christians? Your congregation? A portion of your congregation? 

For most churches, “discipleship” is the expression aligned with growing the faith of Jesus-followers. And that’s understandable. But I’d like to suggest we revise our working definition to better engage with today’s culture and your community.

There are two reasons our previous definition of discipleship needs modification.

Two Reasons We Should Redefine Discipleship

Reason 1: The Bible defines discipleship for us.

In Matthew 28, Jesus offers us what we’ve labeled the “Great Commission.” I bet you know it by heart.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)

Go and make is the commission. But where are believers and the body of Christ supposed to “go?” We all know the answer: To unreached people in unreached places. So the great commission begins with evangelism and then progresses to edification. This is important for us as a church body if we believe the great commission is part of our collective calling.

Suppose we allow discipleship to remain focused upon growing the faith of followers. In that case, we are missing the first part of the command. As a church, we need to reach and grow. Evangelize and edify. We can’t focus on one, ignore the other, and experience missional success. 

To say it another way:

If your church discipleship process focuses only on your current congregation, you’re missing half of the command.

Reason 2: Discipleship begins well before people place their faith in Jesus.

When you ask churches about discipleship, those with a plan explain a program for their people. Again, and this is important, this program is primarily promoted and offered to and designed for insiders.

With this in mind, there are two issues to address. One, discipleship isn’t a program at all — it’s a process. It’s actually a never-ending process of renewing our minds. But even if we could reach a discipleship destination, we’d realize our calling also includes discipling others, so again, it doesn’t end.

This means we cannot accomplish discipleship through a program. We must create a planned process of movement.

But designing this process will be a bit more complex than we may think. The reason is we need to do more than design a pathway for insiders, leading us to our second issue. 

Developing a discipleship pathway for insiders is complicated enough, but if we take the Great Commission seriously, our exhaustive discipleship journey must begin with those in our community far from God and his church. We aren’t called to “go” to our congregation. The Great Commission is, at a minimum, about our community. And eventually, even the world. 

According to Jesus, discipleship begins when we initially engage with the lost and never really ends on this side of eternity. 

Backing Up the Process 

Most churches fully recognize discipleship as a central calling in their church, but too few open the definition as broadly as Jesus indicated. If we back the process up to reach those far from God and our church, we can design a more holistic and biblically accurate discipleship model.

Let’s not pretend this is simple, though. I mean, if we struggle to engage church people on a discipleship pathway, how much more complicated is it to inspire non-believers to consider a faith journey?

It can feel overwhelming to even consider this expanded definition. But having an intentional plan is the beginning of our solution. And, the more intentional we plan, the less overwhelmed we will be. 

How are you currently engaging those in your community far from God and your church? 

That’s our first discipleship question.

Wait. Is that the first question? Shouldn’t we start with “What’s our discipleship process?”

Well, the best discipleship processes are designed with people in mind. The people define the process. So if we start with the process, we may accidentally begin too far down the path, leaving out those in our community far from God and our church. Remember, our default is to design discipleship programs for our congregants. We’re attempting to develop a discipleship process for everyone reachable in our community.

So the critical question to ask first really is, “How are we engaging those in your community far from God and your church?” To answer this question best, list everything you’re currently doing to reach the unchurched and de-churched in your community. Next, critically evaluate how each item on your list is working. Resist the “good news organization” temptation. We tend to celebrate wins and make excuses for losses. Don’t do that. Be honest about your success and failures.

I work with plenty of churches on this topic. I often find that most churches don’t really know what’s working. Or if anything is working. The temptation is to count things like baptism, but that’s not an accurate indication of unchurched and de-churched reach. It indicates something about the process, but baptism isn’t a first step in a discipleship journey.

If you read that twice, I’m glad. And it kinda proves the point. When Christianity was cultural, things like baptism were pretty early in the process. But those times are gone. Long gone.

In a holistic discipleship journey, the very first church step for an unchurched or de-churched person in your community isn’t baptism. And it’s not a Gospel presentation, either.

What’s the Best First Step of Discipleship Today? 

I’m so glad you asked!

The first step for an unchurched or de-churched person in your community is viewing your Instagram Story or Reel or your website homepage above the fold (I.E., before the scroll). That is the beginning point of the process.

Read that again. It’s a critical element for engaging those in your community on a discipleship journey. 

The reason is simple: unchurched or de-churched people in your community are unchurched and de-churched for a reason. These people typically don’t see the church positively or feel it is relevant or helpful for their life. One more thing: Current research shows these people also don’t believe the church and church people are likable or would like them.

Hence, we begin (1) where they are and (2) by answering the question they are asking: “From what I initially see, do I like them, and do I believe they would like me?” 

This is where we begin.

If you want to create a discipleship process that is more holistic and reaches those far from God and your church, you can’t start in your church. You have to start the journey where strangers to your church currently are. In the wild. 

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