by Michael Kelley
Simplicity is a beautiful thing.
It’s also a very elusive thing. We live in a day and time when everything seems to be more complex than the next thing, whether in terms of technology, relationships, or what kind of coffee to buy (or not to buy). We are complex people with complex feelings about complex issues. That’s why when you stumble upon something simple, no matter what it is, it’s immediately appealing (or at least it is for me). The bright light of simplicity shines forth good and straight and true in the midst of the dull bulbs of complication.
Is it possible, though, that we also have a love of complexity? That though we express a desire out loud for life to be simpler, we secretly treasure the complex in our hearts? I think that may in fact be true when it comes to something else we have a knack for complicating – discipleship.
There’s no doubt of the importance of growing spiritually in Christ. Why, then, is the concept of discipleship something we struggle with so mightily? Perhaps this is one of those areas in which we have some level of love of the complex, and as a result, we over complicate what spiritual growth really is. The question, then, in the midst of all the ink that has been spilled (some of it mine) on the subject of discipleship, all the systems and programs and models of discipleship, and all the tools and diagrams meant to illustrate it, is what’s at the core of it all?
I’d suggest these four principles:
1. Discipleship is progressive.
From the moment we are born again into new life in Christ, we are on a journey that is progressive in nature. Day by day, it is God’s intention for all Christians, regardless of their stage in life, background, or culture, to progress in maturity to be conformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
Paul the Apostle described this progressive journey toward Christ-likeness like this in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
The work of the Holy Spirit in us, in every Christian, is transformative in nature. Though we are born again brand new in Christ, the Holy Spirit spends the rest of our lives bringing out actions, thoughts, and feelings into line with what has already happened in our souls – that is, making us more and more like Jesus.
2. Discipleship is disciplined.
True discipleship does not happen by accident. On this subject, Paul told young Timothy, his son in the faith:
“But have nothing to do with irreverent and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness, for the training of the body has a limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7-9).
We must, if we are going to be serious about discipleship, commit ourselves to a disciplined kind of life. That means doing things like praying, reading and memorizing Scripture, sharing our faith, meditating on God’s Word, even when we don’t feel like it. When we commit ourselves to these disciplines, we are embracing the work of the Holy Spirit in us to transform us into the image of Jesus.
3. Discipleship is also relational.
The journey we are on, we are on it together. And we are meant to not only walk together but also to guide each other as we walk. God intends not only that we have friends among believers, but that we are actively involved with someone who is discipling us and then someone or a group of people that we are discipling.
In Acts 8 we find Philip coming upon an Ethiopian eunuch reading the text of the Bible. Their exchange is helpful for us to see:
“The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go and join that chariot.’ When Philip ran up to it, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:28-30).
How beautiful. Here was a man in whom the Spirit of God had obviously been working, and yet what was needed at that point as a guide. An interpreter. Someone seasoned in the faith to give direction to all the thoughts and feelings that he was having. God intends that we serve this role for each other. The truth is that there are scores of spiritual infants in the church today. How many of these have the same question as this Ethiopian man on their lips? How many more mature disciples would we see if there were, indeed, some people to actually guide them?
4. Discipleship is replicable.
Replication is the responsibility of every Christian. In other words, we were meant to be disciples who make disciples. This is the pattern that Paul laid out for his son in the faith, Timothy, in 2 Timothy 2:2:
“And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
If you look at this passage closely, you see four generations of disciples represented. There is Paul – generation 1. And Paul invested in the life of Timothy – that’s generation 2. Then Timothy was to commit what he learned from Paul to many others – that’s our third generation. And the many others are meant to teach others also – generation number 4.
For the longest time, this process of multiplying discipleship has been reserved for the select few – only the most spiritual among us. But God’s intent is that this process of multiplying disciples be the rule, rather than the exception. That every Christian wakes up to the fact that they are called to be a disciple who makes disciples.
With these principles in mind, Lifeway has created Disciples Path: The Journey. It’s a year long intentional plan of discipleship created with the philosophy that discipleship is progressive, disciplined, relational and replicable. You can download a free preview of the study at disciplespath.com.
God’s will for our lives is not only that we make converts, but that we make disciples. It’s not only that we see people born again, but that we see them matured into disciple-making Christians. Just as a newborn baby is not sent immediately out into the world without being put on the right path for growth and development, so the first step for us in seeing this vision come to pass is making sure that there is a progressive, disciplined, relational, and replicable pathway in place. It’s then that we will begin to see people grow into all the fullness of what God intends them to be in Christ.
Michael Kelley is the Director of Groups Ministry at Lifeway Christian Resources, and author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal, Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life, and Transformational Discipleship.