Apr 30, 2018
Discipleship: Process not Product
Darrick Smith writes about a recent shift in his understanding of discipleship—It’s about the process, not the product.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a brainstorming session with a few campus ministers on Historically Black Colleges & Universities in North Carolina. The goal of the session was to identify some of the challenges affecting their ministry efforts to HBCUs in order to develop some possible strategies. As we continued to dialogue several challenges arose: a disproportionate of male involvement, time management struggles, a lack of financial wisdom, theological fallacies, mental health problems, all the way to the misconception that Christianity is a “white man’s” religion. As I listened to the conversation, the word discipleship kept coming to my mind. Over and over and over again the word discipleship was jumping out at me and this led me down a rabbit trail of asking several questions, which ultimately led me to rethinking how I defined discipleship.
When is the last time you stopped to ask yourself, “What is a disciple? What is discipleship?”
What Is a Disciple?
Early on in collegiate ministry my view of a disciple was very limited. According to the APEST Assessment, I am an APE (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist). This means that I am wired and have a natural proclivity towards evangelism and multiplication. I get most excited about being around lost people and sharing the gospel as well as multiplying the heck out of things. A lot of my ministry friends are completely opposite of me and are phenomenal shepherds and teachers. But I bet you can imagine how I was leading those around me and what I exclusively thought a disciple was? That’s right, I wanted everyone to be an APE. My definition of a disciple was one who makes disciples- they multiplied themselves and they did it quickly. This isn’t entirely wrong (See Matt. 4:19; Matt. 28:18-20; John 20:21; Acts 1:8). However, I had a very unbalanced view of what a disciple was and it led me to some unhealthy places in my ministry.
If we want to have a more robust discipleship process then we must begin with a more robust definition of what a disciple is. The basic definition of a disciple is a learner. One who adheres to the teachings of another. One who becomes like the one they are following. If we take this basic definition and apply it to Jesus then a disciple of Jesus is someone who follows Jesus, imitates Jesus, and learns to conform to the teachings of Jesus (John 13). The Gospels paint a clear picture of what a disciple of Jesus is and does. While making more disciples is what a disciple does (John 20:21), it’s not the ONLY thing a disciple does. A disciple of Jesus: 1) Loves their neighbor as themselves (Mark. 12:30-31). 2) Cares for the poor (Luke 12:12-14. 3) Serves others (Mark 10:45). 4) Gives generously (Matt. 42). 5) Stewards their time and talents (Matt. 25:14-30). The list could go on and on. The key thing to remember is that your definition of a disciple will have a direct impact on your discipleship process. It’s quite difficult for you to evaluate whether or not your discipleship process is effective if you and those you are leading don’t have a clear and unified framework of what a disciple is.
What Is Discipleship?
Every year there are probably hundreds of conferences put on around the world centered on discipleship. Sometimes I wish I could be at all of them to compare notes. Do they all define discipleship the same way? Do they all use the same biblical texts when talking about discipleship? What does discipleship mean to the speaker? To the people in the room?
If a disciple of Jesus is a learner and one who conforms to the teachings of Jesus in order to become like Jesus, then discipleship is the systematic and creative process that allows the necessary space by which one becomes like Jesus. I remember going into my second year of collegiate ministry and having been highly discouraged and disappointed with where the ministry was. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything right, which is probably true but after spending some time reflecting on my practice, here is what I discovered…. the Bible contains everything I need in order to carry out the ministry God had called me to. It was in studying the Scriptures more and less reading what everyone else was doing that I discovered a few things about discipleship:
1. Discipleship is more about a process than an end result.
I was so consumed with producing an end product (maturing students who were living on mission and living sacrificially for the gospel) at the end of my student’s senior year that I neglected their felt needs. They needed more than just me finding every opportune time to share verses that dealt with evangelism, living on mission, and making sacrifices for the Kingdom. They didn’t want to hear me scream at them all the time, “Make disciples, go on a mission trip, give two years of your life to a church plant or mission team” while neglecting some of their deeper needs.
They were people created in the image of God and there was more to them than just merely making disciples. I discovered quickly that in my pursuit of trying to urge them to make disciples, I was a poor disciple-maker myself. They were having family problems, academic struggles, mental health issues, and what I was asking of them in those moments was insensitive to their needs. I didn’t have the patience to deal with those other things because my goal was to “produce an end product” selfishly.
Jesus had remarkable patience with is disciples as he journeyed with them. Did he have an end product in mind? Absolutely– conformity to Him that wouldn’t ultimately be fulfilled until heaven. If the end goal of our discipleship process is maturity and conformity to Christ then it doesn’t matter how long it takes us to get there, just as long as we are headed in the right direction. When you have this type of heart posture then you won’t grow weary and easily frustrated with those you are leading. At the end of the day, you don’t have the power to change people but the Spirit does. It’s about the process!
2. The task is to make disciples of Jesus not counterfeit disciples.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “If everyone could just wake up at 5am and do their quiet time and then go out to make disciples then ministry would be great?” Have you ever just wanted your students to show up early to events, share their faith, disciple others, go on mission trips, and then spend two-years overseas? Don’t you just wish that everyone you discipled thought like you and were just YOU? I know exactly how you feel. We often want those we are leading to be what I call mini me’s—we want them to be like us as if we are the standard.
I have a Type-A personality—highly disciplined, organized and very focused. I live by a schedule and I hate flexibility. This is what I expected of my students as well. So, when they were not meeting those self-centered and sinful expectations that I subconsciously created for them, I got frustrated. It didn’t take long before the Holy Spirit showed me that my frustrations were rooted in pride. I thought I was better than them and that they needed to be like me. Not how it works. Discipleship is not about you. It’s not about you conforming your students into your image; it’s about you faithfully following Jesus and obeying his word while faithfully pointing your students to Christ and his word. The goal isn’t to produce counterfeit disciples conformed into your image but disciples who are conformed into the image of God.
You can’t achieve an end goal if everyone isn’t on the same page.
At the conclusion of our brainstorming session we discovered that for so long we have assumed a definition of what a disciple was and what discipleship meant (mainly a fine-tuned end product). Not only that, but the students we are leading didn’t have a clear understanding of what a disciple was or what discipleship was. This inevitably causes unhealthy and unbalanced disciples and thwarts our discipleship process. Discipleship encompasses a lot. Whatever it means to you will be critical to the effectiveness of your entire discipleship process. It is important that you seek to have everyone in your ministry on the same playing field as this will help your movement!