Want to stop “playing church” and focus on Jesus’ clear command to make disciples? The first and arguably most important step is to define disciple.
Without a clear, easy-to-understand, and, preferably memorable, definition, we will have minimal impact. Worse, we will frustrate teachers and leaders in our churches who may have alternate views of what a disciple is and does.
In a previous article, I offered three simple goals a church can pursue in creating a disciple-making culture. Those were the first steps, not a complete list.
What’s the definition?
Let’s look at an array of descriptions by leading disciple-makers. This list is not exhaustive. Please add to the list in the comments below. But you will see several similar themes and phrases throughout.
DID YOU KNOW? The English word disciple occurs 297 times in the Gospels and Acts (251 with the Greek word, mathetes), whereas the English word Christian only occurs three times. Paul and the gospel writers identify followers of Jesus as disciples, and Jesus commands us to make disciples. According to Jesus, others will know we are his followers by our love for one another.
A Warning and a Profile
Here’s a helpful and humbling observation from author Bill Hull. A disciple
- Is willing to deny self, take up a cross daily, and follow Him (Luke 9:23).
- Puts Christ before self, family, and possessions (Luke 14:25–35).
- Is committed to Christ’s teachings (John 8:31).
- Is committed to world evangelism (Matthew 9:36–38).
- Loves others as Christ loves (John 13:34–35).
- Abides in Christ, is obedient, bears fruit, glorifies God, has joy, and loves the brethren (John 15:7–17).
Hull states that “if a person is not willing to make such commitments, Jesus declares emphatically three times, ‘He cannot be my disciple (see Luke 14:26–27, 33).'”
Stated positively, in the same book, Hull identifies a disciple’s profile in six characteristics from John 15:
- a disciple remains in Christ through the Word and prayer (Jn 15:7)
- a disciple is obedient (Jn 15:9)
- a disciple bears fruit (Jn 15:8, 16)
- a disciple glorifies God (Jn 15:8)
- a disciple has joy (Jn 15:11)
- a disciple loves as Christ loves (Jn 15:12-14, 17)
One-Liners on Being a Disciple of Jesus
“Rearrange your life around the practices of Jesus.” —Bill Hull
“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus.” —Greg Ogden
“Being a disciple is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.” —Greg Ogden
“Increasingly bringing all of life under the submission and lordship of Jesus Christ.” —Jeff Vanderstelt and Caesar Kalinowski
In Daniel Im’s book No Silver Bullets, he identifies more one-liners:
- Dr. Robert Coleman describes a disciple as “a learner who’s following Christ.”
- Pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined a disciple as “one who adheres to Christ.”
- The philosopher and professor Dallas Willard defines a disciple as an individual who “desires above all else to be like Christ.”
- Henry Blackaby, the author of Experiencing God, defines a disciple as “one being taught by many means intentionally, in a specific direction.”
- Steve Murrell, the author of WikiChurch, breaks down a disciple into three aspects: “It’s following Jesus. It’s fishing for people. And it’s doing that in conjunction with others, in fellowship with others.”
But Wait There’s More
Dann Spader, one of the speakers from our Next Step Summit says a disciple is someone who “follows Christ and seeks to reflect both His character and priorities fully. His character is reflected in the fruit of the Spirit. His priorities are reflected in reproducing other disciple-makers.”
David Putman, another Next Step Summit speaker, says, “A gospel disciple is a follower of Jesus that is learning to live out the realities and implications of the gospel by living like Jesus, loving like Jesus, and leaving what Jesus left behind (which happens to be others who live and love like Jesus).”
In Thom Rainer’s Simple Church, he makes the following observation about Pastor Tony Cecil’s “defining process” at Immanuel Baptist Church:
Tony gathered a group of godly leaders in his church. They sought to define what kind of disciple they would seek to make at Immanuel. They concluded that fully committed believers would be intimate with God and other Christians, people who grow in their faith, and are servants in the kingdom of God.
Tony and the group chose to describe their discipleship focus as a process. They call it Connecting, Growing, Serving. First, Immanuel seeks to connect people to God and others. They desire to see people become “connecting believers.” Next they challenge “connecting believers” to become “growing believers” by engaging in opportunities for deeper spiritual growth. Finally, the process ends with “growing believers” committing to become “serving believers.”
Two Definitions Based on Matthew 4:19
“A disciple worships Jesus, is being changed by Jesus, and obeys Jesus increasingly in all of their life.” —Jeff Vanderstelt
“A disciple is defined in Matthew 4:19 as one who follows Jesus, is being changed by Jesus, and is committed to the mission of Jesus.” —Jim Putman
Less Confusion — More Clarity
Jesus provides a couple of descriptions. How can we take these and other verses to paint a clear, compelling picture?
“Jesus called out to them, ‘Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!’” (Matthew 4:19)
“Then he said to the crowd, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?’” (Luke 9:23-25)
“If you aim at nothin’, you hit it every time.” Let’s give our people a clear target of what we mean when we talk about or invite people to make disciples.
QUESTION (leave a comment below)
Which definition is your favorite? What’s another you’ve heard of?