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At its most basic, discipleship is the process of a person being transformed into the image of Christ. This means that the individual will come to have the character, purpose, speech, and actions of Jesus. While this definition helps us understand the purpose of discipleship, it will be more helpful for creating a plan to explore a wider description of discipleship.
It is an unfortunate reality that not everyone who professes to be a Christian believes they need to be discipled. Many believe that discipleship is an “extra” for an elite few. In reality, the process of discipleship is for every person who has committed themselves as a Christian. In fact, the very name means Christ-follower. Therefore, every Christian is a disciple and needs to intentionally pursue discipleship as their lifestyle.
Like other important roles in our lives (such as a spouse or parent), being a disciple requires us to be intentional. Because we have been formed by the world our whole lives, we will not become like Jesus without intentional effort. So, discipleship is a determination of our will and effort to relinquish the things in us that do not match Jesus and to take up the things that are of him.
So far discipleship has been described in individual terms. However, discipleship cannot be done in isolation. If the process of discipleship is about exchanging one formation for another as described above, then we do not have what we need within us to be discipled. To successfully be transformed into the image of Christ we must rely on the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has been poured out on the church at Pentecost and is imparted to believers at baptism as our ongoing teacher (in light of Jesus’ ascension into heaven). It is the Spirit of Christ who is leading us and transforming us into the image of Christ. The Spirit works primarily through the body of Christ. In order to be discipled, we need other Christians. Discipleship is a process of Christians teaching and helping other Christians to be like Jesus. In short, the lifestyle of discipleship is lived out in the Spirit infused community of Christ, where members can both give and receive discipleship.
A consequence of saying that discipleship is a lifestyle is the conviction that it is not a program. We cannot take a 6 week, 12, or even a 1-year discipleship course and conclude that we have been discipled. Rather, our commitment to discipleship is lifelong. As long as we live (in this present age) we will always need this transformation process into the image of Christ. Discipleship programs can be a helpful part of the process, but they are only one step on a lifelong journey.
Up until now the focus of the discipleship process has been on the transformation of a member of the church into the image of Christ. As important as this process is, it cannot be an end in itself. The call on every disciple of Jesus is to disciple others. This is simply another angle of vision on what we have already said about the community. Each one of us is called to disciple others: journeying, teaching, encouraging, reading, praying, and holding accountable other Jesus followers. A key part of our discipleship is replicating our discipleship in others.
We have said that discipleship is the process of becoming less like the world and more like Jesus. Again, this is a process of re-formation from one to the other. This means that we need an alternative source (or world) for this new formation. We have already described the community of the Spirit (producing the fruits of the Spirit) and the church (utilizing the gifts of the Spirit). In addition, if being like Jesus is our goal, then we must look at Jesus. This means that we must study Scripture. Scripture is our primary source for our new world and the chief vehicle that the Spirit speaks through. Added to this is the discipline of prayer. Properly understood, prayer is communion with God which is an important means for us to be transformed. Finally, worship is essential. We become what we focus on and worship is the expression of our focus on God as worthy of praise.
We have been using the language of a process as discipleship doesn’t happen instantly, again it’s lifelong. Scripture uses agricultural metaphors when speaking of the kingdom of God and discipleship because like a plant growing discipleship takes time. So discipleship is a combination of people having experiences and new learning, but then there must be time for these things to germinate in the person. A crucial element of discipleship is space for reflection and new growth.
Discipleship—the process of helping people become like Jesus—is happening at Northview. It is and has been, one of our core values. When we map out the various ministries at Northview, we see that most, if not all, can contribute to the process of discipleship. However, like all things, there is room for improvement.
Much of contemporary evangelical Christianity is built around spectatorship. In our desire to have people become Christians, we have lowered Christianity to mere contractual salvation. As a result, we have deemphasized discipleship or have made it a second step that people are encouraged to pursue when they are ready. This thinking has affected Northview as well. For many, the extent of their participation in the Christian life is to attend Sunday worship services, perhaps a few times per month. We want to invite and encourage everyone at Northview to experience a deeper relationship with Jesus through discipleship.
Action: As a result of the misconception that discipleship is not for everyone, we need to continue to emphasize that discipleship is Christianity and therefore is a necessity for all. We also need to continue building our relationships so that we can challenge and invite individuals who stand at the margins to move in.
As we said above, much of the ministry at Northview can and does contribute to the process of discipleship. However, there has been a history of lumping everything under the heading of discipleship. But, as we pointed out in our gathering document, these various ministries are not themselves discipleship. They simply can contribute to discipleship. One example is that Christian Education can help a person read Scripture better, but it does not ensure that a person is reading Scripture to become more like Jesus. In short, all of Northview’s ministries should intentionally contribute to a person’s larger discipleship transformation. With that in mind, we have mapped some of Northview’s ministries onto M. Robert Mulholland Jr’s “Classical Christian Pilgrimage.”
This first stage is an encounter with the living God and with our true self. The experience can be gradual or radical.
• Overcomers Outreach
• Corporate Worship
• Community Calls for Care
• Youth Group
• Mom’s Group
• Family Camp
• Man Camp
• Ladies Retreat
• Personal conversations with neighbours/family
The process of bringing our behaviour, attitudes, and desires into greater harmony with a growing sense of the Christian life.
• Sunday Service
• Accountability Partnership
• Devotional Reflection
• Overcomers Outreach
• Discipleship Micro Group
• Pastoral/Spiritual Direction
Illumination is a total consecration to God in love. God is given absolute control of the relationship. Wesley calls this “Christian Perfection.”
• Community Connections
• Prayer Ministry
• Study of Scripture: Christian Education
• Board Meetings
• Mom’s Group
• More emphasis on the social concern (globally)
This is complete oneness with God. We are caught up in joy, adoration, praise, and deep peace. It is a gift of God’s grace, not our efforts.
• Christian Education
• Christian Perfection (community)
• Small Groups
• Accountability Partnerships
• Micro Groups
Action: As a church, we need to continue to emphasize the need for a lifestyle of discipleship rather than encouraging people to participate in a “program.” We also need to connect with our ministry leaders to ensure they understand the distinction and where their ministry fits within the transformation process.
In the Old Testament God forms for himself the people of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus forms the church (this is not a replacement: in the NT Israel is redefined as Jew+Gentile and is called the church). Discipleship, like salvation, is a corporate affair. Our discipleship cannot be assigning people homework in order to become like Jesus. Rather, we are discipled in the context of the community. This means that we need small communities—smaller than small groups—of 3 to 4 people to pursue the lifestyle of discipleship together.
Action: We are encouraging those who participated in the Discipleship study to prayerfully discern 2 or 3 people to approach to move into an intentional discipling relationship. These groups should meet weekly to read Scripture together, pray, confess sin, and discern how God is moving in their lives. While the more mature disciple in the group can facilitate, the ideal will be for everyone to participate in the group’s leadership.
One key component in our study was that discipleship often does not happen because people do not have an understanding that they have been called to disciple others. This is born out of a certain fuzziness of what discipling means and entails. As well there is a suspicion that a person needs a certain education and technical proficiency to lead. The truth is, we are all called to disciple others: non-Christians into the kingdom and Christians deeper into it.
Action: It is critical that people being invited into a discipleship community should understand that they will be asked at the end of the group time (between 1 to 2 years) to prayerfully discern 2 to 3 others to do discipleship with. This means that our discipleship groups are organic. They will simply speak at the level of those leading and participating. New Christians or non-Christians will need to focus on beginnings and basics while mature Christians will need to be challenged to go deeper.