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What is a Disciple?

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” –Matthew 28:19

Last week, I attended a meeting hosted by a friend of mine named Vicki Gatchell, a representative of Navigator Church Ministries. NCM is a great ministry that comes alongside churches to help them become a community that makes disciples. I would encourage you to check out this ministry and specifically how Vicki is serving if you live in northeast Indiana or northwest Ohio. You can Google Navigator Church Ministries and Vicki is on Facebook.

I came away from the meeting thinking more broadly about this whole concept of discipleship. The Bible says that a Jesus follower is supposed to be a disciple and, according to Jesus’ final words to a group of his disciples provided at the beginning of this reflection, the church is supposed to make them. But it all begs the question, what is a disciple? Did you know the word appears in the Bible 296 times and all but 2 of those occasions (in the Old Testament book of Isaiah) are found in the four gospels and the book of the Acts of the Apostles. This fact leads me to believe that, if you want to know what a disciple is, you need to study the lives of the original ones described in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. It is also important to think about how Jesus grew and shaped them into disciples. The Italian artist Duccio painted the wood panel above depicting a scene in this process.

Of course, a lot has changed since then. The American church is very different from that band, and then crowd, of men and women who followed Jesus all over Palestine and Syria in the first century. The same could be said of the churches in other nations as well. It is clear from the command of Jesus that He has given the responsibility of “making” disciples to us, those who love the Lord and want our lives to illustrate our devotion to Him. Some things He does and some things we are supposed to do. We get into trouble when we confuse the two. The Lord saves people from their sin but He asks us to share our stories, what He has done for us, to partner with Him in drawing people to repentance. The Lord heals people; he asks us to pray for the sick. We need to keep the roles straight or we will fall into a pit of arrogance taking credit for His work.

On most occasions, you need to know what you are making, and how to make it, to be successful in the production process. Not always. During World War 2, factory workers living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and building the component parts of the atomic bomb were not told what they were working on. One day, one of them was asked what she was making and she said, “About a dollar and 25 cents an hour.” However, if you are making disciples, I think it is a good idea to know what one is. What does one look like or act like? And believe it or not, I think a lot of American Christians would have a hard time answering that question.

I’m fairly certain there are ways that you don’t make a disciple, based on what I read in the gospels and Acts. I don’t think you put people in a room and lecture to them about how to be a disciple. This simply perpetuates the spectator mentality that American churches often unwittingly produce and then have to battle. A classroom setting for the process wouldn’t work either. And I’m not crazy about books with formulas, the “Seven Steps,” to becoming a disciple. There are programs with rules, no doubt well-meaning but controlling nonetheless, that people have to observe in order to become disciples. If they break the rules often enough, they get dropped from the group or the program. I’d be fearful that this type of process could produce legalism instead of enthusiastic discipleship.

It boils down to the distinction that I wrote about 2 paragraphs ago. The Lord makes us holy, sanctified, like Him, through His Spirit. We don’t do any of that through our own efforts. Instead, we encourage people to live out the transforming work of the Lord in their lives and walk with them through life as they do so. That is what it means to make disciples. It is a relational process, because we need each other to make it happen. It is an organic process because it defies all of our manmade strategies and formulas to produce it or coerce it. And it is an intentional process because Jesus told us to make it happen; it is something He definitely wants us to do.

I plan to write a number of reflections in the coming weeks trying to flesh out exactly what a disciple is. How is it possible to know if I am a disciple of Jesus or if I am doing what Jesus commanded in making one? The only way to answer this question is to study the part of the Bible where disciples are described and made—the gospels and the Book of Acts. I suspect that the profile of a disciple will have much more to do with who he or she is rather than what she or he does. That is the way of the Lord—He is always more interested in who He is making me to be than what I can do for Him. I invite you to check out these future reflections and join the conversation either through a comment or an email.

Heavenly Father, we all want to fall more in love with You and to be more obedient to Your will and Your way for our lives. Please help us. Show us what it means to be truly devoted to following You for the rest of our lives. We cannot do it without Your presence through Your Spirit, Your provision through Your grace and mercy, and Your Power generated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. In His Name we ask this, Amen.

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Apr 07, 2022

Great thoughts, Ben! What Jesus did "with" or alongside, is what stuck!

As we "make" disciples, I always want to keep in mind that Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. That keeps me in my place, dependent on God, where I need to be. May God multiply the work of all our hands!

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