When I first became a follower of Jesus in early 2004, I didn’t know my left from my right. Because I didn’t grow up as a Catholic, I concluded I must be an Anglican. Over time I ended up in a small house church plant, during that phase when every church plant was “emergent.” The framework hardly mattered to me. The only question I needed answered then is the same question I need answered today, “How do I follow Jesus?”
I was one of the first people to participate in the life of this beautiful emergent house church. I didn’t know what “discipleship” was, but I knew that I was being loved into a better person. That is what kept me coming back. I developed a friendship with the church planting couple. Time and time again they invited me into their lives, answered my questions, gently tried to recalibrate my direction as necessary, taught me how to open up the Scriptures, and consistently demonstrated a quality of life that was down right appealing. They took an organic approach to discipleship — and it worked really well for me.
When I took my turn at church planting in 2012, I began reading about discipleship and the endless different approaches and methods: one-on-one, triads, groups of twelve, classes, content. There are many helpful options and resources out there for the church. But none of them have been “it” for the people of St. Peter’s Fireside. I’m continually pulled back to an organic approach.
I have been reflecting on insights about discipleship I’ve gleaned over the past six years. Here are a few:
First, discipleship is the signature of mission.
Most agree that participating in God’s mission (or “being missional”) includes evangelism and social justice. But it’s helpful to state the obvious: these practices are underwritten by discipleship.
God is making for himself a body, a people, a holy dwelling for his Spirit. To re-appropriate an illustration from Mark Johnson for my purposes, “As the heart is in the body, so the body is in the world.” If we are inescapably “in the world” then we must assume (as cognitive psychologists do) that, as individuals and communities are transformed, so is culture. Cultural transformation begins with discipleship.
In other words, the formation of people into the likeness of Christ is not just an act of God’s mission — one could argue it is the mission. The more the Holy Spirit forms us, degree by degree, into the likeness of Jesus, the more we will not only engage in acts of mission but also be an expression of God’s mission.
When people or churches fail to make the love of Jesus known through any means possible, that’s ultimately a discipleship problem. If we’re only forming/equipping people to reach others or engage in social projects, then our aim is too small. The ultimate mission of the church is to exist “to the praise of God’s glory” (Eph 1:1–14) — so we must seek to disciple people for this purpose.
Second, how you were discipled may or may not be normative.
If you are convinced that discipleship is essential for missional ministry, you still have to decide how to do it. I am convinced that the way someone is first discipled deeply informs how they will go about making disciples in the future. For years, I have embraced the organic approach — and have come back to it time and time again when other approaches don’t seem to work.
But here’s what we must recognize: how you were discipled may or may not be normative. This is most evident for the person who never received any formal discipleship but now intentionally disciples others. We can’t assume that what worked for me will work for others. People aren’t that simple.
Third, you need a vision for what a disciple looks like.
How will you know when someone has become a flourishing disciple and follower of Jesus? Do they look and act more like you and your contextual expression of Christianity? Do they emulate Paul? Does discipleship necessitate that they become a leader in your church?
One of my concerns about drawing on ‘models’ from the New Testament is that we fail to contextualize them appropriately. For example, when we make an argument for discipling in groups of twelve and groups of three, this is often anchored by the practices of Jesus. However, wasn’t his approach specifically for creating Apostles? This doesn’t mean we can’t re-appropriate it. But is the approach Jesus demonstrates the same approach we apply to everyone? When we turn to the pages of Acts, the collective practices of discipleship (gathering together, teaching, prayer, breaking of bread, sharing resources, caring for others) tend to be highlighted over the Apostolic practices.
Consider my working definition of a disciple: “Disciples are empowered by the Spirit to become like Christ. Together they are learning and practicing the ways of Jesus for the building up of the church and for the sake of the world.” Whatever definition you develop, it needs to be consistent with Scripture and sensitive to your context. Once you have a clear vision of the end, you can work on the means.
Fourth, there is no silver bullet (although I wish there was).
Everyone who writes a book on discipleship thinks their approach is worthwhile, otherwise they wouldn’t have written it. The publisher agrees, otherwise the book wouldn’t have made it to the shelves. It is easy to get caught up in someone’s particular vision/model/system for a season — only to give up on it when it doesn’t produce the results you were hoping to attain.
Let me save you some time: you are not going to find a single resource that solves the challenge of discipleship. Why? Because there are two uncontrollable factors: people and the Holy Spirit. If you keep this in mind, you’ll find more freedom as you wade into the resources.
I am biased toward the one-on-one approach to discipleship, but this is not the only approach we use at St. Peter’s Fireside. We approach discipleship through a communal/collective lens: through Catechism, Community Groups, and Sunday Worship. We also approach discipleship through a spiritual disciplines/practices lens. We equip people with internally created resources such as the Daily Offices and having a Rhythm of Life (or Rule of Life). We are working to help people understand how they change and have an intentional vision for pursuing Jesus.
Finally, we also have identified the specific steps people need to take before being released and empowered within the church as leaders. They must first demonstrate a willing heart to serve (offering their time, skill, finance), and they must participate in the life of our community for at least a year.
The next step is to participate in our leadership training for Community Groups. Emerging leaders begin by serving as a co-leaders alongside leaders, who are overseen by “coaches.” After a year or two of serving in this capacity, they then begin to serve as leaders.
Once a leader has multiplied a Community Group, they begin coaching other leaders. Our coaches are discipled directly by our pastors. Since Community Groups are the backbone of our efforts, if someone does not serve in this capacity it rarely opens up opportunities to serve in other leadership capacities.
This is what we do, imperfectly at best.
Along the way, I identify leaders who demonstrate a strong sense of calling to vocational or public ministry and invite them into a one-on-one discipleship process. With these emerging leaders, we meet over coffee every two weeks and I invite them to share in the life of my family. With them, I generally follow the basic structure most recently articulated by Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird as:
“I do. You watch. We talk.
I do. You help. We talk.
You do. I help. We talk.
You do. I watch. We talk.
You do. Someone else watches.”
All of these approaches are slowly producing healthy disciples. They exist in a holistic, interdependent relationship. But the reality on the ground is messier than it sounds in the paragraphs above. Sadly, there is no silver bullet for discipleship. It is usually a slower process than we’d like. The good news is that ultimately forming people into the image of Christ is the responsibility of the Spirit. Our responsibility is to nurture an environment, whether simple or multifaceted, where this can take place.
Finally, all discipleship is contextual
There is no cut and dry vision for what a healthy disciple looks like and there is no one way to make disciples. We cannot assume that what works in one setting will definitely work in another. It might, it might not. Context matters.
For example, in the urban context of Vancouver, we try not to ask for more than two commitments from someone in a week. However, in slower paced environments, asking for more may not be unrealistic. Another contextual choice is our Community Group model. Groups cycle through a rhythm of up (study), in (confession, listening, prayer), out (serving in the city), and with (connecting with the larger body). The de-emphasis on Bible study is only possible because of other avenues we offer for engaging Scripture. This may not be helpful in other environments. Furthermore, we’re finding our Community Group model only serves specific demographics well. It may not work for a church abounding with young families (a steadily growing demographic for us, which is challenging us to [re]consider how to disciple families well).
Both the environment, the person, and the communal understanding of the Scriptures will factor into what discipleship looks like in your church. Whatever approach you take needs to wrestle with these tensions and needs to be continually evaluated along the way. In your setting, the only approach to discipleship that actually matters is the one that results in disciples. Whatever you’re doing should be biblical, practical, and helpfully answering the question, “How do I follow Jesus?”
Alastair Sterne serves as lead pastor of St. Peter’s Fireside in Vancouver, British Columbia. Prior to planting St. Peter’s, he worked in communications and design. Alastair completed CTC’s International Intensive in 2011 and is part of the C2C Network in Canada. He is currently working on a doctorate in missiology at Fuller Seminary.