Is Our Understanding of Discipleship Anemic?

A generation ago, many (most?) churches had a problem with discipleship. In many ways, that became the concern of a generation in evangelical churches across North America. The concept of discipleship had been whittled down to nothing more than conversionist tactics. Walking an aisle and praying a prayer was all that it took to be a disciple. There was little emphasis placed on what happened the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

This old view of making disciples at its worst led to manipulative tactics and emotionalism as a means of getting people out of their seat and down the aisle. Or, it attempted a hard sell sitting in their living room so that they would pray the prayer. However, at best, this understanding led to immature Christians with little concern for the ongoing process of sanctification and spiritual formation. These are the kinds of Christians Paul admonishes in 1 Corinthians 3 as infants in Christ, saying they could not take the solid food of Christian teaching. These are the people that Jesus refers to in Matthew 13 when he says, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt. 13:20-12).

Today, after a generation of concern with lack of discipleship, we run the risk of an anemic discipleship of a different kind. Instead of having little concern for what happens after conversion, the sole focus of making disciples becomes taking people who already believe like us and making them better at believing like us. I see it regularly as a pastor. A young seminary student in my church walks up to me and says they want to “be discipled.” In this student’s head is most often images of early morning coffeeshop conversations over a book on practical theology or spiritual disciplines. Perhaps it includes accountability where we take turns sharing all the bad stuff we did for the last week and admonishing each other to not do it again.

Of course, I am being somewhat tongue in cheek. Those conversations are good conversations, and accountability is a good thing (although it works a lot better when it is proactive instead of reactive), but when we reduce discipleship to a believer being told how to be a better believer, we miss a key component of making disciples.

Are you a disciple if you are not making disciples?

At a real base level, being a disciple is being a follower. In the African language I learned as a missionary, the term for disciple literally translated as one who falls into the footsteps of another. That is a good understanding of discipleship. You go where your leader goes, you do what your leader does. It is less cognitive and more affective and active.

When we speak of Christianity, that rings true as disciples of Christ follow him. His words ring out, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4). He tells his disciples that they are sent as he was sent (Jn 20). Our mission is a continuation of his mission. Mark tells us he came preaching the good news of the kingdom (Mk 1), and that is what we are to do as well. Jesus was a disciple maker. It is unfair to claim you are following in his footsteps unless you are doing the same.

But here is the rub: an anemic understanding of discipleship leads to anemic disciples. As long as we think discipleship simply refers to believers growing in their faith, then we can excuse using all of our time in those coffeeshop meetings above and still feel like we are living as faithful disciples. There is a small diner right up the road from our seminary. Every morning a string of men and women flow in and out, Bibles in hand, for discipleship meetings. Too often, we equate spiritual maturity with how many of these meetings we have. Pastors are no exception. We can feel we are good at making disciples while spending all of our time with people that are already disciples.

Making disciples requires evangelism.

When Jesus gave us the Great Commission, his words dictated an all-encompassing mission of preaching the gospel to a world full of unbelievers and raising them up to be mature, baptized believers who obey all of his word. That is a holistic mission. A generation ago, it was common for us to stop at the preaching part. Today, I think it is common for us to promote an understanding of discipleship that leaves off the part about preaching to unbelievers. Making disciples must include making new disciples. This requires evangelism. Real discipleship, biblical discipleship, starts with lost people, includes gospel proclamation, and continues along with them as they grow in the commands of Christ.

An anemic view of discipleship gives us a false sense of accomplishment while allowing us to justify an aversion to evangelism. What is more, it teaches those people we disciple that they can be mature Christians with doing evangelism as well. Remember, being a disciple is following in the footsteps of another. If all of our ministry attention is given to coffeeshop meetings with believers, then those believers learn not only from our words but our actions. When was the last time discipleship meant taking someone with you to meet people and share the gospel with them?

My point is not that we need to stop having coffeeshop conversations. I had one this morning with a young man in my church, and I thank God for that time. However, we need to be clear when we say we are making disciples that it includes preaching the gospel to those who do not currently believe it. If we do, those coffeeshop conversations will produce better disciples, and we will all be spending more time seeking out the lost.

7 thoughts on “Is Our Understanding of Discipleship Anemic?

  1. I believe that the reason that our “discipleship” is so anemic is that we have missed the first point of being a disciple of Jesus; actually knowing what Jesus said and did. I know that sounds simplistic but ask yourself, “How many Christians do you know who actually know what Jesus said and did?” “How can we follow someone who we don’t know what they said and did?”

    Look through the gospels and count how many times Jesus specifically referenced what he said. By my count, over 40 times, Twice as many times as we have Him recorded saying “follow me”. Eight times as many as we have Him recorded saying “believe in me”. In the first century a disciple of Jesus would have memorized what Jesus said and did and then imitated Him. That would have been the definition of a disciple. How many people could we call disciples today if we actually kept the biblical definition of the word?

    Instead, we have tried to reduce everything Jesus said to, “Love God and love others.” Which was not even technically a direct command of Jesus but rather an answer to a question about what was the greatest Old Testament command. We only have a record of it twice and it seems to be the same instance, which would mean as far as we know, Jesus only ever said it once. Jesus never made those commands the center of His message or built a sermon on them. By contrast, at least 40 times He emphasized knowing and keeping all His words, commands and teachings.

    “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Matthew 7:24

    Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Mark 9:7

    Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. Luke 9:26

    To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32

    “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.” John 12:48

    “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” John 14:21

    “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” John 12:26

    We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. 1 John 2:3-6

    There are plenty more examples in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. How can we do what He commanded and live as He lived if we don’t know all that He commanded and did?


    1. Curt, I cannot agree more that we must know what Jesus said and did. There is a real common tendency today, though, to divorce knowing from doing. You don’t truly know if you do not follow, and following certainly includes making new disciples through evangelism… a task I believe we could all concern ourselves with more. Thanks for chiming in!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s