Dallas Willard has famously said that, since making disciples is the main task of the church, every church ought to be able to answer two questions:
- What is our plan for making disciples of Jesus?
- Is our plan working?
I have a new huddle starting this week, and at our first gathering I will walk people through the big picture of how I have come to think about and practice making disciples and training leaders. In conjunction with this, I’ll be posting a six-part series that outlines my philosophy and practice of discipleship; my personal answer to Willard’s first question.
It’s not that I have it all figured out, of course, and I am basically just doing things I’ve learned from Dallas Willard, Mike Breen, and countless others. I know I still have an immense amount to learn, but in the past few years several things have settled into place for me, and it seemed like a good idea to distill and condense many of the various pieces into a coherent “manifesto” on discipleship, if you will. So, without further ado, here’s my plan for making disciples of Jesus.
What is discipleship?
Jesus’ main command to his followers before he ascended to heaven was to make disciples. One of the common misconceptions of discipleship is that it means “knowing more about the Bible” or “attending church services more often.” While these may be good things, they don’t get to the essence of what it means to be a disciple. The word for “disciple” in the New Testament literally means “learner,” and refers to someone who doesn’t just learn what their teacher knows, but becomes the kind of person their teacher is. Jesus told his own disciples, “Anyone who believes in me will do the things that I have been doing…” A disciple of Jesus, then, is someone who is with Jesus, learning from Jesus how to be like Jesus.
When we hear this, though, another misconception often rears its ugly head: the assumption that the end goal of discipleship is something akin to “becoming a nicer person” or “living morally.” In other words, we assume that becoming like Jesus merely means character transformation. Now, I don’t want to diminish in any way our need to put on the character of Christ. Doing so is absolutely foundational to discipleship. However, Jesus himself seemed to equip his disciples not just with his character, but with his competencies. We notice in the Gospels that Jesus wasn’t a bumbling idiot. He knew what he was doing. For example, he was an astonishingly effective communicator, a magnificent leader. He had a phenomenal ability to see what people needed and offer it to them, whether it was forgiveness, rebuke, healing, or simply some time with him.
Jesus isn’t just holy, he is intelligent and capable. Jesus isn’t just “good,” he is “good at.” Jesus isn’t just nice, he’s brilliant. These things are part of the “curriculum” of discipleship. So we could say that disciples are learning to both be like Jesus (character) and do like Jesus (competency). The matrix below is a helpful way to think about this.
If we equip people in their character and ignore their need for growth in areas of skill, we end up with “good people” who aren’t very good at leading others, and thus we limit our potential for kingdom breakthrough. Discipleship means being equipped in both the character and competency of Jesus. This means we deal with idolatry and sin and integrity, but we also deal with group dynamics and leadership training and communication skills. It’s all important because we want to bear “much fruit,” as Jesus wants us to.
- Discipleship is not merely “knowing more about the Bible,” it’s actually a process of becoming more and more like Jesus.
- Becoming more like Jesus doesn’t just have to do with his character, but also his competencies.
Next post: Relational and Directive
Well done again, Ben. Simple and brilliant all at the same time. Thanks for the work you do of processing and reproducing your thoughts in clear ways for the rest of us. Blessings.
Andrew Bernhardt says
I think there should be a distinction made between natural and supernatural competencies. We all have various natural abilities that we can use to disciple others. Some are people good with large groups, some one-on-one, etc. But it's the competency that is of the Holy Spirit that matters most. Moses was not really able to lead the Israelites across the wilderness on his own ("Lord, I can't speak well"). But he had the Holy Spirit and that made him more than capable to do what God wanted him to do. Jesus also worked in the power of the Holy Spirit. The apostles did also, and this is something that we need too. If I don't walk submitted to the Holy Spirit, then I won't be competent to disciple, regardless of my natural or learned abilities.
Ben Sternke says
Absolutely, Andrew. I would actually argue that to really be and make disciples of Jesus, we need the “supernatural” competencies that you talk about, because ultimately that's how Jesus did what He did (as a human empowered by the Holy Spirit). Thus if we are going to follow Jesus in what He was able to do, we're going to need to learn how to rely on the Holy Spirit to enable us to do those things. This is ultimately the process of brokenness, death, and humility, which is a huge part of the discipling process for us.
Greg Pipkin says
Ben, I really enjoyed your thoughts and I'm looking forward to more. It's a very "pop culture" thing to tout Jesus' morality, but virtually no one speaks of him as brilliant or intellectual. Very important to elevate that point about Jesus… great job on that!
I've heard a lot of talk in recent years that goes something like this: "it's not about what you're DOING, it's about who you're BECOMING." I generally agree with this, but becoming involves doing and I worry that we're creating an either/or dichotomy where one shouldn't be. I like how you're approaching the ideas of Jesus' character and competencies because I think it neutralizes my concern here. Do you have any thoughts on this? Am I concerned for no reason?
Ben Sternke says
Hi Greg, thanks for the comment. I think that's good insight about the false either/or dichotomy. I've seen that, too. And from both sides: some say it's all about “becoming” as an excuse for a lack of “doing.” Others point to their “doing” to distract from the fact that there isn't much “becoming” going on. You could argue that if we're truly “becoming” it will change a lot of our “doing,” but the both/and matrix really helps to flesh that out and help people lean into the discipleship focus they're not naturally “good at.”
Bill Fennen says
Ben, you seem to be framing the issue as such: our default is to embrace the "character" rather than the "competency" of Jesus.; and we would define ourselves as disciples moreso because we develop His characteristics rather than his works. If so, I would have to argue that our American culture places a higher value on our productivity (works) than our character. I would even suggest that this emphasis prevails in our churches as well. It's a lot easier to measure our accomplishments than our character development (just read any church annual report). I agree that in a true discipling culture both require assessment. The problem is our default , I believe, is the easy metric of accomplishment not character. At least that has been my experience. I'd like to hear what others may have to say.
Sorry, if you didn't intend to frame the problem that way.
Ben Sternke says
Bill, thanks for the comment. I think you're spot-on in recognizing that our culture places more emphasis on accomplishment than character. I think part of the problem is that when we do think about “competency,” we aren't generally thinking about the competencies of Jesus. Specifically his magnificent ability to train his disciples. He seemed concerned very little about gathering huge numbers of people (even though he knew what to do when they all showed up). So I think the accomplishments we are often measuring aren't the ones that Jesus would measure.
Are we suggesting that every disciple must become competent in the same exact way Jesus was: communication, leadership, counseling? I am not certain I totally agree with the thought. I do not wish to be contrarian, but I have to wonder. Paul's description of God's people as a body with various body parts seem to suggest a diversity of gifts (which include leadership) and a diversity of roles (Ephesians). Not everyone can be competent in the leadership roles of Jesus, can they? Can this thesis even be proven?
I would agree the Holy Spirit makes us competent to serve where he calls us to serve. But I am not certain we should expect that we will have the same skill set Jesus had in every level. Why is it we know much more of Peter and Paul than we know of Andrew and Philip? (I know silence is rather a weak argument–but it is a thought to consider).
Perhaps I have misunderstood the basic argument.
Ben Sternke says
Darryl, your question brings up the question of capacity, which is a good one to think through.I'm not saying that we'll all be able to do the *exact* things that Jesus did in terms of capacity and vocation. We won't all teach multitudes or be itinerant preachers.All I am saying is that there are some basic competences that we ought to be equipping people with (praying for the sick, sharing our faith, etc), otherwise discipleship ends up being purely a matter “internal transformation” and we limit the potential for kingdom breakthrough happening *through* a person's life.
Thanks for the clarification. I can agree with that explanation.
Rich Wollan says
Ben, I really resonate and cheer the portrait you are painting of what a disciple is meant to be. One key thing to add: As a student of Willard you are also well aware that part of the competency Jesus exhibited was consistently engaging in activities that kept Him intimately connected to His Father– i.e. spiritual disciplines (solitude, prayer, fasting). Training fellow disciples in the spiritual disciplines is the crucial link between taking on the character of Christ AND advancing His mission as a leader in making more disciples.
Ben Sternke says
Yes, Rich, I completely agree with this, and I think it is probably some of the “sub-text” of all I am writing. I just challenged a group last night to make time in the morning for Scripture meditation and prayer. Those kinds of things, to me, are “baseline” disciplines, i.e. things without which we can't possibly hope to learn to live abundantly in God's kingdom now. Thanks for the comment, Rich!
Lahry Sibley says
Mat_16:24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Mar_8:34 And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Luk_9:23 And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Good post! One question, how do you deal with the fact that the target of the “great commission” (“discipling”) is not individuals but “nations”? Does it make any difference to what you’re saying? …??????????? ????? ??????