This is the second part in a series of blog posts that outlines my philosophy and practice of discipleship, a distillation and condensation of the stuff I’ve learned over the past few years from many wonderful people, a (somewhat) coherent “manifesto” on discipleship, if you will.
In Part 1, I talked about the nature of discipleship itself: it’s not merely “knowing more about the Bible,” it’s actually a process of becoming more and more like Jesus. And becoming more like Jesus doesn’t only have to do with his character, but also his competencies. In this post, I’ll explore the nature of the discipling relationship.
(Thanks to Andrew Dowsett, whose succinct blog post helped crystallize my thinking on the nature of the discipling relationship.)
Discipleship is relational
Even if we know what discipleship is, the question arises as to how we become more like Jesus in character and skill. For example, there are a lot of great resources out there nowadays. Perhaps we can simply find a few good books and be discipled “remotely” by authors. Or perhaps if we just pray a bit more and read the Gospels a lot we can be discipled directly by Jesus. After all, that’s the source, right?
It just doesn’t work this way. As helpful as prayer, Scripture, and authors are, and as good as it might sound to just be a disciple by myself (especially to those who’ve been burned by the church), discipleship is an inherently relational thing. Jesus called his disciples to literally follow him around, not just read the Torah and pray more. Paul told the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ, not to simply imitate Christ.
We aren’t discipled directly by Jesus. We aren’t discipled remotely by authors. We can’t get what we need by simply digesting the right information. The New Testament pattern seems to be that we need a flesh-and-blood person to disciple us. A living example to look at and follow. Discipleship is relational. You can’t do it without being with people.
Discipleship is directive
But what does the relationship look like? I know people who tell me they’re “sort of” discipling someone, or meeting occasionally with someone “trying to have some influence.” After seeing and being part of many of these kinds of relationships, I think it’s safe to say that they really don’t bear much kingdom fruit. They are too fuzzy and ad hoc to gain the momentum and traction necessary for people to grow. They suffer from a lack of definition.
An assumption that lies underneath these ill-defined relationships is that discipleship ought to be a mutual/peer-oriented process. “We’ll disciple each other” sounds humble and makes everyone feel comfortable. The only problem is that it doesn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong: mutual edification is a good thing, it’s just not a great strategy for building a discipling culture. If you look at the New Testament pattern, discipleship is a process of being led by someone, imitating their faith. Jesus called the disciples to follow him, which meant they dropped what they were doing and did what he was doing. Jesus did not join Zebedee’s family fishing business and say, “Let’s just try to disciple each other. I’m sure I have a lot to learn from you.” Paul did not tell the Corinthians “Let’s imitate each other.” He said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
We are equipped to be and do like Jesus by another person who is further along in those areas than we are. In other words, discipleship is a directive process, not a “mutual edification” process. As good as mutual edification and other kinds of “peer” processes are (we do many of our Missional Community gatherings like this), I believe if we try to do discipleship this way, our attempts flounder and stall, because typically we end up with several highly-gifted leaders sitting in a room edifying each other, when each one of them could be out there making new disciples and leading less mature Christians into greater fruitfulness and maturity.
Again, I’m not against mutual edification, but I think much of the current emphasis on mutual/peer/consensus relationships is an over-reaction to dictatorial forms of leadership. We’ve thrown the baby (directive leadership) out with the bathwater (control-freak authoritarianism) and the result is that discipleship stalls because nobody is willing to call others to follow them as they follow Christ. The living water that’s meant to be flowing through each of us collects into stagnant reservoirs.
Here’s a helpful lens from 3DM that helps illustrate the importance of imitation in discipleship.
The goal is “innovation,” where disciples of Jesus are living out their missional call, joining with Jesus in his work in the world. But we can’t get there by simply having good information. We need an embodied, concrete example to imitate.
Discipleship is about being led by someone, it’s about following a flesh-and-blood person who looks more like Jesus than I do. It’s about learning to do something I don’t know how to do yet, and thus submitting myself to someone else’s leadership. Eventually, then, it is about learning to lead, calling others to follow you as you follow Christ. Another way to say it is that everyone looks like a sheep from the front and a shepherd from the back. We can be disciples and make disciples if we acknowledge this reality and embrace it, imitating the lives of those we are following, and calling those we lead to imitate our lives.
Ryan Tate says
Thank you so much for this two part post on your vision of discipleship. It was very encouraging and affirming. Thank you for your faithfulness and humility in sharing with us.
Ben Sternke says
I am glad for that Ryan. Thanks for your comment.
I work at Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho. We have trainings here on the Discipleship Process as given us by Jesus. Our pastor – Jim Putman – has written the books Church Is A Team Sport and Real Life Discipleship. I read your post today on How I Make Disciples and was wondering if I could share a portion of it on our website? I would include a link to your post. Let me know!
Ben Sternke says
Sharyl, if you include the link back to my post, that would be just fine! Thanks.
Sharyl – I've heard great reports of God's activity in northern Idaho. My faith has grown stronger as I've reflected on how God is saying similar things to his church around the globe! May God continue to bless you, Jim & Real Life Ministries!
Great post, Ben. Always challenging (and inviting 🙂 ) stuff.
My question, and perhaps struggle, is how we engage people in this manner without coming across as arrogant, aloof, or controlling. I understand and have implemented what you are saying here, but in a culture where most Christians (at least church-ified ones) see themselves as equals, it is difficult to convey this message without pushing some buttons.
Any tips for us who willingly acknowledge our following after you? Hope you're well, brother.
Ben Sternke says
Scott, that's the big question a lot of younger leaders have, because the cultural milieu is such that people are suspicious of anything that smacks of "hierarchy." I think there are some things we can do to help others understand what we are (and aren't) saying, but it is inevitable that you WILL push some buttons by communicating this. So probably the first tip is to die to your reputation and embrace the fact that this will put some people off.
Two other practical things come to mind:
1. Someone who is actually open to being discipled by you won't find this too difficult, because that's why they're with you in the first place. It will be difficult for those who aren't persons of peace to you, but that's okay because you can only invest in people who are open to you. Edwin Friedman said, "People can only hear you if they are moving toward you." There are tons of people I know who aren't open to being discipled by me, for a variety of reasons. But I still like hanging out with many of them, etc. I just need to prioritize my time to invest in those who are open to learning from me. So don't sweat it if someone isn't open.
2. Be clear and direct about the vision, but also make sure people know there's no "penalty" for not coming with you. They won't become your enemies or anything – just explain that you're convinced this is how discipleship works and you are seeking to invest in people who are open to it. If they're not open or available, that's fine.
3. Communicating that you yourself are in this kind of relationship with someone else will oftentimes help tremendously. That way they can imitate your faith, in that you are submitting to someone else's leadership as well. You can talk specifically about their concerns at this level – talking about how it's "low control/high accountability," that there's no heavy-handedness in any stage of the process.
Hope that helps! Just what came to mind this morning as I pondered your excellent question, Scott! Hope all is well!
Ben, thanks for a helpful and thought-provoking post. A few questions that raises for me:
1. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Now Jesus was probably not going to learn much from his disciples.. but for the rest of us, is it really the case that one person will always be more mature in all areas of discipleship than another? I might be able to disciple someone in, say, mission and leadership; he might have lots to offer in, say, prayer and fasting.
2. The second question is – excuse the analogy – does a discipling relationship look more like "US dating" or "European dating"? Let me explain. In the US my understanding is that people are pretty clear whether they are dating or not; whereas in Europe there is often a gradual upfront process of growing intimacy/seduction. Applying this to discipleship, I mean: do you recommend starting by saying "be my disciple and learn to imitate me" or instead do you just start to invest in someone's life and as they respond then just continue building that discipling relationship as they give increasing permission?
Thanks again for a helpful blog.
Ben Sternke says
Great questions Richard!
1. It's probably really important to be aware of these kinds of dynamics, yes. When you call someone into discipleship, it's worth noting those things. But I think that perhaps the kind of relationship you're describing there would be more of a peer/mutual edification relationship (which are great and needful!), but then perhaps wouldn't be considered a discipling relationship in this specific sense. I think that while we can grow in certain areas, there is also a "baseline" of holistic discipleship that perhaps is only as strong as our weakest "category." But I'm just thinking out loud at this point. Certainly I think it is worth learning from anyone who knows more than us, but I don't know that I'd call that a discipling relationship, per se. Perhaps more of a learning collective or resource-person.
I think it's about imitating someone's life. I might want to learn prayer and fasting from someone, but that doesn't mean I'm going to imitating their entire life. If I want their life, I can be their disciple, but if I just want to learn a specific skill, I'm just a temporary student.
2. I think I see it more like European dating. Think about the parable of the sower: As I throw out seed (investment, etc), I watch for where there is a response, where little sprouts are coming up through the soil. Then I go and invest the bulk of my time in that soil, to produce a crop. I don't worry a whole lot about the other soils. This is how you discover a person of peace (something I'll talk about in future posts) – you see how people respond. Do they give you indications that they want to be around? Do they seek to serve you and hang around you? Do they ask you for advice? These are all indications that they want to "get serious" (to use your dating analogy). Then at a certain point you do need to "define the relationship" so everyone is clear about what's happening.
Again, great questions! I like the dating analogy – will probably use that.
I know I'm a little late on the convo…I'd love to hear some more thoughts around this particular question that Richard brings up.
When I was discipling college students, even when I was fresh out of college, it was easy to invite people into this "imitate me as I imitate Christ" discipling mentality. But now that we're not always going to be ministering with younger people, I think that this still is a bit of a gray area to me.
I remember some of Bobby Clinton's stuff on different forms of mentoring…coaching, spiritual guide, disciple-making, coach, etc. He as a few categories. Then he suggests that we have difference kinds of mentors in our lives…upward mentors (folks who are mentoring us), peer-mentors (folks who mentor each other) and downward mentees (folks we are mentoring) and we need all three kinds (actually four bc there are two types of peer-mentors).
I think that where I am still unclear is how someone who would fit normally into the "peer-mentoring" category, would also fit as a full disciple of us.
Paul and Timothy are obvious examples of discipler-disciplee, but Barnabas and Paul seem more like peer mentors (…and I suppose that relationship didn't work so well :).
So I guess that I'm wondering is: Like Richard brings up, in a huddle or MC where we are the primary disciple-makers and vision-casters, what is a helpful way to envision our relationship with others who would normally be "peer mentors" or even mentors to us in some significant areas of life with God and mission?