November 6, 2015
By Phil Maynard
As we approach the release of my new Membership to Discipleship book in late November, I want to continue to give you some insights into how this book came to be. It has been an organic outgrowth of decades of ministry work. For years, both as a pastor of a local church and as a denominational leader focused on healthy growth strategies for congregations, I felt like we developed lots of strategic plans and complex tactical approaches, but that we were missing a simple way to define our ultimate objective. Then it hit me: all of the intricate, detailed answers we were developing to solve ‘problems’—attendance decline, lack of enthusiasm, community disconnect, and budget shortfalls—issues that stem from an incomplete understanding of what it really means to follow Christ—can be boiled down to a couple of existential questions for people of faith (and the organizations responsible for shepherding them).
- What is a disciple?
- What does a disciple of Jesus Christ do?
Rather than just “knowing one when we see one,” how can we tell when someone is a disciple of Jesus? What measurable behaviors should we be observing? To gain some insight, I gathered together a group of pastors and a pile of newsprint and Sharpies, and at the end of one amazing, exhausting day, we had come up with 153 separate characteristics and behaviors that captured the essence of authentic discipleship. Of course, that’s an unwieldy amount of raw material to process, so we realized we could group those qualities into three different categories that could be easily related in graphic form—an illustration that clearly captures our hopes for people who commit to the journey of discipleship:
And we knew we were on the right track, because it happens that those three categories correspond directly with the familiar words of Jesus in Matthew 4:19 (RSV):
“Follow me [being part of the body of Christ]
. . . And I will make you [becoming more like Jesus]
. . . Fishers of men [joining Jesus in ministry].”
Furthermore, the three categories of growth (being part of the body, becoming more like Jesus, and joining Jesus in ministry) can be broken into sub-categories which are very useful for thinking about the practical work of growing as a disciple. For instance, “being part of the body of Christ” involves a life of worship (spending time with God, alone and in community), as well as a life of hospitality (making meaningful connections with others). “Becoming more like Jesus” involves a life opening to Jesus (experiencing spiritual disciplines to know God more deeply) in conjunction with a life of obeying Jesus (adjusting our lifestyles to reflect the kinds of choices Jesus would make). “Joining Jesus in ministry” leads to a life of service (making ourselves available sacrificially for others) and a life of generosity (giving of ourselves sacrificially to support God’s work in the world).
The Membership to Discipleship material provides a framework for exploring these concepts in detail. It is suffused with practical guidance for helping followers of Jesus understand these movements in their own lives. It acknowledges that there are lots of ways to practice ‘following’ in the modern world, in an era of ‘likes’ and obsessive fandom, from politics to geek chic. But the discipleship characterized as being a follower of Jesus is unique. What we’re talking about here is a lifestyle—a way of living—that emulates Jesus in every moment we live—in our every word and deed. Discipleship is a never-ending journey into the abundant life for which we were created by God. It is a process of continual development through which we grow in maturity (become Christ-centered and fully surrendered). In a culture obsessed with end results and perfection, it is crucial to remember that, for a disciple, it’s the journey itself that is most important.
And discipleship in the biblical tradition is not just learning about Jesus, but becoming like Jesus—doing life as Jesus did life.
The Membership to Discipleship material gives leaders an organized way to talk about this process and make it universally accessible. It is also valuable, however, for what it does NOT do. It does not dictate some kind of point-by-point program that locks leaders into a single, dogmatic approach. There is no “one size fits all” for discipleship. It’s not a direct-line process like learning welding at the local vocational school. It’s fluid and multi-track, and it’s different for every ‘student.’
The three dimensions of the life of a disciple (being part of the body of Christ, becoming more like Jesus, and joining Jesus in ministry) are broad strokes of commitment—each with its own spiritual skill set. Notice though that these dimensional definitions do not limit the unique ways in which one may engage the body of Christ. They do not constrict the options for how one grows to become like Jesus or even dictate how one must be partnered in ministry. They only point to the reality that discipleship is inclusive of all three of these dimensions of growth. Each disciple must personally discover how God has ‘wired’ them and is calling them to be engaged.
That’s the whole point of Membership to Discipleship, to give leaders the framework and tools to develop the discipleship approach that will work best for their unique situation. You can find out more about Membership to Discipleship by clicking HERE. And if you have questions or comments about your own struggles in defining exactly what discipleship is and how to get there, use the comments section. I’d love to hear from you.