Discipleship Isn’t What You Think it Is

Christian faith and experience take on a form in the world, Christian discipleship, which is the next chapter, the next act, the next destination in the ongoing experience of belonging to the living Christ.

While we know Jesus was a disciple-maker, our contemporary versions of Christianity often struggle with or omit entirely any meaningful process of discipleship that can’t be labeled as teaching/preaching or supporting a church program. As a result, the continuing emphasis on Christian doctrine takes place in the midst of a movement that is clearly shaped far more by the surrounding consumer culture and its own church-centered interests than by any recognizable process of discipleship.


I’m fascinated by the parts of the Bible that leave us to wonder what happened when the story is over. For example, how did the formerly demon-possessed man live after he moved out of the cemetery, gave up his chains, and returned to family and community? How did Lazarus live once he’d removed the wrappings? What was Zaccheus’s life like after he started giving the money back to those he’d robbed? And how did that prodigal son and his snarky older brother work out their future in their father’s house?

We can all speculate on what happened next because we know that something happened next, because we know something important about Jesus: he makes disciples. Christian faith and experience take on a form in the world. That form, which we call Christian discipleship, is the next chapter, the next act, the next destination in the ongoing experience of belonging to the living Christ.

Jesus didn’t invent the concept of being a disciple. The rabbis of Jesus’ time undertook students and followers in a “follow, listen, imitate” relationship as a typical form of rabbinic training. John the Baptist had disciples. The graduate seminar was replaced with meals together, weeks on mission, and hundreds of hours of conversation. Disciples in Judaism were not learning three hours a week. It was a life-consuming, life-transforming vocation.

What Is Discipleship According to Jesus?

Christian discipleship grows from that historical soil, but it is distinctively shaped by Jesus. It’s clear in the Gospels that many of the disciples experienced a dynamic call from Jesus to “drop their nets” and “come follow me.” Discipleship with Jesus was crucially focused around coming to understand Jesus himself. The midterm exam was not “tell me what you’ve learned about the kingdom,” but “who do you say that I am?” This reflects the primary course material in Jesus’ brand of discipleship: Have you come to grips with what it means that God has come to you?

Promptly upon getting the answer to that question, the Gospels tell us that Jesus refocused his personal journey toward the cross and began to teach his disciples with new intensity the complete course of discipleship. Where their first semester homework was to get with a friend and go heal the sick, now they were signing up for classes such as “Being Servants,” “Carrying Your Cross,” “Washing Feet,” and “Starting Over When You’ve Betrayed Me.”

The entire discipleship experience with Jesus was ironic. Once they had captured his rabbinical teaching method and bought into his kingdom message, he became the Messiah who would disappoint those wanting a political kingdom, who would be rejected, spit upon, tortured, and killed. To be his disciple was to take all of this upon oneself willingly in a full understanding that cross, kingdom, and New Creation were joined together in and by Jesus.

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