In the first part of Lesley Ramsay’s reflections on discipleship, we discussed some of the biblical realities that should shape our thinking and method of discipleship. In this second part, Lesley looks at some of the practical implications for disciple-making.
I googled ‘What is a disciple?’ recently and got 8,370,000 results in 0.47 seconds. There’s a lot in the Christian cyber world about discipleship!
What did I learn? I learned that there’s lots of confusion about what a disciple/discipleship is. Here are just three of the ideas I found:
By definition, a disciple is a follower, one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another. A Christian disciple is a person who accepts and assists in the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ.
A disciple is one who grows in Christ and in so doing models and teaches Christians the precepts of the Bible, prayer, doctrine, relationship, Christian living, service, and worship, to name the main ones.
Discipleship is all about relationships: Our personal relationship with Jesus in devotion, relationships with other believers in care and accountability, and relationships with pre-believers in evangelism. [emphasis original]
What is discipleship?
The word ‘disciple’ derives from the Latin discipulus, meaning ‘learner’. The Greek word is mathitís, again meaning one who learns; a student; a pupil who is apprenticed to a teacher in order to learn their words and to observe and imitate their life and practice. It doesn’t mean ‘follower’—but you have to follow the teacher to learn from them, to ask questions, to imitate them.
So in our context here, a Christian disciple is a learner attached to Jesus who is schooled in his teaching and his way of life.
But the learning involved in discipleship is not learning a creed or a set of beliefs alone. It is learning that transforms your mind, heart and life. That is certainly what we are talking about with Christian discipleship—the disciple wants to learn from Jesus so that she will be transformed completely. Of course she will learn the content of what Jesus says and does, and her mind and understanding will be stretched and challenged; but the end goal is that all of her life will be transformed, that she will see reality through God’s eyes, now loving and being devoted exclusively to Jesus and living in submission to his kingship.
It follows, then, that discipleship is helping someone else become a learner so that they will be transformed to be like Jesus. It’s about walking with a person to help them become more like Jesus.
So if Jesus has commanded us to make disciples, it will be helpful to think about what’s involved in making disciples. To help us do this let’s consider the Christian life as a continuum. At one end, the unbeliever is blithely living in ignorance and rebellion. At the other end we find a persevering disciple of Jesus, ready to enter heaven.
The arrows indicate that there was/is life before and after the period of discipleship, and there is a point during the discipleship process where the unbeliever becomes a Christian and crosses from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son. Discipleship is about getting a person from the left-hand point of the continuum to the right-hand side, from beginning to end. But this does not happen in one move; it is an accumulation of steps, both small and large, but inexorably moving to the right. And each Christian, according to Jesus, is to play their part in moving disciples (unbelievers/seekers/believers/learners) towards maturity.
But how do we do this? How exactly can we play our part in moving disciples towards the right? Let’s think about the steps involved in making disciples, before looking at what this means for us.
Steps that may be part of disciple-making
- Befriending the unbeliever: This involves moving intentionally outside the comfortable circles of your Christian community and forming friendships with those who don’t know Christ—for example, by joining a walking group, book club or sporting team—with the desire that sometime down the track you will be able to introduce Jesus into your conversations. Christians ought to be known as the friendliest people in our streets and in our workplaces—the ones who are the first to introduce ourselves to new neighbours who move in, and to new colleagues who start work.
- Loving and sharing life with the unbeliever: You will want your new friends to know that you have a genuine interest in them, that you will go out of your way to show them love. This might involve inviting them to meals with you, ‘hanging out’ together, or helping them out when they are in difficult situations.
- Answering questions: As you live a transparent life, questions will inevitably arise concerning your motivation for how you live, how you make decisions, why you make the choices you do. Here is a great opportunity to point them to the One who has purchased you with his life.
- Sharing your story of why you’re a Christian: This is one of the simplest, easiest ways of sharing the gospel with someone. It is your personal story of why you trust Christ, which means it is easy for you to remember, it is different to everyone else’s, and it encapsulates the gospel.
- Explaining the gospel: Things are now getting serious as the seeker engages with you and wants to know more of who Jesus is and what he has done, so you will need to be able to explain this. At this point it’s important to be very clear about what the gospel is and what it is not!
- Inviting the unbeliever to events or occasions: It can be helpful to invite unbelievers to events where the gospel is articulated clearly or where the Christian faith embodied in the Christian community is on view. This might be an evangelistic event, or a series like Christianity Explored, or simply church on Sunday.
- Seeing someone become a Christian: There will be great joy in heaven and for you as your friend expresses trust in Christ!
- Doing follow-up Bible studies: Here you nurture your new Christian friend in the essentials of the Christian life—the basics of Bible doctrine, assurance of salvation, godliness, service of others. This is an exciting time as you see people grow in their understanding of the Scriptures and love for Jesus. This is where the disciple really takes off on his journey of learning the ways of the Master.
- Studying the Bible with other believers: When you study the Bible either in a group or one-to-one, the Spirit does his work as he applies the word of God to your lives; but it requires us to continually encourage each other to keep at that study.
- Reading Christian books together: There is significant value in reading some great classics of Christian literature together—for example, Knowing God by Jim Packer, Know and Tell the Gospel by John Chapman, Gospel and Kingdom by Graham Goldsworthy, or The Cross of Christ by Leon Morris.
- Praying together: As you pray together with other Christians, bringing your longings and desires to God, you are encouraged to keep on trusting Christ in the face of a hostile world. This is enormously strengthening to the new disciple.
- Encouraging each other to persevere to the end: Through all of this process, at every point on the continuum, you will encourage those learners around you to keep on trusting the death of Jesus right to the end. The end goal of the disciple-making process is to see a Christian still trusting in Jesus when they die, and to see them safely in heaven!
- Although I have described a number of steps, it’s important to recognise that not every step is necessary, nor must they take place in that particular order. God’s Spirit works in whatever way he wants to.
- Making disciples is not just evangelising unbelievers, and discipleship is not just helping a new Christian get established; they are both parts of a lifelong process.
- Discipleship cannot be equated with a one-to-one relationship. It may certainly involve that, but it will also encompass all the edification activities at church.
- If every Christian is part of this disciple-making venture, then we each need to ask ourselves how/where we are making our contribution. Am I intentionally making decisions, especially about the use of my time, that allow me to be helping another person to be a disciple at some point on the continuum?
- We need to recognise that each one of us is also on the continuum as a disciple—we are still learning, becoming more like Jesus, needing to persevere to the end. And so there will be others around us encouraging us to keep moving to the right!
- Relationships and personal godliness are both key to the process. We are not just passing on information, so the quality of our lives as we relate to other learners is vital. We are inviting them to look at us as we live for Jesus. Yes, we point them to Jesus, but the reality is that we will also function as models.
- Disciples keep moving to the right, but we also jump back down to the left as we form new relationships with unbelievers… and the whole process of making disciples continues!
Lesley Ramsay has been in local church ministry with her husband, Jim, for 45 years. Over the last 25 years she has worked as a Bible teacher and evangelist across Australia and overseas. She has written and edited several books and training packages that are sold and used internationally. She now works at Moore College in Sydney, in pastoral care to the students. To relax, she enjoys a good coffee and a good book and hanging out with her grandchildren.
 In this section I am indebted to Tony Payne for his insights.