Defining Discipleship

Exercises in defining discipleship are en vogue in the Christian circles I run in. Our local church and our district of Wesleyan pastors have both been working on this. While I don’t have empirical data to back this up, I’d guess that there are about as many definitions of being a disciple of Jesus as there are Christian denominations. The end goal of this, with which I agree, is that if we can clearly identify the attributes and actions of such a person, then we can begin to work on what it is the church does to help people be one.

Definitions do not, however, define strategies. They can only give an idea of the destination, clarify boundaries, and show us when we’re taking steps in the right direction. That said, I believe they are a necessary aspect of a local church’s ministry of spiritual formation (as are strategies).

Differences Between Discipleship and Spiritual Formation

While the terms are often used synonymously, “discipleship” and “spiritual formation” speak to related aspects of life in Christ. A simple definition of a disciple is someone who is being apprenticed, trained in the life of the kingdom of God. I would go so far as to say that one does not have to experience conversion before being a disciple, though conversion is a necessary step for one who would follow Jesus as an apprentice. Spiritual formation is what is happening to and in disciples. It is something that happens by the grace and power of the Spirit (thus, “spiritual” formation).

I found that Robert Mulholland does a good job in Invitation to a Journey of defining the latter term. Editing his definition, I’ve said,

“Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.” 

The next several posts will be devoted to explaining more fully this definition. 

He also writes, “Spiritual formation is not an option…. We are being shaped either toward wholeness in Christ or toward a horribly destructive caricature of that image” (25-26). This view of spiritual formation sees three possible ends: 1) being conformed to the image of Christ; 2) being conformed to the image of a Christ we have created; or 3) being conformed into the image of the world. 

Implications for the Church

1. Just because you have a definition does not mean you have agreement as to how best spend your time, money, and people on making disciples. Coming up with concise definitions is tough enough; finding unity on what we’ll do next is even tougher. The hardest part for modern American Christians about this kind of exercise, I believe, is that definitions by definition exclude. They exclude ways of thinking and being and doing, where we wish we could look around like God did at creation and say to it all, “It was good.” We can’t. Just like Adam and Eve were charged with giving names to the animals (i.e., ruling over them), we too are charged with giving names to the mission of making disciples. We cannot use the possibility of exclusion as a reason for avoiding this. 

2. Conversely, a shared definition provides a framework for shared mission. Exercises on putting words on paper, prayer together, interpreting Scripture together, and time in silence allowing the Spirit to speak are exercises in discipleship. The ways we interact with one another in creating these statements speak just as much about what we believe about discipleship as any sort of formal programming we do. 

3. One temptation is to create an image of Jesus that looks much more palatable than that of Scripture. Each local church will naturally read Scripture with the presuppositions of its cultural context, and these will influence what kinds of things it hears and believes about Jesus. The goal is not to read absent of these cultural influences, but to acknowledge them as we read. Does our North American propensity to acquire more possessions cause us to talk about discipleship in terms of stewardship while ignoring underlying greed? 

4. If spiritual formation is not optional, then part of a distinctly Christian spiritual formation of disciples is turning from the various other ways of being formed. This is a tough one–some have opted for separation from the world (i.e., the Amish), while others have neglected this principle and forgotten to guard their hearts and minds. Recognizing that proximity and exposure does not mean spiritual formation (either positive or negative) is key here. 

5. If the Spirit is the one doing the forming, we trust the Spirit to form our minds and hearts corporately as we craft definitions. I’m glad that any exercises we undertake are empowered by God’s Spirit, who desires the church to be faithful in making disciples even more than we do. 


Posted on April 28, 2014, in spiritual formation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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