How Does Discipleship Express Itself In The local Church?

An excerpt from Discipleship is the Core Mission of the Church: Helping People Trust and Follow Jesus By Bobby Harrington

My wife loves to visit people in the hospital and to bring food to people in need. My daughter loves to minister to high school girls. My son loves to teach and write artistic theology (interesting term, but he is very good at it). My dad loved serving as a leader in the benevolence ministry at church, to help the poor and needy. And my mother loves to encourage other women. I am sure glad that in the local church there are countless expressions of giftedness in discipleship.

The church is called “the body of Christ” and we do lots of things, utilizing the gifts of lots of people (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-30). We live out as a group, the life of Jesus. Since discipleship is trusting and following Jesus, this will be expressed in countless ways in the church as a community. Here are few samples:

– God wants the church to be an extended family, in the Way of Jesus (1 Timothy 3:14-16; Mark 19:29-30),

– God wants the church to make known Jesus and His wisdom to spiritual beings in the heavenly realms (Eph.3:10),

– God wants the church to sing and declare his praises through Jesus (1 Peter 2:9; Col. 3:16),

-God wants the church to uphold Jesus as the foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15; Titus 1:5-9; Acts 20:27-31), and

– God wants the church to be a community where Jesus dwells through his Spirit (1 Cor. 12:27; 2 Cor. 6:16).

-God wants the church to take care of the poor and the widow (Acts 6: James 1:27).

While all of these statements and others are true, the predominant underlying theme is that God wants the church to be a community that helps people to trust Jesus and become like him. I believe that the expression of the multiplicity of purposes helps balance and give full expression to the pursuit of discipleship and Christ-likeness without taking away from it as an over-riding mission.

For example, God wants the church to be a family, but if the church is a family, it is not just a family that enjoys itself and becomes a Christian social club, it is a family where people serve one another and develop the mind that was first in Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:3-11). If the church declares the wisdom of God so that even heavenly beings are informed, they are made aware that Christ was before all things and all things were made for him (Col. 1:15-20). If God wants the church to sing and declare his praises, in doing so the church determines to let the “word of Christ dwell” among the members in all richness, as they sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16-18).

If God’s people use their gifts, these are gifts empowered for service in Christ’s name, for his purposes (Eph. 4:11-16). If the church has leaders who teach and guard the truth, they are servant leaders who imitate Jesus Christ (Matt.20: 25-28) and teach the truth that is found in him (Heb. 1:1-8). If the church is the dwelling place of God’s Spirit, it is not just a community where people have spiritual experiences, it is a place where spiritual experiences lead people into Christ-likeness (Gal. 5:22-25).

There are many ways that express the Christ-like path of the church. In this light, influential church leaders like Rick Warren suggest five purposes for the church and Thom Rainer suggested six. Each of these sub-purposes are things that are emphasized in the Bible, as expressions of the purpose of the church. Together they say that a biblical church will emphasize the following six expressions of God’s purpose:

-Evangelism
-Worship
-Fellowship
-Teaching
-Ministry
-Prayer

Like every expression of following Jesus, each of these aspects of the purpose of the church is good. In an attempt to articulate the various expressions of God’s purpose in discipleship, Harpeth Community Church initially developed the following mission statement: Our Mission is to Glorify God by bringing people to Christ and by helping one another to become more like him through Outreach, Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, and Ministry.

While the approach of Warren and Ranier is good, I found it hard to practically grasp and use in the church. I have found such statements are too broad, too all encompassing, and too hard for people to practically grasp or put into practice on a day-to-day basis. Biblically and practically, we came to the realization that we needed to change our purpose statement. Clarity of thought is vitally important in this regard. We changed our emphasis, our clarity, and our mindset as a church. We settled on a simple new focus. “Our mission is to make biblical disciples of Jesus.”

Earlier this year, I went to a seminar led by Robert Coleman. Several months later he stayed in my home and spoke at our Sunday services. He is a delightful Christian man, full of life and full of Jesus Christ at eighty-four years of age. I very much want to be like him as I get older.

He challenged me with at statement that I have not been able to refute. He said that Jesus’s method of discipleship was the perfect method. At first I didn’t want to admit to this statement because the Bible does not explicitly teach this truth and because it seems too simplistic. But his statement created a challenge. I thought a lot about Jesus and his wisdom and his perfection. And I thought a lot about Jesus’ method. Then I had to admit it, Robert Coleman is right! Jesus’ method is the perfect method.

Jesus, the apostles, and the writings of the New Testament show us how to make disciples. As Coleman outlined fifty years ago in his multi-million copied book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, Jesus utilized a reproducible strategy that we can follow today. You can read Coleman’s book or the practical application of these principles in DiscipleShift, but for our purposes here, let me focus on one key aspect – discipleship involves guidance.

In Matthew 28:18-20, the great commission tells us “to go” and “to make disciples.” In the Greek text, “making disciples” is an imperative command. The passage then tells us how we are to make disciples: by “baptizing them,” and “teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded” (these two statements are participial phrases – linguistically formed in the Greek to tell us how to make disciples).

In this sense, then, biblical discipleship always involves teaching, guidance, or instruction. At the same time, Jesus showed us, by his life, that discipleship must be grounded in love, service, and friendship. The environment for discipleship in the gospels was relationship. Yet it was goal oriented; Jesus was asking his disciples to trust and follow him. Without discipleship, acts of love and service are simply acts of love and service. These are good things and are often the basis upon which discipleship is built, but by themselves they simply express the love of Christ without directly pointing people to Christ.

Sometimes showing love – with no strings attached – is the best and only thing that we can do for another person. We just serve someone. Maybe like the Good Samaritan, all we will ever be able to do for another person is take care of them in their need, for that time of difficulty (Luke 10:25ff ). This is true love and it honors God and reflects the fact that we are disciples. But, by itself, it is not discipleship because discipleship involves directing and teaching people in the way of Jesus.
We believe that discipleship, modeled after Jesus, equals directed relationship. Discipleship is directed because it has a goal: to enable people to trust and follow Christ. Discipleship is relational in that it is always done person to person. Again, the whole process is very “intentional,” which is why it is called, “intentional relational discipleship.”

Here are ten questions that churches use to help them address how they make disciples :

1. How does our church define discipleship?
2. What does a disciple look like?
3. Do we have an intentional process of discipleship?
4. Does our church know this process?
5. How does this process relate to the purpose of the church?
6. Has our church prioritized distinct practices that relate to the discipleship process?
7. Does our church practice the principle of abandonment based on the idea that activity doesn’t always mean productivity?
8. How does our church measure maturity?
9. How does our community describe our church?
10. Do our church families spend more planned time in a week at church with each other or in the community with non-believers?

There is nothing new or striking about these questions. But they show that wise church leaders must be thoughtful about everything we do it church.

Helping people with this quest is what discipleship is all about …

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