an excerpt from Evangelism or Discipleship by Bobby Harrington and Bill Hull

Like evangelism, the word “discipleship” is not in the Bible. By adding “ship” to it, discipleship literally means “the state of learning” or “following a teacher.” Some people like to refer to it as apprenticeship, which we think is a good description. At its roots, Christian discipleship means to follow and learn from Jesus. In Matthew 28:18-20, disciple making is described as a “core mandate” (which we take as a synonym for discipleship).

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (NIV).

We suggest a definition for discipleship (and disciple making) based on Matthew 28:18-20 and Jesus’ example: “Discipleship is intentionally entering into others’ lives to help them trust and follow Jesus and to obey all of His teachings.” The end result is the disciple becomes like Christ, the kind of person who “naturally does what Jesus did.”

Unfortunately, the church has reduced discipleship to a program rather than a life of following Christ and learning from Him, as He modeled for His disciples. That programmatic approach has created a negative perception of discipleship in many who have “tried” some curriculum or program that didn’t help them. But as an introductory matter, we offer some observations about the state of discipleship.

1. Discipleship as a movement needs to fully emerge from its own self-constructed ghetto. Measuring spiritual maturity by cognitive achievement or Bible knowledge rather than fruitfulness created the ghetto. For those serious and intentional about their faith, the ghetto became a safe haven. Discipleship is often head-centered, focusing on Bible education. The common person who isn’t committed to in-depth Bible study tends to shy away from it.

2. The discipleship movement is often in crisis due to the disconnection between discipleship and reproduction. A movement based on the idea that it will reproduce and doesn’t will languish. The “teaching them to obey everything Christ commanded” part of the Great Commission didn’t create reproduction because it fell into the same dark hole of low expectations—the same expectations that often sink evangelism. Instead, we need to figure out how to cast vision for high expectations of multiplication

3. Next to reproduction, the most difficult part of discipleship is life-on-life accountability, which is absolutely necessary and very prone to abuse. We tend to be either too controlling or too slack, as though follow-through doesn’t matter. People need encouragement, support and often a firm hand to help them keep their commitments to God. Legalism and control don’t work, but as leaders we do need to find ways to counteract a strong strain of libertarianism in the church when it comes to personal accountability. This is ground zero—where the battle is often fought.

The commission to make disciples is at the very heart of where evangelism and discipleship meet. Jesus issued the Great Commission to give His followers both a reason (to save the world) and a plan (to find and make more disciples).

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