An excerpt from Discipleship is the Core Mission of the Church

By Bobby Harrington

I am a relational person. Ask me what matters in this life and I will quickly tell you that, next to God, the most important thing to me is my family and friends. The thought of life without these relationships would be very disturbing to me. But the thought of life with these relationships is pure joy – especially when I am looking forward to everyone joining together at my house for something like Thanksgiving.

I am sure glad that God is relational. God was, and continues to be, in relationship with the Son and the Spirit. God is love. God’s commands are grounded and summarized relationally – loving God and loving people.

Not only is God relational, but Jesus’ ministry was relational. Jesus shows us the best method of discipleship possible and it was a method based in relationships. We can describe Jesus’ approach by identifying four basic types of discipling relationships that Jesus modeled for us. Wise ministry looks carefully at the method of discipleship that Jesus used and seeks, where possible and applicable, to replicate it today:


  1. Intimate relationship level – Jesus and 3 people – Peter, James, and John.  These were the closest and most intense of all Jesus’ discipling relationships.  Jesus discipled these men to be the primary leaders of his church.  He had very deep, intimate relationships with them.


  1. Personal relationship level – Jesus and 12 people – the disciples. These were close discipling relationships.  These men regularly meet in relational environments  – sometimes Jesus taught them, sometimes he modeled godly behavior for them, sometimes he coached them with questions, etc.,


  1. Social relationship level – Jesus and the 72.  Beyond his relationships with the 3 and the 12, Jesus was in regular social relationships with people like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  In fact, there were 72 men that Jesus commissioned and sent out.  These were people that Jesus discipled, but not as personally or intimately as he did the others.
  2. Public relationship level – Jesus and the crowds. There were times where Jesus taught the crowds the Word of God.  Jesus was discipling the crowds in this way – he was showing them how to trust and follow him – but the relationships were public, general.


An in-depth study of these levels of discipling relationships can give us a model for how discipleship works well in a local church. Jesus was focused on discipleship, but he did it in different way, in different relationship settings. Those who were to become his leaders had the closest relationship with him.  Wise church leaders adopt a similar model today.

Relationships are the environment by which discipleship functioned in the rest of the New Testament too. Elders were people shepherding other people in relationship. Evangelists were people sent to reach people and invite them into relationships. Parents were people discipling children in relationship (Ephesians 6:4; Deuteronomy 6:4-8). The apostles teach us that discipleship is by relationship and it is actually spiritual parenting (1 Thess. 2:6-8, 11-12; 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4).

Jesus and the New Testament demonstrate that discipleship needs BOTH direction and relationship. Direction without relationship is a program approach to discipleship that says, “Read this book. Take this class. Memorize these verses. Listen to these sermons. Memorize these answers. Follow these steps.” I call this “educational discipleship.” Both the Bible and research show that this kind of “head oriented approach” is too limited and ineffective.  Christ-centered, New Testament guided instruction is practical and for all of life, including, but greatly transcending knowledge and facts.

Conversely, relationship without direction results in a process that is lacking in the other direction. It says, “Let’s just hang out together. Let’s meet over coffee to talk. Let’s enjoy one another.” Relationships by themselves are not discipleship. Discipleship involves imitation, but that is more than just relationship (1 Cor. 4:16). Being with people, enjoying life, sharing pain and the like are all essential to discipleship (see Romans 12), but it is more than just relationship.

Both guidance and relationship are essential. Biblical guidance and coaching, as defined by Jesus, and modeled by the apostles, is an intentional process, grounded in relationship.

His method of discipleship was grounded in the environment of “agape love.”  This kind of love is a love that acts according to what is best for the other person. Jesus loved people this way and he commands us to show this same love for one another. Jesus described it for us in John 13:34-35:


“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”


The last statement is a really important one in the Bible – the chief hallmark of discipleship is agape love. It is the most important trait by which a true disciple is known.

Later in the Bible, the apostle John describes something similar when he writes: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16). Clarity on this point is important because there are other things in the Bible that are good things that might appear to be equally important. Yet, agape love is the most important.

For example, some people talk a great deal about the Holy Spirit. There are many people who claim experiences of the Holy Spirit are most important. But under inspiration, the apostle Paul tell us that “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13: 1).

Some people might reply, “Truth, orthodoxy, correct belief, loyalty to the doctrines of Scripture, and the Reformation confessions are most important.” Yes, Biblical doctrine is vital. We must fight the good fight of the faith. But Paul goes on and says, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but I have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Others can reply that faith is the key. But Paul says, “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Agape love is the most important reflection of Christ-likeness and discipleship within the church.

Still others focus on service. Those with the gift of mercy or those drawn to social justice and serving the poor will say, “Well, the authentic mark of a true believer is in the realm of service, especially in service to the poor and the needy.” But service does not necessarily spring from loving others! Service can spring from various kinds of motives.  Love is more important: “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

The most important sign of authentic discipleship, the most important attribute of the Christian life, is agape love.


-It is not a Worship Experience

-It is not experiences of the Holy Spirit

-It is not correct doctrine

-It is not Faith

-It is not Service to the poor and needy


          Agape love is the environment and foundation that God wants for the church. It is the first and most important aspect of the Holy Spirit’s fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22).

The apostle Paul describes it for us succinctly:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Cor. 13:4-8)


Let me make this personal. As I trust and follow Jesus and seek to help others to trust and following Jesus, I am to have a way about me.

I am seeking to become a person epitomized by love. It is the 1 Cor. 13 way and it is on my mind, daily. I want to become love; I want my biography to become clear to all.

Bobby is patient, Bobby is kind.  Bobby does not envy, Bobby does not boast, Bobby is not proud. Bobby does not dishonor others. Bobby is not self-seeking, Bobby is not easily angered and keeps not record of wrongs. Bobby does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.  Bobby always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Bobby never fails.


The apostle Paul describes the priority in Galatians 6:10,Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” This passage helps us to understand why the Bible emphasizes our love to those who are within the church and the family of believers. There is no more heart piercing passage in this regard than Matthew 25: 31-46. In this passage Jesus tells us that the final judgment will be based on how well our faith led us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’


Jesus describes those who are saved as those who “fed the hungry, showed hospitality to the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison.” The key point, often overlooked, is that Jesus is talking about how Christians took care of other Christians. Jesus says it this way, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (verse 40). Brothers and sisters in this passage (and throughout Matthew) refers to other Christians. This passage was written to describe how true disciples will love and take care of each other and that it should be an important priority for us.

This is why we say that Agape love is to be the foundation for everything that happens in the church.Because love is given to us as the ultimate sign and priority, it is to be a priority for us, everyday in the local church.  We develop a mindset. We pursue a life of love (Eph. 5:1-2).

  • Love is our mindset, before relationships and it upholds them.
  • Love is our mindset, before teaching and it leads us through them.
  • Love is our mindset, before tasks and it undergirds them.
  • Love is our mindset, before instruction and it guides it through and through.
  • Love is our mindset, before leading or following and it directs us.


It is only when love is the priority will a church be distinctive as God intends. As someone has said: In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love. Love is the distinguishing trait of true Christianity.


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

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