Following Jesus: The Meaning and Challenge of Discipleship

I’m here in Malibu, California at Pepperdine University attending Harbor: The Pepperdine Bible Lectures. I believe this makes my tenth time coming to this beautiful campus. As I enjoy the scenery, the classes, and reconnecting with many friends, I am thinking about ministry. I can count the years I have served as a minister of the gospel by the calendar year, as I first started preaching for a little church in Arkansas back in 2000. So 2022 makes twenty-two years of serving as a minister of the gospel. The reason I mention this is because, for most of these years, the subject of discipleship has remained a popular topic. One of the reasons is that discipleship remains a struggle for Christianity in North America and this struggle is related to participation in the mission of God.

The Easter worship gathering of the Newark Church of Christ, whom I serve as a pastor.

Of course, history includes many examples of discipleship failure in Christianity. Germany and Rwanda are notable national examples. However, the United States is also an example of what happens when discipleship is trivialized. Regardless of what the founding fathers of this nation intended in its founding, the atrocities committed against Native Americans, Blacks, and other minorities that were carried out and/or supported by people claiming to be Christians remind us of how easily people fail in living as followers of Jesus. And the same can be said for Canada too.

The Meaning of Discipleship

I have already hinted at my understanding of what it means to be a disciple and take discipleship seriously. Yet one of the problems I have observed in twenty-two years of ministry is unclarity about what discipleship is. That’s a problem because if we don’t understand what discipleship is, we are certainly unlikely to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Understanding discipleship, for me, begins with hearing the call of Jesus to follow him. We can read of this calling in all four canonical Gospels but for our purposes, consider Mark’s Gospel. According to Mark, Jesus says, “Come, follow me . . . And I will send you out to fish for people” (Mk 1:17). In the original language, there are actually two words, deute and opisō, that have to do with following Jesus. Jesus is calling us to come to him and follow behind him as a learner, which was the typical Jewish practice of a student learning from his teacher (Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, p. 74). So to begin with, discipleship or to be a disciple of Jesus means that we become students of Jesus learning from him. And within the context of the Mark, as well as the other three Gospels, this discipleship involves following Jesus in order that we learn to live the kingdom life he lives.

Later on, Jesus begins to speak of his impending death on three occasions but every time he does, the disciples show their misunderstanding. They don’t understand yet what living as disciples means for the way they are to live life and so their misunderstanding elicits corrective teaching from Jesus (cf. 8:31-38; 9:30-37; 10:32-45). This is important to note because Jesus is not simply trying to teach his disciples a few new doctrines or a few new disciplines for living a good life. Rather, Jesus is trying to (re)form the very mindset of his disciples, replete with new beliefs, values, and practices that will result in a new way of living – the kingdom life.

So over twenty-two years of congregational ministry, I have come to understand discipleship to mean learning to live in the way of Jesus. That’s my simple way of defining what discipleship is. (On a side note, as one who preaches regularly, this understanding of discipleship very much shapes how I preach from the Bible, regardless of whether that’s from the Old Testament or New Testament. However, I am also aware of the limitations that as important as preaching the word of God is, preaching alone will not form Christians to live as disciples.)

Now about learning to live in the way of Jesus . . . This is easy to write about but much more difficult to do. That’s because following Jesus as his disciples always takes us to that place where we are called to pick up our own cross and follow Jesus to his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

The Challenge of Discipleship

Perhaps I’m wrong but as it appears to me now, I probably will never literally have to bear a cross for the sake of Jesus and neither will you. I’m thankful for that and I’m thankful for the faithfulness of our Christian brothers and sisters in other regions of the world who are persecuted because they follow Jesus. Yet, there is still a great challenge for us in learning to live our lives in the way of Jesus as we go about our daily responsibilities here in North America. Simply put, learning to live in the way of Jesus calls us not just to the cross (cf. Mk 8:34) but also to become the least of all as a servant to all (cf. Mk 9:35) so that, like Jesus, we too become servants who give of ourselves for others (cf. Mk 10:45).

In a society where might makes right and the strong survive, accepting the way of life we learn from Jesus is difficult. In fact, some will try dismissing and employ a host of hermeneutical gymnastics as they read the Bible in order to dismiss living in the way of Jesus as necessary and essential to being a disciple or Christian. So to guard against such a dismissal of discipleship, we must learn to not just believe in Jesus but also believe in what Jesus says and does. Then, and only then, does this difficult challenge of discipleship begin to make sense. When we learn to believe as Jesus believes, then his way of life – his beliefs, values, and practices – makes sense.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Jim Elliot who wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Along with four other missionaries, Jim Elliot was murdered while attempting to evangelize the Waodani natives of Ecuador. His words are the expression of one who believes Jesus and therefore believes that God answers the wretchedness of the cross with the glorious promise of resurrection.

Disciples and Churches

Coming back to where this article began, in twenty-two years of ministry I have learned how to help maintain a church but making disciples is still a challenge. Sometimes I wonder if I even know how this is done but then other days I see the way the church I serve embodies the gospel and I am pleased by what I see. I’m sure our Lord, Jesus Christ, is too. I’m sure many of you have similar thoughts, whether, like me, you serve as a pastor among an established church or whether you’ve planted a church, have started a campus ministry, or however you are serving in the kingdom of God.

That said, I can’t help but think of how many churches there are and know that there are far fewer disciples. As I say that, I recall what Mike Breen once wrote “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples” (Building A Discipleship Culture, pp. 11-12).  It’s hard to argue with such an observation.  

I don’t want to be misunderstood here either. I love the church, the big worldwide body of Christ because Jesus loves her and gave his life so that she could live. So I’m also thankful for the existence of local churches and the many good works that are done in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. I also believe we need to plant more local churches and new campus ministries, which is why I also work with both Mission Alive and Reflect Campus Missions

Yet before making disciples we face another challenge. We cannot make disciples unless we are disciples, believers learning to live in the way of Jesus. As we do live in the way of Jesus, we’ll be the church Jesus has called us to be. That is, we’ll be that church living in the way of Jesus, forming others in the way of Jesus as they too become the church of Jesus Christ. Selah.


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