What is discipleship?
Discipleship is a journey into the heart of God's love. It is a life-long process of following Jesus and being made more like him. Often the church has tended to think of discipleship as something that is done with young converts. New Christians need discipling to get them started on the journey.
But this radically downplays the core place that discipleship should have in the life of individual believers and of the church. Followers of Christ never stop being disciples. Being discipled is as important for long-established as for new Christians. It's a task for life.
Why is discipleship important?
Some people worry that fresh expressions are discipleship-lite (others ask whether this might also be true of many inherited churches). Certainly, if a new Christian community is to grow deep spiritual roots and flourish, discipleship needs to be at the heart of its life - for several reasons:
Discipleship was central to the ministry of Jesus
He invested much of his time and energy in building up a community of disciples. It was thanks to his emphasis on discipleship - on embedding his teaching in the lives of his followers - that the church was established and grew.
Jesus told his followers to make discipleship a key task
His last words to them were to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28.19). He discipled a group of followers so that they could make other disciples, and his intention was that this process should be repeated through the centuries.
Healthy churches emphasise discipleship
Flourishing movements within the church have always seen making disciples as central to their task - for example the Franciscans, the Wesleyan revival and the Chinese church in recent years.
Discipleship is vital to produce effective Christian leaders
Leaders who are like Christ need to have their lives formed by Christ. Vital for this is discipleship from an early stage. In particular, future leaders of mission need to have a commitment to God's mission planted in their hearts from their earliest days of faith.
Discipleship equips Christians to promote the kingdom of God
This is the main reason discipleship is so important. It's a rather limited vision to bring more people into the church just so that they can bring more people into the church. (Sometimes the emphasis on evangelism can read like that.) Drawing individuals to Christ should bear kingdom fruit by enhancing their ability - through being discipled - to love other people, promote justice and care for creation.
Discipleship can be a good yardstick against which to test a fresh expression. If you are developing a fresh expression among parents and young children, for example, you might ask: 'What does discipleship mean in this context? Who is being discipled and in what ways?'
A fresh expression that includes a short prayer at the end of a sewing circle might ask a similar question: 'What would help people to grow in faith in this situation?'
What does discipleship involve?
We suggest you read Discipleship - key principles in outline. Of the principles summarised there, we would emphasise:
- listen to those you are seeking to disciple;
- address the whole of life;
- nurture community;
- provide plenty of support;
- rethink worship, learning and spiritual practices;
- encourage reliance on the Holy Spirit;
- remember that discipleship is changing.