On the Foundation of Love and Relationship, Christ Jesus Himself Being the Cornerstone:

A More Familial Discipleship

By Marcus McClain

Published November 1st, 2020

            The word disciple means student, and while this word did not originate with Jesus or Christianity, it has come to be used almost exclusively in Christian jargon. There are a plethora of books and opinions on what it means to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ and how to make a disciple of Jesus Christ. While I do not believe there is much I can add to the wisdom of those who have come before or those who are simply wiser than I am, I would submit that the most effective way to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ is to do so in the context of a dynamic and genuine relationship.
            There are a few ways that the church in America approaches discipleship: sermons, small groups and programs. Sermons are the most common and frequent method the church employs in discipleship. In a sermon, the congregants sit theater-style and listen to the pastor (or whoever is speaking) deliver a biblical lecture. Here, the students receive information and theory from a teacher but little else. However, churches also seek to disciple through small groups, Sunday school, Bible studies, Kid’s Kingdom, etc. These avenues try to be more relational by having smaller sizes but generally the format does not change too much. There is usually one teacher or leader and the members of the group sit around and listen to them teach or elucidate Christian doctrine. Again, it is very much focused on passing on information and knowledge.
            These methods fall short of the examples of discipleship that we find in the scriptures. Although there are examples of disciple-makers teaching disciples (Jesus taught upon the mount in Matthew 5 and Paul rented out the school of Tyrannus to give instruction for a time in Acts 19:9), the most frequent and consistent models of discipleship are those of the disciple being with, living with and ministering alongside his disciple-maker. 
            Christianity is not a religion of precepts and abstractions, but is instead, a relationship with the living and triune God. Christianity is an extremely practical relationship. In this way, one might liken discipleship more to learning how to play the guitar rather than learning history. A history teacher will find great efficacy in lecturing to immense crowds because she is concerned only with passing on information. That is, the larger the number of people to hear the lecture, the more history which will be learned. This is the opposite of teaching guitar; the smaller the number of students, the more efficiently guitar can and will be taught. Since Christianity is practical and therefore, more like the skill of guitar-playing, it is a tragedy that the vast majority of the church relies on the sermon (which is nothing more than a lecture) to make disciples; it takes that which should be practical and makes it merely theoretical.
            More than simply being practical, Christianity is also about relationships with Christians being brothers and sisters to one another, but small groups allow people to go unknown and programs put a barrier between disciple-makers and disciples. A small group, much like the Sunday-morning-service, allows a Christian to sit passively by and never be known nor ever have the opportunity to live alongside someone and imitate their life and relationship with the Lord. The same is true of programs; while there might be some practical tips given in a Promise Keepers program, these are generally canned and general and not at all cognizant of a specific man, his background, and his current situation. We are not forced to make something up when it comes to discipleship; God does not leave us on our own but has given us a master disciple-maker whom we can learn from and imitate.
            The Gospels are often ignored or forgotten as discipleship is considered and engaged with. In the Gospels, the church has four distinct accounts of how God Himself relates to people bodily and makes them disciples. When the Lord Jesus Christ issued what we call “the Great Commission” to make disciples (Mt. 28:19-20), what came into His followers’ minds was what they had experienced with Him for nearly three and a half years.
            In Jesus’s first interaction with His soon-to-be disciples, He engages with them personally and calls for them to follow Him and be with Him (Matt 4:18-22; John 1:35-51). For three years, they live with Him, follow Him to every place He goes, sleep, eat and drink with Him, observe how He engages with the masses and with individuals, and watch how He serves and heals people. Only then they can go forth and imitate His example. I believe it is safe to say that Jesus had genuine and dynamic relationships with His disciples (and does today) and He hated superficiality (and does today). Relationship was (and is) the primary context for Jesus’s discipleship and woe to us if we believe we can improve upon it.
            Jesus’s initial teaching to His disciples was centered on Him pointing to God and describing Him as the Father of the disciples. He encouraged them to relate to God as their Father (Mt. 6:9-13), instructed them about how much the Father loved them and cared for them (Jn. 3:16), and elucidated how, as children of God, they should behave towards others (Mt. 7:12). Disciplemaker and writer Lewie Clark puts it this way, “the disciple-maker’s core mission is to help the disciple know—really know—that God loves [them]…that’s what Jesus did.”[1] 
            Part of the way Jesus taught the Father’s love was by Him loving His disciples fiercely and sacrificially; He later could instruct His disciples (and also us) to love each other and there was no confusion because He had indeed loved them and they had experienced it. If we are to make disciples, we too must show them that God loves them by loving them as Jesus did. It is easy for us to love in word, but in the programmatic discipleship we generally have, we miss loving in deed.[2] If the disciple-maker is not the one loving a disciple of Jesus and demonstrating visibly the love God has for a child of God, who will?
            Through teaching His disciples that God was their Father, Jesus was also teaching them that they were siblings. Besides the obvious implication, He also told them this explicitly.[3] By doing this, Jesus instructed His disciples on how to see and relate to one another. This would be reiterated by the apostles in their writings to various churches.[4] Jesus saw (and still sees) the fraternity of His disciples as core to His discipling methods. Christians seeing one another as a family and interacting and loving one another as such, is essential to growing in maturity to the stature of Christ Jesus Himself. So how can we follow Christ as disciple-makers?
            Moving away from sermons, small groups and programs for making disciples, discipleship starts with one-on-one relationships. Unlike the Lord Jesus, we do not only have three years to accomplish our ministry and reveal the name of the Father to those He brings to us. God willing, we can have decades to make disciples of Jesus. This allows us time to sit down with a person and really listen with our ears as well as our hearts.[5] As we listen, we gain the opportunity to consider why they are sharing what they are sharing; there is generally great significance in what they are saying and there is a point they are trying to make. While we do not share Jesus’s omniscience, we can still endeavor to watch and listen to our disciples closely and carefully, just as the Lord does for us.
            Get your disciple talking about their life, particularly their childhood. There is generally at least one defining event. One that has such a gravitas to it that their life has continued to orbit around that event. Once you hear (and listen) to their story, you will have greater clarity about why they think, act, and speak the way they do. If a disciple-maker attempts to use methods and means without getting to know their disciple, even if those methods have worked for others, the disciple-maker runs the risk of their disciple feeling unseen, unheard and not cared about. This will not do, especially as the disciple-maker seeks to begin to disciple through community. Discipleship is not a one-size-fits-all program; instead, discipleship is a dynamic relationship which seeks to help the disciple come to know God better, love Him more fiercely and then serve the world more sacrificially.
            It is imperative that in following Jesus into disciple-making, we ensure there is a group dynamic that is added to the one-on-one relationships. In the group setting (think 3-5 disciples or so), a disciple cannot fool you into believing all their relationships are healthy. In an exclusively one-on-one setting, one must take the disciple’s word for it when they are asked about what their relationships are like. In a small group of disciples, the relational fault lines are exposed and the disciple-maker can clearly see where his or her disciples are socially, allowing them to then teach their disciples how to love and how to receive love in the one-on-one context.[6]
            In this setting, disciples learn how to show and receive familial love with those who are not genetically related to them, and interestingly, this will improve relationships with their biological and legal families. However, it will not stop there, other relationships, such as those with strangers, co-workers and employers and employees, will also benefit from this coaching and experience. This is known as a “splash effect” where those who are around those being discipled but are not intimately or actively participating, begin to see, hear and learn from what is going on and it changes them.[7] Ultimately, this sets up the disciple-maker to send out his or her disciples into the world.
            Much like how having been a child prepares one for parenthood (along with maturity, of course), being a disciple prepares one for disciple-making. Jesus’s disciples did not have to rack their brains to figure out what He meant when He said, “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19) because they had been with Him and been His disciples for three years. In His illustrious mind, their experience as disciples had qualified them to make disciples once they had His Spirit. Contrary to the pastors and small group leaders of churches who must insist and prod the congregants to share the gospel and make disciples, a disciple-maker who has shared, not only words with a disciple but their own life as well,[8] will be naturally discipling a disciple-maker; just as (generally) all parents are parenting future parents. A disciple-maker who is imitating Jesus in their making of disciples is organically empowering those disciples to do likewise to the utmost parts of the world.

            In closing, there are many great resources and teachings on making disciples and I do not really believe I can improve on any of them. However, I do believe that in practice, the church of America could do a better job at making disciples if she determined to imitate Jesus and leave the sermons and programs behind. Jesus Christ showed us how to make disciples and since He is altogether perfect, we cannot hope to improve on His methods. The Messiah made disciples in the context of love and genuine, dynamic relationships, engaging with His disciples one-on-one and in a group. He endeavored to reveal God to them as their loving Father, He taught them that they were siblings and how they ought to relate to one another with that truth in mind, and He ministered alongside them and sent them out to do what He had shown them, instructing and encouraging them along the way. After time, experience and empowerment, His disciples were ready and equipped to go and make disciples themselves, and if we imitate Jesus, we too, will make disciples who are ready and equipped to be disciple-makers for the glory of God.

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Footnotes:

            [1] Lewie Clark, Imitating Jesus (Bloomington: Westbow Press, 2012), 3.
            [2] See 1 John 3:18.
            [3] See Matt. 12:49; 23:8; and 25:40. 
            [4] See Rom. 1:13; 7:1; 12:10; 1 Cor. 6:8; 8:12; 1 Tim. 5:1; and 2 Pet. 1:7.
            [5] Clark, Imitating Jesus, 2.
            [6] Ibid., 9.
            [7] Ibid., 6-8.
            [8] See 1 Thess. 2:8.

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