You’ve likely heard the word discipleship a number of times—whether in church conversations or in your devotions. It’s a word to take seriously; making disciples is part of the Great Commission, after all. Sometimes, though, discipleship feels like an ideal, rather than a tangible part of everyday life. These five actions will help change that as you spell out, then live out, what it means to be a disciple in your personal life, in your church, and in your community.
1. Define discipleship.
I’ve discovered that very few churches have actually thought about discipleship in explicit terms. By this, I mean that churches and their leadership teams haven’t defined discipleship. As you begin your journey into deeper discipleship, define the terms for your church. What does it mean to live and love like Jesus? Think about what this means for your church as a whole and for leaders, lay people, individuals, families, and children.
2. Map out your discipleship pathway.
When is the last time your church sat down to actually plot out the ways current discipleship methods are working? Start by making a list of the Bible studies, evening programs, educational groups, and children’s ministries at your church. Essentially, write down all of the things your church is doing. Ask yourself: are these programs doing what we hoped they would do? How do these programs interact? What is the hoped-for outcome, and what is the actual outcome? Do we need to step away from tradition and how things have always been and, instead, move into places and programs that are intentional about growing and making disciples? Make sure you also consider the conversations you’ve had with others about their hopes and expectations of discipleship.
3. Discern what discipleship looks like for your context.
For the past 50 years or so, churches have been really good at plugging children into their discipleship programs. They also have plenty of options for newlyweds and families. But what about those struggling to find community or those in your church who are single? What about parents who are now empty-nesters? Or the elderly person who can no longer get to church? What about others who don’t fit the traditional church categories? Consider inviting people that you might not ordinarily group yourself with into your home to begin learning and growing with one another. Invite a conversation about what sort of discipling relationships people desire. Consider how the conversation might be similar to or different than your perception of what discipleship is supposed to be. The work of being Christ’s body involves serving with people who are different, including those who are in a different stage of life. Work to live outside of your comfort zone! And create space for trying new things together.
4. Be discipled.
Many church leaders have told me that they’ve never been intentionally or systematically discipled. Certainly, these folks have had mentors, counselors, pastoral support groups, and friends. But much of what I’ve heard is: “I think I’m not making disciples because I’ve never been discipled before.” Consider who you base your ministry off, or someone who you admire. Maybe it’s someone whose life you’d like to emulate because they so clearly display the love of Christ, both in their person and among others. What might it look like for you to intentionally communicate to that person that you admire them, and that you hope to live a life similar to theirs? Ask if they might have space to spend some consistent time with you—maybe it’s an hour, maybe a meal. Make this time personal, so that your life might begin to look more like theirs and, more importantly, more like Christ.
5. Think beyond your church.
Discipleship isn’t just about an individual relationship with Jesus. It’s also about engagement in his world. Don’t wait another day to begin thinking about involvement in the broader community. Many churches struggle with understanding the types of problems around them. This misunderstanding has profound impact. Due to our lack of fully understanding the root of issues in our communities, we often create greater problems than we solve. Start with the book The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance, by Bethany Hanke Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson. You and your church can begin to listen better to your community and discern ways of acting that will have long-lasting impact. Challenge your church to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the people in your community and to do this well.
Rev. Annalise Radcliffe
Annalise Radcliffe is director of future church innovation for the Reformed Church in America. She is passionate about intergenerational ministry and believes that youth ministry is the work of the whole church, not just the youth pastor. She and her husband, Ron, are planting pastors of City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can connect with Anna by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.