Demystifying Discipleship


It seems that the language of "discipleship" has gained a new prominence in Catholic circles, and this is a very good thing.

In my own memory, discipleship-focused language first surfaced when I was exposed to "Go and Make Disciples," a much-overlooked but very significant USCCB document issued in 1990.  When FOCUS began sending young Catholic missionaries to college campuses, discipleship was placed at the very center of their evangelization strategies.  Presently, Sherry Weddell's "Forming Intentional Disciples" has helped give more clarity and definition to what we mean by the word "disciple" and has created something of a firestorm in the use of the term.

All of this has helped Catholics become more comfortable with the terminology of discipleship*, but I have encountered a discomfort among many Catholics with one particular aspect of discipleship.

First, I should to point out the two main ways that "discipleship" is used. The first is the primary emphasis of Sherry's book - it is the individual's relationship with Christ as a disciple.  This is perhaps the usage we are most familiar with and most comfortable with - discipleship as "following Jesus."

The second way that "discipleship" is used is as an evangelizing activity, and it is in this context that the discomfort is usually felt.  In short, this usage of discipleship designates a one-on-one mentoring relationship.  It is easiest to describe it in action by looking at FOCUS.  FOCUS missionaries are widely known to lead small group bible studies on campuses all over the country.  But the "secret sauce" of FOCUS actually lies in their discipleship ministry. A missionary will identify certain individuals (usually within their small group) who is particularly hungry to grow in their faith and will invite them to meet regularly one-on-one to help mentor them in their relationship with God. So far, so good - why would anyone balk at mentoring?  The reason is that FOCUS embraces the language of discipleship - the missionary "disciples" the student, the student is the missionary's "disciple."

To most, calling one person the "disciple" of another seems to go too far.  We are called to be disciples of Jesus, after all!  Doesn't this verge on blasphemy?

It's important that we take a step back and understand the notion of "discipleship" within its original context.  Just before Jesus ascended, he said to his closest followers, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).  What I am most interested in exploring here is how the Twelve would have understood these words of Jesus.  For them, "disciple" had a specific meaning.  Disciples were students, and specifically, the students of rabbis.  They lived in close proximity with the rabbi who undertook to train them in how to live out the Law of Moses.  Thus we read in Matthew 11 that John the Baptist sent his own disciples to Jesus.  So for the apostles, being a disciple meant being a particular kind of student and it was not specifically linked to "following Jesus."

So when Jesus said, "Go and make disciples," there is no reason to think the apostles would have thought of this in terms of making others "disciples of Jesus."  Rather, they would have understood Jesus to be saying, "Go make your own disciples," that is, find men that you can invest in and teach the way that I have invested in and taught you.

Considered in this way, there is no reason why the same practice ought not to occur in our evangelistic efforts today and why we should not use the language of discipleship and making disciples in this way.  Granted, the practice of discipleship today will take on a somewhat different form than in first century Jerusalem, but I think that the essence of it boils down to intentionality**.

  • Intentionality in beginning: there is an explicit decision to enter into a discipleship relationship.
  • Intentionality in meeting: there are specific and regular times are set aside to meet for conversation.
  • Intentionality in discussing the spiritual life: there is a mutual understanding that the purpose of meeting is to discuss the disciple's walk with God.

Seen in this light, the modern practice of discipleship is really just the purposeful meeting of two people to discuss growing in faith.  To be sure, those who engage in discipling others should have a certain measure of training first (FOCUS again is a great model for providing discipleship training).  But a PhD in theology is not necessary for one person, well-grounded in his or her faith, to invest time in a hungry new disciple, and the benefits have proven themselves time and again in those ministries that embrace discipleship.


*I can't help but point out that this new comfort could be something of a double-edged sword, for if it is merely the terminology that is adopted and we lose track of the real meaning of discipleship, then this widespread usage will have backfired.  Weddell was conscientious of this danger in writing the book which is why she adopted the description "intentional disciple" despite the admitted redundancy in that designation.

**Ironically, "intentional discipleship" is quite meaningful in both uses of "discipleship" mentioned above, and the point at which one first becomes an intentional disciple (of Jesus) is the perfect time to begin investing in them through intentional discipleship.