As Christians, we are to make disciples of Jesus, forming a growing group of people who become more and more Christ-like each day. To be successful at this, we need to understand what making disciples involves. Of course, it starts with evangelism and proclaiming the Gospel, but that is only the beginning of the lifelong activity of discipleship. To really be successful, we need to understand the difference between Christian discipleship and secular discipleship.
The discussion in this essay considers these things from a new perspective, and reveals something important that is often forgotten.
In general, discipleship means sitting at the master’s feet and listening to their teachings as a regular activity, perhaps asking questions when we don’t understand something. Ideally, we would watch how the master behaves and how they exhibit the principles they are teaching, and then seek to walk in their footsteps. Taking guidance and correction from the master, we seek to emulate and grow to be like them. All these interactions may have both individual and group manifestations, but in either case, a key characteristic is personal relationship with the master.
Of course one can also be a disciple of someone from history, such as Socrates or Karl Marx. In that case, the process might involve study of the master’s teachings as they were recorded by the master and/or those who learned from them directly. It might involve studying the master’s life and practices, perhaps as recorded by those around him, to see how the master lived out the principles taught. We might also study the master’s culture, to better understand their teachings. Guidance and correction would be available from particularly advanced disciples, since the master is not longer available directly. A key difference in this case is no direct interaction with the master.
Of these two descriptions, which one more closely resembles the way discipleship is practiced in the church today? Does discipleship look more like that of a living person, or a long-dead one?
Clearly, most practices resemble the second description, since Jesus is no longer physically with us. But what does that say about our belief in a risen Savior, instead of one who died two thousand years ago? What does this say about our belief that He is with us always, even to then ends of the age (Matthew 18:20, 28:20b, Acts 18:10)? It seems that, although we talk about having a living master, we practice discipleship as if he were still in the tomb, thousands of miles away.
Think about it: when we are in a class, are we encouraged to listen to the Master speak, or are we led to to study what He used to say? Are we watching and discussing His activities in the world, or only wondering what He would do if He were here?
If we really believe the things we say about Jesus’ ongoing life, His constant presence, and His involvement in our lives, then Christian discipleship should reflect those beliefs. It should look very different than any secular discipleship of a master who is long dead and represented only by old records of teaching and activities.
Christian discipleship means making disciples of Christ, not human teachers, so it needs to enable people to hear and obey the Master directly. We have many leaders who affirm that Jesus is alive and speaks, and who choose to speak for Him. We are missing leaders who encourage others to hear and follow for themselves.