By Dr. Brad Brady
We church folks are notorious for using words that we think everyone understands. This is not a new phenomenon.
I remember the interview I had with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee as I was seeking to enter the ministry in the late 1970s. One of the committee members asked me a question using a religious term. My mind raced to recall where I had heard that word and what I could deduce about its meaning from what I had previously heard or observed. I was not remembering much from my experience that would help me answer the question. Finally, I answered by saying that, “I was in favor of it.” To my surprise, there was no follow-up question. There was an assumption that I knew what it meant and that I fully supported the concept.
In my role at Connectional Ministries, I have the privilege of working with a wide variety of local churches and church leaders (lay and clergy). I have learned the importance of beginning with a foundational question when teaching around discipleship. Almost always I begin by asking the group to define “disciple” as if speaking to someone who had never heard the term.
Frequently, there are stunned looks on the faces of the participants. They know the word. They know it is a church word often referenced. Most have never had it defined for them. It has just been assumed that everyone knows its meaning.
How would you define “disciple?”
You can find many definitions compiled from the writings of Christian leaders throughout history on the Internet. You might find it enriching to do such an exploration sometime.
One day when Bishop James King was teaching on discipleship, I wrote down his definition, “Disciples are those people who, having accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, seek to follow him and obey his teachings.”
Whatever definition you come up with, I suggest that a holistic definition of “disciple” includes the following four aspects.
A disciple is a learner. Literally, disciple means student. A disciple of Jesus Christ is a student of Jesus who seeks to learn the will of God and the ways of God by soaking up the teachings of Jesus Christ.
A disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ. It is not enough to be a student as if acquiring knowledge is the end goal. Disciples of Jesus Christ apply what they have learned to their own lives and follow the commands of Jesus. A disciple demonstrates that he or she is a “believer in Jesus” as they follow the teachings of Christ. Jesus is Lord of our life as we follow the commands of Christ. Jesus is Savior as we obediently surrender in our hearts, repent of our sins, receive the gift of forgiveness and the new life Christ offers as taught by Jesus.
A disciple becomes more Christlike. As we learn from Jesus and follow Jesus we experience a change in our thoughts, values, and actions. The fruit of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) begins to show in the life of a disciple.
A disciple is God’s partner in making disciples. It is amazing how early it is in our faith journey that God begins to use us to connect with others so that we can offer a credible witness to the transforming love of God. Disciples become the vessels through which the unmerited love of God (grace) reaches out to others. Sometimes, this grace is expressed through serving those in need or speaking for those whose voice cannot be heard. Sometimes, this grace flows outward to others through words of invitation or instruction. Sometimes, others experience grace when they see the values of Christ reflected through a disciple’s life. It is through a variety of intentional and unknown occasions that we are partners with God in making disciples.
Being a disciple is an ongoing process. Every day, we are called to engage in learning from Jesus, following his commands, becoming more Christlike and making disciples of Jesus Christ. Being a disciple is an active and intentional process requiring daily desire and effort.
So, are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? Are you continually in the process learning, following, becoming, and making? Is your congregation set up to help people become disciples and to continue the life long process of discipleship?
Nothing would please God more!
Dr. Brad Brady is the Assistant to the Bishop for Connectional Ministries.