Individual and Community Discipleship
Occasionally I will hear someone lament, “No one is discipling me,” or “I don’t have anyone to disciple.” Typically these kinds of complaints stem from the common assumption that disciple making requires an arrangement between a disciple maker and a disciple to work through a curriculum or to train the disciple in some ministry skill.
There’s strong biblical precedent for this kind of discipleship. Jesus and his disciples made a mutual commitment when Jesus invited them to follow him, and they agreed to do so. Jesus then used this relationship to develop the foundational ministers of the church. Paul discipled Timothy in a similar manner. He then calls Timothy to follow this pattern when he says, “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). Paul implies that training the next generation of ministers requires that current leaders identify future leaders and train them to continue the work. Experience also demonstrates that one-on-one mentorship is often very effective in moving an immature believer toward maturity and fruitfulness. Therefore, mature believers absolutely should be looking for people they can mentor, and younger believers should be looking for mentors. And the church is right to encourage members to seek out these relationships.
But is this the only way discipleship happens? If someone is not in one of these relationships, does it necessarily mean they are not either being discipled or receiving discipleship? The Bible would say “no,” and I believe that if a Christian strictly views discipleship only in the terms I have described, he or she will miss a lot of opportunities both to give and receive discipleship.
Ephesians 4:11–14 state, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” This passage describes how the church grows into maturity. Admittedly, the focus is on corporate maturity, but the only way the church can mature corporately is through the maturation of individual members. And God says the primary way we grow into maturity (i.e., are discipled) is through every member fulfilling his role in edifying the body. We all grow as we all fulfill our role. Specifically, each member fulfills its role through the exercise of spiritual gifts and through basic demonstrations of love and care (Rom 12:3–8; Gal 6:1–5).
Therefore, discipleship doesn’t fundamentally happen in one-on-one relationships but in community as I benefit from the members of the body fulfilling their God-ordained roles and as I fulfill my role. As a result, I’m being discipled every time I sit under someone with the gift of teaching or every time someone with the gift of encouragement speaks truth into my life. Those with the gift of service who care for the building make it easier to benefit from the teachers by providing a good context for teaching. And God uses those who pray to effect the spread of the Word. I’m also being discipled when I watch a brother trust the Lord through a difficult trial or when I observe another brother pray over people he is burdened to reach the gospel. All of these ministries have a profound impact on my sanctification, even though there is nothing earth shattering about any of it. As every member simply does what God made him or her to do, the whole body benefits and each member grows in maturity.
As a result, active church members are always discipling, and they are always being discipled, probably more than they realize. As well, in a healthy church context, there will always be plenty of discipleship opportunities if we have eyes to see them. Therefore, rather than fretting over finding that one person I can disciple or that one person who will disciple me, I need to plug into the life of the body, invest my spiritual gifts, and benefit as others practice theirs, because discipleship happens in community. In light of all this, I’d like to end with 3 conclusions.
- Don’t underestimate the impact you are having as you live out your faith in community and practice your spiritual gift(s).
I’ve never had someone formally disciple me, but I have a received a lot of discipleship from Christians who were just doing what God made them to do. I have been deeply impacted by many preachers and teachers and by hard working servants who mowed the church lawn, replaced the roof, and moved chairs. I’ve been challenged by prayer warriors and encouragers. They all discipled me without ever knowing that’s what they were doing. They just used their gifts and walked in sincere godliness.
I occasionally hear believers lament that they serve no purpose in the church. They want to be used of God, but they don’t think they have anything to offer. But the concept of community discipleship means that every believer is a disciple maker as we simply walk with the Lord and fulfill our role. It also means that you are probably making more of an impact than you realize, because there are lots of eyes on each of us. Therefore, if you walk with Christ, set a pattern of godliness, and faithfully serve in your God-ordained role, you will participate in disciple making, even if you never have a personal disciple.
- Immerse yourself in the life of the body both to bless others and to be a blessing.
The more you are involved in the community, the more you will impact others, and they will impact you. People will see what God is doing in your life and be blessed. And as you lively closely with other believers you will recognize needs and opportunities to serve. Go will give you more ministry than you can manage. Finally you will receive the same kind of ministry as people walk close to you and see your needs. In sum, don’t sit around bemoaning your sense that you aren’t being discipled or that you can’t disciple; rather, plug into the body and let discipleship happen naturally.
- Watch for people who need more focused investment.
My point in all of this is not to diminish the significance of mentoring relationships. There are always younger believers in the church who would greatly benefit from focused attention by a more mature believer. Some are immature in their understanding of Scripture and practical Christian living. Others are weighed down by sinful habits or patterns. Still others are overwhelmed by the burdens of life. Mature believers must have an eye for these kinds of people. And once you spot them, do better than hoping someone encourages them; commit to doing the hard work of leading them to where they ultimately need to be. Take them through a curriculum, provide accountability, or bring them along as you serve. Pass along the discipleship that you have received so that they can do the same.