Discipleship Past and Future
By: Myron Williams
Once upon a time I was taught that discipleship was a matter of attending Sunday School, memorizing certain passages of Scripture, and doing my best not to sin. When I got to Bible college I discovered my Sunday School lessons and Scripture memory work did little good when facing some of the more serious questions of life. Questions like: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?
Upon graduation I became a youth minister in a church of 900 people, responsible for children from ages 2-18. And I still did not know for sure what to do, how to do it, and what I was supposed to accomplish. We had Sunday School and youth groups where we taught Bible with limited application. We had Vacation Bible School, church camp, and other events. But with all this there was no plan, no desired outcome except teaching children and teens about Jesus.
We did small groups with teens, small groups with teens and adults, and followed a set curriculum for our youth groups. While there was a set curriculum in each of these, there was still no overall understanding of discipleship.
When I began teaching at the college level I realized that discipleship was more than a plan, more than following a set of lessons, but I was still uncertain what it included. I tried all sorts of ideas, including weekly meetings with a small group of college men, but that did not seem to fill the concept with much more than I had before.
It was on a trip home from teaching in Europe that I read a book called “The Relational Way” and I began to realize that discipleship is relationships first and foremost. I also read another book about the same time which made me think about Jesus as one who developed disciples, and then I attended two learning communities on discipleship. Put all together, this is what I am currently learning about discipleship.
Discipleship often begins in large groups. Jesus preached to large crowds of people as we know from his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7); from his teaching at the feedings of the crowds; and as he taught at the village of Sychar following his conversation with the woman at the well (Gospel of John 4).
But discipleship in Jesus’ day also took place on the mid-size level. Did you ever stop and think about how many parties Jesus attended and how many meals with people he ate? It seems like in every instance he spoke to them about the key issues of life. He talked about changing their viewpoint – called repentance. He spoke of seeing the law in new ways – he challenged the legalism in favor of mercy. He spoke of self-sacrifice instead of thinking of self as important and holier than others. And we know that many of the people Jesus partied and ate with became his followers.
There are times when study is important. But Jesus did this with a much smaller group of people, his 12 disciples. Even in these times there was more than just study; there was experiential learning as well. Sometimes he taught as they walked along the road, sometimes in quiet times after a busy day, sometimes on a stormy sea, sometimes following a teaching to a larger group. But there was always teaching. He taught them to pray; he taught them about the four soils on which the news of the kingdom fell; he taught them about the need for rest and refreshment of both body and spirit (especially when he slipped away from them to spend time in reflection and prayer); he taught them about his coming death, burial and resurrection; he taught them that physical ailments are not always the result to sin (the man born blind, John 9); he taught them about what it meant to fulfill the law. Yes, study and teaching are part of discipleship, but this type of teaching happens best when there can be dialogue.
When I look at Jesus there is one more place where discipleship happened and that was with an even smaller group, the inner circle of three, Peter, James, and John. They were privileged to be with Jesus when the others did not get to follow. I’ve often wondered what these intimate conversations were about, but I find it interesting that none of the three tell anything about such times in the books they wrote. Whatever went on there was private, intimate and was essential for their discipleship.
Where are these intimate relationships in your life? Small groups are good and useful, but usually they are on the personal level, very rarely getting to the intimate level. Getting to these levels of relationships takes time, endurance, transparency, and honesty, none of which is easy if you don’t work at it. These are the people who can hold one another accountable, people who can challenge, people you can tell anything to and they accept you and will not judge you. They will treat you with grace and mercy when you deserve judgment. Yet they are not afraid to call you out as Jesus did with Peter. They are your fellow learners, disciples who are trying to live like Jesus just as you are, and you need them as much as they need you. These intimate relationships are too often ignored in the church, and for years I did. Now that I’ve experienced such relationships I realize the value and the positive impact such a group has in my life.
In my journey to better understand discipleship I moved from simply knowing more Bible verses and attending Bible studies to a relational discipleship. Wherever, within life’s normal relationships, we study, pray, challenge, support, encourage, and generally do life together, it is discipleship. Jesus modeled all four types of relationships in making disciples, thus we too can do the same, but it takes time, it is messy, and sometimes it is just plain difficult.
“Make disciples” is our call and our task. Where are you making disciples in your life? People are watching you, learning from you whether or not you are aware of it. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” That is our task as well. Invite people into your life, and show them how you live for Jesus. Then you’ll be making disciples who see they too can make disciples.
 Myron Williams is adjunct professor of Christian Education at Kentucky Christian University Graduate School.