If you asked for a description of the sun and were told it is “a little round object in the sky,” that would be correct but not very precise. This description might be adequate for a child, but not for a student of astronomy. But consider this option from Wikipedia:
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, with internal convective motion that generates a magnetic field. . . . Roughly three quarters of the Sun’s mass consists of hydrogen, the rest is mostly helium, with much smaller quantities of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.
When we define a disciple as a learner, it is like saying the sun is a little round ball in the sky—a description adequate for spiritual “toddlers” but not for serious believers. If discipleship is our ultimate mission, we will need more to work with.
To understand what a disciple is, I suggest a profile that includes both a definition and a description. Here’s the definition:
A disciple is an apprentice of Jesus and His Kingdom.
A description of a disciple adds clarity and more detail to the definition. Here is my Wikipedia-style description of discipleship:
The personal pursuit of knowing, reflecting, and sharing Christ by means of six spiritual practices in the context of three supporting relationships.
Let’s take a closer look at how this description plays out in our lives.
The Personal Pursuits of a Disciple
Three lifelong pursuits of a disciple run through the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Each is critical and distinct but also connected and complementary.
In Jesus’ prayer found in John 17, He looks back over His ministry and ahead to His ascension. He reviews three core ideas:
The pursuit of an intimate relationship with the Father
The pursuit of glorifying the Father by manifesting His name
The pursuit of doing the will of the Father
I call these three essential pursuits knowing, reflecting, and sharing Christ. In his letters to the churches, Paul identifies these same three pursuits in Philippians 3:8-10 (knowing Christ), 2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 8:29 (reflecting Christ), and 2 Corinthians 5:20, 2:14 (sharing Christ).
These three pursuits are like GPS coordinates, keeping us locked on to our target destination. They are lifelong pursuits and they define our journey as apprentices, reorienting us when we get off course. Once we enter them as our desired destination, our spiritual MapQuest will give us directions regardless of how far we have wondered off course (2 Timothy 3:16,17).
The Spiritual Practices of a Disciple
God has not only given us our direction but a means to negotiate the journey. The means have been called by various names: habits of the heart, spiritual practices, or disciplines. They are how we partner with the Spirit as we abide in Christ and live out our salvation (John 15:5, Philippians 2:12). Dallas Willard describes it this way: “Spiritual disciplines are what we do so God can do what we cannot do.”
There is no comprehensive list of these spiritual practices, but we can identify some of the more critical ones by observing the life of Christ as well as the lives of saints down through history. From the early days of The Navigators, Dawson Trotman used a Wheel to illustrate these critical disciplines. They include:
Christ the Center (the hub of the wheel and source of power)
Obedience (the outer rim of the wheel, which impacts our world)
As we mature in our apprenticeship, these core disciplines create traction for going deeper in the Christian life. They are like the basic skills that baseball players must practice at every level of performance, no matter how long they have played the game. We are deceived if we think we can know, reflect, and share Christ without intentionally mastering and maintaining critical spiritual habits. Learning these skills may seem mechanical at first, but once we learn them they become a joy and delight as they equip us for our spiritual journey. They are like tracks on which our spiritual train can run. No tracks, no progress!
The Supportive Relationships of a Disciple
Although discipleship is personal it is never done in isolation. Jesus had His band of 12 and Paul had his missional teams. Wherever Paul made disciples, he formed communities for continued discipleship.
Paul’s relational strategy is illustrated in 2 Timothy 2:2. First, Paul discipled Timothy individually. There was a clear mentor to mentee relationship that was so close Paul referred to Timothy as “my true child in the faith.”
Second, he mentored Timothy in the context of other men and women who were witnesses of Paul’s teaching. This provided Timothy with a team of men and women who were on the same spiritual journey. We, too, need not only mentors in our lives but a band of like-minded disciples who are serious about and committed to the same goal. We need a team because much of what we learn in our apprenticeship to Christ comes from our like-minded teammates.
The third relational dynamic Paul taught Timothy was to pass on (entrust) what he had learned to the next generation of men and women, who in turn would be faithful to pass it on to others, forming continuous links in a spiritual chain. Spiritual parenting is part of God’s plan for our growth, as it raises our level of maturity whenever we effectively pass on what we know.
These three supportive relationships provide the strength and critical learning environments for transformative growth. We need mentors, a team of likeminded disciples, and someone willing to learn from us to create a three-generational relational structure (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
What, then, does it mean to be a disciple? As we consider the definition and description of discipleship, we can conclude that apprenticeship to Jesus and His Kingdom means
The personal pursuit of knowing, reflecting, and sharing Christ by means of spiritual practices in the context of supportive relationships.
Let us make these pursuits our personal aim and strive to build them into the lives of those we are helping.
Questions for reflection:
How are the three pursuits of knowing, reflecting, and sharing interrelated?
Which of the six spiritual concepts/disciplines most needs attention in your life? What can you do to strengthen it?
Ron Bennett, senior staff with The Navigators, has led discipleship ministries in many settings in the United States. He and his wife, Mary, are currently serving with Navigators Encore in Raymore, Missouri. While on the national leadership team of Navigator Church Ministries he wrote Intentional Disciplemaking and coauthored The Adventure of Discipling Others and Beginning the Walk (NavPress). All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible. For more on what it means to be a disciple, check out Ron Bennett’s posts Discipleship’s GPS, Capturing the Invisible Power for Discipleship, and Relational Triads on his blog, The Adventure of Discipleship, from which this article is adapted. © Ron Bennett