Discipleship Can Be Served, But Never Delivered

Discipleship matters.

The goal is not a crowd, but rather a core of committed Christ followers who are fleshing out the life of Christ at work, in their marriage, their parenting, their finances, their thinking, their politics, their…

… everything.

To borrow from Abraham Kuyper, there is not an inch of any sphere of my life that Christ does not say, “Mine!”

But what is the nature of discipleship?

There seem to be two schools of thought. The first holds that discipleship is all about ongoing investment. Whether classes or seminars, sermons or small groups, everything is designed to “feed” the Christ-follower. The language used to describe and promote this understanding of discipleship puts the entire emphasis on someone or something, doing discipleship to someone else. The one being discipled is seemingly passive. In other words, discipleship is something received.

The other school of thought is less about feeding and more about training. There is an old line that says, “Give me a fish, I eat for a day; teach me to fish, I eat for a lifetime.” So rather than providing an ongoing pipeline for biblical teaching (present though that may be) the overarching goal is to teach people how to become Bible students themselves.

So which is the true nature of discipleship?

The answer lies in the word itself.

The word “disciple” is from the Greek word “mathetes” and literally means “learner.”

Stop there. Re-read.


This puts the action firmly into the lap of the one doing the learning. The point is that you, as a disciple, are to be actively learning. It is your responsibility to take up the mantle of self-development.

And yes, this suggests a teacher is involved.

And yes, we talk about someone going to college to receive an education.

And yes, Jesus seemed to fill the teaching/equipping role by inviting 12 men (and more than a few women) to do life with Him for three years.

And yes, they were called “disciples.”

But reflect on those early followers: Theirs was an invitation to learn, not to enter into a passive process of being fed. We certainly know that not all of the twelve went to school on Jesus. One in particular didn’t seem to learn much of anything. If discipleship was simply something done to you, Jesus failed epically with Judas.

(I wonder if Judas ever said he needed to follow another rabbi where he could be better “fed” and thus grow better spiritually than he was under Jesus.)

Growing in faith is something that can be served by others, but ultimately must be owned personally.

This is decisive. Too many followers of Christ view discipleship as something that is done to them and for them – akin to a personal enrichment program. Yet the writer of Hebrews made it abundantly clear that people who keep getting “fed” in this way are in arrested development. Once out of infancy, they should no longer need to be fed, but instead be feeding others (Hebrews 5:11-13).

But even more disquieting is how we have missed out on what it is we should focus on learning. The back-half of the Great Commission exhorts us to teach new believers to obey what Christ has commanded. This is the essence of the content of discipleship.

And what has Christ commanded?

To live our lives in mission to the least and the lost.

In other words, what we are to be learning is increased love toward others and increased faith for the task of serving them. We are not to be in search for a feeding station that creates a culture of dependency and endless demand for head-knowledge, but instead for a learning environment where an active life of faith is stretched and encouraged.

I know, knowledge is needed. Doctrine matters. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. But that transformation only happens when what is in the mind translates into obedience to serving the widow and orphan, and reaching out to the hell-bound and skeptic.

So discipleship is enhanced through practical teaching, learning the personal disciplines of prayer and Bible study, engaging in ministry, engaging in relationships that bring challenge and opportunity, and welcoming circumstances that demand the essence of commitment and obedience.

In other words, faith is stretched by being in the game where you are admonished by teachers/leaders, investing in connecting with God through prayer and the Scriptures, putting yourself on the front lines of the cause of Christ, mixing it up with other Christians who sharpen you as iron against iron, and being led by God into unique situations that challenge you at the deepest of spiritual levels.

That’s not passive, but active.

It’s something that can be served, but never delivered.

It takes a church, but only goes so far as the person is willing to be,

… a true learner.

Want to know more about developing discipleship at your church? Connect with an Auxano Navigator today.

> Read more from James.

Download PDF

Tags: , ,

| What is MyVisionRoom? > | Back to Discipleship >


James Emery White

James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. He is the founder of Serious Times and this blog was originally posted at his website www.churchandculture.org.

See more articles by >


What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.