The Missing Piece in Discipleship

Books, discussions and conferences on the subject of Discipleship and Making Disciples are trending upward. That is not just my observation, but the observation of many authors I’ve read recently. This is a good thing, something that is Biblical and overdue. But in all these discussions, it seems there is a gaping hole. An important piece is missing.

In order to understand any passage of scripture, you need to look at what it meant to the original audience. And when you apply that to Matthew 28:19, you realize that when Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciples, he wasn’t suggesting to them that they should start a once-a-week discipleship small group. Jesus’ disciples would have understood him to be telling them to go and do for others what he did for them. He didn’t give them a class or a once a week small group meeting. He did life with them full time for 3 years. Now I know that a lot of readers are pushing back right now, thinking that such a thing is impossible in 21st century America. Hang with me for a minute and let’s explore this together.

Western, non-participatory discipleship, in other words, is satisfied when a person knows concepts about God, but apprenticeship isn’t satisfied until the person has learned to live the life of God. This is a simple but profound switch in thinking for several reasons.  

                                                              — Hugh Halter

As you read books about discipleship, you will read over and over the Greek word used and it’s definition…. A disciple is a learner. Hmmmm…. Maybe, depending on what kind of learner you are talking about. A seminary student sits in class and learns many things, but that doesn’t make him a disciple. The Hugh Halter says you need to equate disciple with apprentice. I think he has nailed it. An apprentice is a learner, but he learns by doing. I worked my way through College as an EMT in the Emergency Room of a major teaching hospital. There was a saying among the interns and residents that went like this: “Watch One, Do One, Teach One.” They were describing the steep learning curve used in that apprenticeship system of learning medicine. They had learned the fundamentals in the classroom. Now they were learning how to use that knowledge to do things that lead to healing. First year residents were taught by second year residents who had been learning the same things the year before, and second year residents were taught by third year residents. In reality, your instructor on any given procedure might be in the same year of placement as you are, but the difference is that he/she has done one or two of this particular procedure before, and you haven’t. That is apprenticeship, whether it is in carpentry or medicine. And that is what Jesus did with his disciples. And when he told them to “Go and make disciples”, they understood that he was asking them to do the same for others.

I was an Airplane Flight Instructor for four years. I was always amazed at how fast flight students learned. I could take a kid who didn’t know an aileron from an elevator and get him proficient enough to solo the airplane in 10-12 hours of flight time. One student was ready to solo at 7 hours. Some aren’t ready at 20 hours, but most students can solo in 10-12 hours of training. That doesn’t include the ground instruction or personal study, but it is still an amazing feat when you consider how much the student has to learn. He has to learn the controls and indicators, regulations, aerodynamics, how to talk on the radio, how to control the airplane including takeoffs and landings and configuration changes, and he has to be able to handle emergencies such as an engine failure. It was fun to watch a student progress at such a rapid rate. What causes such rapid advance? The short answer is the combination of every sensory input. Learning increases as we use more of our senses, combining hearing, seeing, touch and coordination, balance and vestibular sense, and even smell. You add to that a healthy dose of motivation, and the student learns at an amazing rate.

That may explain how Jesus could prepare 11 men to take over for him and leave the world in less than three years. He didn’t just teach doctrine or spiritual disciplines, but he did ministry with his men, and then sent them out to do ministry on their own and debriefed them when they returned (Luke 10). Small groups teaching spiritual disciplines and holding one another accountable for obedience is certainly a big improvement over a Sunday School class teaching doctrine, but it falls far short of what Jesus did. It will likely bring some life change in terms of personal habits and spiritual disciplines, but will it produce disciples that make more disciples?

 “My friend Dennis has something to share with you”. Dennis said,No I don’t. I don’t have anything to share.” And he said,“Yes you do!” and took out a piece of paper and told him to share the bridge.

What would this look like in our modern context? I recently ran across an illustration of it on the DVD series of documentaries on missions titled Dispatches from the Front. The DVD on West Africa followed the ministry of an African man named Dennis Aggrey who has started a very effective Church Planting Movement in Liberia and neighboring countries. In the “extras” section of the DVD Tim Keesee interviewed Dennis, and he talked about how he got saved and how he was discipled very briefly. He had been involved in church and even taught Sunday School, but as a teen went to a different Christian High School where a missionary teacher confronted him with the gospel using Ephesians 2:8-9. Then the guy discipled him. He taught him to memorize scripture and have his own quiet time. He trained Dennis how to share the gospel using the bridge diagram. Dennis told about how they were sitting at a table in a restaurant, and his discipler started a conversation with another patron and said, “My friend Dennis has something to share with you“. Dennis said, “No I don’t. I don’t have anything to share.” And he said, “Yes you do!” and took out a piece of paper and told him to share the bridge. Dennis said he was scared to death, but put in a situation where he had no choice, so as Dennis describes it, “with fear and trembling” he proceeded to share the gospel with this man using the bridge diagram. When he finished the guy accepted Christ on the spot. From that point on, he was excited about sharing the gospel and knew that he wanted to give his life to sharing the gospel. That single event was life changing for him.

That is discipleship. That is what Jesus did. But if we think we can do that in a one hour per week small group meeting, we are in dreamland. Obedience to Jesus’ command to Make Disciples may not require us to live with our disciples 24 hours, but it will require far more shared life experience than one meeting per week. This is what is missing from most discipleship books and videos.

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