Part 12 of series: Choosing a Church: Some Recommendations
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Many Christians see life in this world mostly as waiting around until the train arrives to take us to heaven. They don’t realize that this world in a place were we are supposed to serve and honor God by joining in his work of cosmic transformation. And they don’t recognize that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, they are supposed to be growing into greater maturity. By the end of our lives on this earth, each one of us should be well-developed disciples, ready to take the next step as we follow Jesus into the future.
Our word “disciple” comes from the Greek word mathetes, which literally means “learner.” The disciple learns, not by sitting in a classroom and hearing lectures, but by entering into a relationship with a master teacher. A mathetes is what we might call an apprentice or an intern. (Photo: Detail from a painting by Tintoretto, “Christ Washing His Disciples’ Feet,” AD 1547. A fantastic portrait of relational discipleship.)
Jesus’ first disciples had the extraordinary privilege of learning in relationship with him. We see this throughout the Gospels, especially in Mark 3:14: “And [Jesus] appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message.” Yet before they were able to fulfill their apostolic calling, the apostles were first disciples of Jesus who were called “to be with him.” Here is the relational essence of discipleship.
We, of course, don’t have the opportunity this side of the world to come to be with Jesus in the flesh. So how can we be “with Jesus” in order to grow as his disciples? First, when we put our faith in Christ, we receive his very Spirit, who teaches us his truths and molds our hearts to be like the heart of Jesus. We are with Jesus in that we are with his Spirit.
Second, we can be “with Jesus” when we are with his people. Christian discipleship this side of the Ascension happens as more mature Christians come into relationship with less mature believers, helping them to grow as disciples. This discipleship relationship can be one-on-one, or it can happen in a small group. Large group instruction contributes to discipleship, but can never replace personal, relational discipleship.
Thus, as you look for a church, I’d urge you to find one that gets the fact that all Christians are disciples, and that discipleship is an intentional process of growth in the context of intimate relationship. If the church you’re considering has lots of Bible and ministry classes, this is a fantastic start. But I’d encourage you to look for a church that facilitates relationship-based discipleship as well. This can take different forms: spiritual direction, one-on-one discipleship, small group fellowship, ministry teams, mission trips, etc. etc.
Discipleship isn’t simply a matter of accumulating lots of right doctrine. Some churches have replaced biblical discipleship with an educational model that emphasizes the learning of lots of truth. Now I’m the first one to value learning lots of truth. But merely internalizing truth isn’t full discipleship, though it’s a crucial step. Full discipleship requires both relationship and the living out of truth in daily life.
Discipleship isn’t simply a matter of being in intimate relationships with other Christians, however. As important as relationship is to discipleship, it isn’t the whole story. You can have lots of intimate relationships with other Christians without growing as a disciple of Jesus. So you need at least one relationship that is both intimate and intentionally devoted to your growth in Christ.
Discipleship isn’t simply a matter of doing the works of Jesus, no matter how important this may be. Jesus himself said,
“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'”(Matthew 7:22-23)
Knowing Jesus, truly and personally, is essential to following him as his disciple.
How can you know if a church will help you grow as a disciple? You might start by looking at what a church says about its core vision and mission. Does discipleship (or growth in Christ) show up? Then you might look at the kinds of programs for Christian growth that a church sponsors. Lecture-type classes are good. More intimate contexts for discipleship are even better. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, look at the kind of disciples your potential church is producing. Are they living as active disciples of Christ in every part of life? At home? At work? At church? On the soccer field? In the PTA? With colleagues? With friends? etc. etc. If you see people in a church living out their discipleship on a regular basis, then you can be fairly sure that their church will help you to do the same.