Discipleship is one of those things that everyone wants but many struggle to pursue or even understand. And, yes, healthy discipleship is difficult as it takes intentionality, time, and effort. However, we often make it much more difficult than it really has to be. In fact, many analyze it to such an extent that they have trouble getting started. We don’t want to fall into this trap and we’d imagine that you don’t either. Thus, in an effort to help, we’ve recently surveyed some of the nation’s leading collegiate and young adult ministry leaders about their opinions on this topic. We’re seeing patterns and trends develop that we’ll use in articles like this and in future work.
As we consider discipleship, some natural questions arise. What is it really? Why is it important? And how do we define success?
Among those surveyed, 100 percent indicate that discipleship is first connected to one’s personal relationship with Christ. With this said, however, they also recognize this personal relationship should impact our interactions with this world and others. Successful discipleship reproduces itself in others. Disciplines like Bible study, prayer, service, worship, and evangelism are central to the process, but they’re not the process alone. Discipleship also includes sharing the Gospel, teaching Scripture, living missionally, and investing in others. Allen Jackson from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary states that discipleship is “the transmission of information, values, and skills from one generation to the next for the purpose of growing in Christ-likeness.”
If this is true (which we think it is), then maybe we really have a chance at attaining it. As we look through Scripture, we see what these leaders have described—followers of Christ making other followers of Christ. In her new study Sacred Roads: Exploring the Historic Paths of Discipleship, Threads author and discipleship thought-leader Heather Zempel writes, “Jesus didn’t throw out the rules, but He did re-imagine, re-invent, and re-engineer them. He developed new methods and metaphors for what a growing relationship with God looked like and He implemented new pathways for discipleship. Experiences. Compassion. Personal discipline. Battle of the minds. Relationship. These were the sacred roads Jesus used to draw people into deepening intimacy with God.” And all of these roads are part of the bigger picture of discipleship in our lives.
While the call to discipleship is clear, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy. In our surveys, leaders were asked to describe their greatest obstacle to successful discipleship. The responses were varied, but these three obstacles appeared as most prevalent. I’ll do my best to provide some practical help as you’re likely experiencing some of these challenges in your own ministry.
1. Lack of Time
Discipleship feels counter-intuitive to everything else in our culture. We live in a quick-moving world that endorses fast-food mentalities and instant gratification. Unfortunately, discipleship doesn’t happen that way. Instead, it takes time and prolonged commitment from both the discipler and the disciple. Evaluate your schedule to see if it lines up with priorities like discipleship. If it’s as important as you may say it is, does your calendar reflect that? Get rid of stuff that doesn’t need to be there in order to make room for the things that do. Also, don’t think of discipleship as something that demands you add hours into your schedule. Instead, consider how you can disciple within your day-to-day life. It feels more natural, it’s more effective, and it’s more representative of what Jesus modeled.
2. Lack of Trust
People want deep, meaningful relationships. But, that’s not always easy to find, is it? Whether we recognize it or not, many people are becoming more and more reserved in who they will trust and open up with. There is an innate distrust that seems to permeate our society, and it’s sadly quite justifiable. This generation has seen leaders within politics, sports, religion, and their own families make some pretty bad choices. Often these choices are closely tied to deceit and dishonesty. The only way we overcome this as we seek to disciple others is by modeling lives of authenticity, integrity, and transparency. That isn’t gained quickly or from distanced contact. Rather, we need to be shepherds who lead from within the flock as opposed to always out in front of it.
3. Lack of Connection
How do you connect with those you’re called to disciple? In many situations, it comes naturally and the relationship develops organically. But, in some instances, this simply isn’t the case. We certainly can’t just avoid those relationships that require effort. Rather than giving up, think differently about the process. Consider the individual and what approach may be best for them. Evaluate what topics might create dialogue, activities that would foster belonging, and other elements that would establish ownership. Think about them and their needs as opposed to you and your agenda.
Personally, my wife and I are continually striving to impact those the Lord has given us opportunity to have relationship with. We struggle with many of the same challenges, but we do our best to push forward. Discipleship is not a neat, prescriptive process that goes exactly as planned. Instead, it requires flexibility and adaptation as life’s circumstances arise. This is not about a program, but rather much more about our deep investment into the lives of those around us as we make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything He has commanded us.