What is Discipling?

What do you mean when you talk about making disciples? Or what is a disciple? These are questions asked of us on numerous occasions. These are reasonable questions because of the different connotations surrounding the concept of discipleship. The tendency is to respond simplistically by saying that everyone knows what a disciple is and what disciple making really involves. However, if we read the trends and listen to those most identified with disciple making, we realize that these are legitimate questions and should not be taken lightly. After all, the command to make disciples is among the last words that our risen Lord spoke before he ascended back into heaven.

A disciple is a “pupil” or a “learner,” a “follower;” one with definite commitment. I generally define a disciple as “someone who is being taught and consequently accepts a set of beliefs, embracing a wholistic, total, and intentional approach to life based on those teachings.”

There are many definitions but a correct one will include baptism and teaching because that is the way the Lord described it.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20).

We have to understand this commission of our Lord in the context of his Word. The Lord never teaches us or enables others to teach us simply to convey information or to give us certain knowledge about things, at least as ends in themselves. When the Lord teaches us, and this is true throughout Scripture, he teaches us in order that we might believe, learn, and obey. He teaches us to do the things that his disciples are supposed to do.

The above definition of a disciple attempts to convey that a disciple is someone being transformed by the “renewing of the mind,” and obeying the things the Lord teaches us. The commission in Matthew 28, contrary to much “misemphasis,” is to make disciples. Its main focus is not about what we call home missions and world missions, it is about making disciples and how do we make disciples. The going part of the commission, which we generally refer to as the mission aspect, simply tells us where making disciples is to be done-at home and abroad. Jesus tells us that we make disciples by baptizing in name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by teaching and educating God’s people in all the things he has commanded.

When we organized the PCA, we stood together to be “true to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith and the great commission.” That was the motto adopted at the first PCA General Assembly in 1973. There were three equal program committees established from the beginning. Christian education has been a high priority in the PCA from the outset. It has to be, if we take the great commission seriously and its charge to make disciples.

Making disciples is about baptism, and it is about teaching and learning. Often, those who believe they are following the great commission do not understand this. In September of 1999, 450 church leaders from around the world came together representing some 90 Christian denominations and ministries. They met in Eastbourne, England. It was called the International Consultation on Discipleship. Three things were high on that agenda that were the concern of the consultation:

1. ” Many converts to Christianity throughtout the world fall away from faith.”

2. “The church is “marked by a paradox of growth without depth.”

3. “Many within the church are not living lives of biblical purity, integrity, and holiness.”

John R. W. Stott stated at that meeting, “evangelicals have experienced enormous statistical growth…without corresponding growth in discipleship.” African theologian Tokunboh Adeyemo lamented that the church “is one mile long, but only one inch deep.” Those quotes were taken from Robert Webber’s new book Ancient Future Evangelism, a sequel to his first book, Ancient Future Faith, page 13.

In this same book Webber writes that two questions are central to the new book: 1. How to get beyond compartmentalized programs and move to ministry? 2. How to form new converts into discipleship?” (page 18). (We will review this timely book in the next Equip for Ministry).

The mission of Christian Education and Publications is: “Discipling God’s covenant people.” Christian education, particularly as described by Dr. Allen Curry in the lead article in this issue, is vital to the church’s obedience to the great commission, because the commission requires teaching, learning, educating, as well as following, obeying, and commitment.

When we talk about disciples or making disciples, we are not talking about evangelism or conversion though they are part of the process. We are talking about baptizing and teaching the whole counsel of God; however, these activities are not ends in themselves but means to teaching and training children, youth, and adults to be obedient to all that the Lord has commanded. After all he is the King with authority over all things, including all areas of our lives. Our King requires complete allegiance and that is what a disciple is. Actually, in our mission we use the phrase “kingdom disciples,” because that is who we are. There is no area of our lives that is not to be committed to doing God’s will and whether we do that or not is dependent on the discipleship process.

CEP’s mission is to provide the best of training and resources to our churches in order for them to be kingdom disciple-makers. In a forthcoming book focused on the Foundations For Kingdom Discipleship, I set forth the premise that we do not simply process information, or focus on one’s personal formation. Our aim in disciple making is nothing less than transformation of heart and mind.

Charles Malik stated years ago, at the dedication of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at Wheaton College, that we have a twofold task; to convert the heart and to convert the mind. He stated that if we fail to do either, especially to convert the mind, we will lose the heart and this is happening according to those participants in the Consultation mentioned above. This is what is happening with our young people, according to the latest finds by George Barna. (See the book review section for his latest research on this topic).

In case you’re asked, “what is a disciple or what is the disciple-making process,” quickly respond that a disciple is a person who is being transformed by the renewing of his mind (Romans 12: 1, 2) and is committed to following Jesus in every area of life. What is the disciple-making process? It involves a Trinitarian baptism and a process of teaching, learning, educating, and training to follow King Jesus in all of life. This is to be done wherever we are, “as you are going” and wherever God has his elect for whom Christ died on the cross, “all nations or peoples.”

If this is the Lord’s assignment to the church, it behooves us to understand exactly what and how he told his disciples to do.

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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