Discipleship or Die (Pt. 1)

This article comes from a chapter I wrote in a book intended to keep Christian students on mission during college. But I believe the message is still relevant, whether you’re trying to stay on mission during college or stay on mission during a pandemic.

You’re trying to stay on mission for ministry while in college, and I’m currently trying to stay on mission for ministry while in seminary—so I’m coming from a similar place, just a few good and bad experiences ahead of you. I’m compelled to share this chapter on discipleship with you, and I am praying as I write that God will use this in your life. Even though I am also relatively young in the faith, I’m writing as someone who has been through many of the circumstances you’re about to encounter, and I hopefully can help guide you away from some of the pitfalls that I may or may not have fallen into recently.

If you’re going to stay on mission for ministry in college, it’s going to be the same way you stay on mission for ministry in any phase of life. 

  1. Prioritize what God has emphasized
  2. Position yourself where God blesses

The first has to do with your goals and pursuits based on what God has indicated as most important in Scripture. The second follows as the function or “how” for accomplishing those God-driven dreams. After all, if you want what he wants, his way is the best way to reach it. Prioritizing sets your focus in the right direction, and positioning sets you up to get there.

For example, if God has emphasized his relationship with us, we should prioritize our relationship with him. But, if God says that one of the ways he blesses that relationship is through knowing his Word, then we’ll do well in that pursuit if we position ourselves under the regular intake of Scripture. That’s just one example of how to narrow this broad principle. Prioritize what God has emphasized, and position yourself where he blesses.

This chapter narrows in on discipleship. I’m aiming to make evident the prominent place discipleship should have in your life. As you prioritize what God has emphasized and position yourself where God blesses, I hope it becomes clear that discipleship is a crucial ingredient in your spiritual life (and that “Discipleship or Die” is a fitting title).

A Means of the Great Commission

It’s important to prioritize what God has emphasized and to position yourself where God blesses. But positioning yourself is not passive; it is not so much about lying under a fountain of blessing as much as it is actively digging in places where God has said his blessing can be found. This is especially relevant as we consider discipleship and how it relates to the Great Commission. 

God has called the Church to reach the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a daunting mission and practically impossible from a human perspective. So, this is an important place to consider how God plans to bless such an immense task.

Matthew 28:18-20 spells out the global vision. “Go and make disciples.”

Jesus emphasized this mission before he ascended, and the Church has rightly been prioritizing this mission ever since. But how can the Church position themselves (actively, not passively) so God will bless? In other words, if you want what God wants (the fulfilling of the Great Commission), what is the God-ordained means of accomplishing it? It’s pretty evident—by making disciples.

As clear as that may be, I think we still have a tendency to dance around direct involvement. Preach an evangelistic message on Sunday, give in the offering to support the full-time ministers, be kind to visitors, invite people to church, take notes during sermons, spend more time in devotions—I think sometimes we do everything except personally take on one or two believers and pour ourselves into them for the sake of their spiritual growth.

Do we continue to pray for new converts while neglecting the ones around us? How else can we expect to fulfill such immense responsibility? Right now there’s about eight billion people in the world. It would take an evangelist 92,000 years to convert someone everyday and eventually reach all eight billion. But make a disciple-making disciple one a year and those eight billion can be reached in 30 years. It’s the difference between addition and multiplication, and there’s a reason God ordained it as the way to transform the world with his gospel. So, if you’re going to prioritize the Great Commission—and you should—then you need to position yourself where God blesses—making disciples!

A Means of God’s Grace

This section requires some transparency on my part because I want to share how God has been exposing my need of discipleship through my own failure to participate in it. These lessons about discipleship fall under the wider umbrella of understanding God’s means of grace. 

This past year I’ve been coming to understand more and more how certain channels of grace are essential spiritually—for example, viewing Bible intake and prayer like I do eating or breathing. If I don’t read God’s Word, I starve. And if I don’t pray, I suffocate. But what about discipleship? How does that fit into the picture of God’s grace in my life?

I’m past my first year of seminary, and I’m just now starting to realize how important discipleship is in my life. It’s not that I didn’t see the importance of discipleship in general. I understood the importance of doing it, but not how much I needed it. Once I graduated and no longer had the discipleship structure I was accustomed to in college, my spiritual life took a hit. I think the best way to explain it is by adding an additional analogy—if Bible intake is like eating and prayer is like breathing, discipleship is like exercising. And I had stopped working out!

Think about how those analogies relate to each other:

  • Of what benefit is the food you eat if you don’t exert the energy gained by it? (Yes, I hear Piper in the back of my head yelling that food is meant to be enjoyed.) But it is also true that the energy from food is either expended on work or expanding your waste. And, in the same way, God’s grace is meant to be spent, not stored. Discipleship is about responding to God’s blessings by sharing them, not using him to fill our bellies.
  • When do you more feel the need to breathe than when you get winded? The pressing need to disciple others is one of the main things God uses to impress on you your need to be developed and your desperate need of him.
  • It seems counter-intuitive, but people who don’t exercise actually have less energy. You might think, “I’ll just push off exercising for a month or two and store up the energy,” but it doesn’t work like that. You’ll actually find yourself having less energy. So, as much as I would excuse myself from discipling others because I’m in a stage of preparation, my desire and diligence in preparing for future ministry would progressively fade as discipleship took a back seat. 

I hope this is clicking for you. I had to feel this in order for it to click, but maybe you don’t need to go through the same drought as me in order to get it. If in one direction you find discipleship as a purpose for Bible study and prayer, in the other direction you will find discipleship as a catalyst for Bible study and prayer. Discipling others is more than a purpose of grace or something that necessitates grace; it is a means of grace. Discipleship doesn’t just require grace; it drives you to grace. And for that reason, I think it’s fair to call discipleship an avenue, amplifier, or means of God’s grace—one that I’m realizing I desperately need.

Consider the typical three main means of grace for believers—God’s Word, prayer, and fellowship—specifically, the last one. When you consider the main passages that help us identify fellowship as a means of grace, the word “fellowship” simply doesn’t encompass some of the core elements in those passages. 

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13).

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).

“Let no corrupt talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph, 4:29).

The Greek word we translate as “fellowship,” means more than just being around other Christians or doing activities together. Koinonia doesn’t quite reach out far enough to encompass some of the main ideas in these passages. If you read those passages again, you’ll pick up on some key verbs—exhorting, encouraging, and edifying. This means it’s not just about meeting together but also stirring each other up, building each other up, and keeping each other from growing callous. We don’t tend to think of fellowship as encompassing those ideas; but they fit well under the broader idea of discipleship. 

I’m not asking you to dismiss the three main categories of grace that have been created—they helpfully bring attention to the ordained channels through which God works in believers’ lives. But I am challenging you to think carefully about them in light of the Scriptures so that you can best understand and position yourself where God says he blesses. You’re simply trying to plant your tree as close as possible to God’s river of grace—but it requires you knowing where the river is located.

You can also view discipleship like the clutch in a car. If you’re driving stick and want to increase from 5mph to 20mph, you’ll need to utilize the clutch or you’ll end up stalling out. In the same way, there’s only so much progress we will make in the our spiritual life without discipleship. Without it, we are in danger of becoming idle. 

In fear that too many analogies have caused some confusion, here are a couple main takeaways from this chapter so far. 

  • You won’t properly mature as a Christian without discipleship, not because you’re weak but because that’s how you’re wired. God’s grace that suffices and sustains you is often mediated through others. You need others because you need God.
  • You will fail your mission as a Christian without discipleship, not because God doesn’t care about your personal relationship with him but because your mission has to do with your calling to share your relationship with him. Discipleship is more than a means of grace; it is a means of the Great Commission. Others need you because they need God. 

Subscribe for Part 2!

And while you wait, I’m interested in feedback about the paradigm of prioritizing what God has emphasized and positioning yourself where he blesses—as well as the exercise analogy for discipleship. I think through the lens of those ideas quite often, but I’m not totally sure if they hold.

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