Growing up I had one thing on straight—I believed in God and the Bible, specifically, that Jesus was really who he said he was, the Son of God, and that the Bible was inspired by God. I knew that Jesus died on the cross for me, and I knew that the Bible was holy. My understanding was not very deep on any of it, but it did not matter, as those foundational beliefs were present. It’s what made me a Christian.
I also understood and believed that there was a God who created the universe and everything in it, including me. Again, I did not really understand this God, but from what I knew from growing up, I knew and believed this God was the Christian God as revealed in Christian Scripture.
Further, because I knew there was a God, I also knew that he wanted me to be good—to try to live a good moral life. Don’t steal. Don’t kill anyone. Don’t curse. Don’t start fights. Don’t disobey authority figures. Don’t do drugs. Don’t make fun of people. Got it, mostly.
I also knew that God would probably want me to go to church on Sundays. If not every Sunday, at least on the big days—Christmas and Easter.
And so I knew too that God probably wanted me to pray. Maybe the few words of thanks before dinner that my dad used to say. Maybe the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer before bed from my childhood. And just maybe, maybe, when I was in trouble, really in trouble, some words demanding God fix things.
The picture I just painted of my own personal experience of Christianity in many ways looks like many other Christians’ experiences, either growing up, or into adulthood. Maybe it looks just like your experience at one time, or at least partly. Maybe it is somewhat or exactly like your experience even right now. Let me be clear on one thing before moving on—there is nothing inherently wrong with any of it. No one ever has the right to condemn another based on the other’s attempts to find, understand, and live for God.
And there is a difference between the outstretched hand of love versus the folded arms of disapproval. You must discern it.
But what does all this have to do with discipleship, or the discipleship deficiency? Everything.
It took me 23 years before I opened the Bible to actually read it with an eye for what it means for my personal life. Before, Christianity was defined only by what had been in my head and heart to differing degrees—the correct beliefs about God, the Bible, Jesus, the church, and trying to be a “good person.” It was when I read the Bible with the eye for personal application that I discovered something radical—that Christianity was never meant only to be about head knowledge and proper belief systems, but also included a call to enter into a discipleship relationship with Jesus Christ.
When I actually read Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, I realized that he called people to follow him—not just in head knowledge or basic beliefs, but in lifestyle. He called them to follow him as disciples. Suddenly I understood that there was more to Christianity than getting saved and trying to be a good person, and going to church on Sundays (sometimes). There was a whole life to be lived of ever learning Jesus’ teachings and putting them into practice—growing in knowledge and life practice.
Some definitions are in order. A “disciple” can be generally defined as a student, or learner. But more specifically, a disciple is defined as
someone who purposely follows a teacher with the whole intent of learning everything the teacher has to teach, so he can adopt the same beliefs and put the teachings into practice as his lifestyle in becoming like the teacher.
Socrates had disciples. Other great sages and philosophers of history had disciples. These disciples wanted to learn everything their master teachers had to teach, so they literally adhered themselves to them to learn that knowledge and life practice.
The definition of “discipleship,” then, is
the state of coming after a teacher as a disciple in the teacher-disciple relationship.
To practice discipleship means to practice being a disciple of a teacher. In a Christian context, we are the disciples and Jesus is the Master Teacher. He wanted all to come into this relationship with him and take his “yoke” of discipleship upon themselves:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30, ESV)
So I have talked about my own experience, defined what a disciple is, and what discipleship is, but I still have not defined the discipleship deficiency. What is it?
In light of the above definitions and explanation, the “discipleship deficiency” can best be defined as
a state of deficient understanding and application of what it means to be, live and follow as a disciple of Jesus.
It is where belief in Jesus may be strong, but life practice of actually following Jesus to learn and adopt his teachings, or even knowing what they are, is weak. It is where the focus of Christianity gets put on correct beliefs to the point where the call to follow Jesus in lifestyle is diminished or ignored. This is why, though a professing Christian my whole life, the first half of it looked like many of the things Scripture says a Christian shouldn’t be doing. And the reverse is true—as for my actually following Jesus’ positive commands for any disciple of his?…forget about it, for the most part. I did not know most of them even existed. I did not understand that I was supposed to be in this kind of discipleship relationship with him.
If you have ever wondered if there is more to Christianity than just getting saved and trying to be a good person, OR if you have ever thought that there was more to your relationship with God than simply holding certain beliefs, OR if you feel your Christian life just does not look like what you imagined it should, this may be part of the answer.
If you are a church leader and are wondering why your church has not grown in years, or is declining, this may be a part of the reason.
In fact, the discipleship deficiency is very well one of the biggest problems in our churches today. The discipleship deficiency is likely to thrive when someone’s initial conversion teaching is focused largely on the steps of receiving salvation in Christ while mostly ignoring the teaching on also converting into a discipleship relationship with Christ, and what that really means on the personal life level. More on this later. (But for now see Three Ways to Understand Conversion.)
But for me, it was not until I heard Jesus’ call of discipleship in my own life through Scripture and a good friend that God helped me understand and grow.
God’s hand is always outstretched for us, reaching for us, ever longing to pull us near to him. But we have to be willing to grab hold of it and come follow in the dust of his Son’s feet.