Disciple-SHIFT: What Is (and Isn’t) a Discipleship Pathway?

The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 225

Don’t think about discipleship as a thing the church does. Think of discipleship as everything the church should be doing.

In Episode 223 of The Church Revitalization Podcast, we talked about the centrality of the Great Commission and that it is the mandate of the Church. In short, we are to be making and maturing disciples of Jesus. This week, we’re clarifying the relationship between evangelism and discipleship to reinforce the idea that holistic church health demands they be inseparable.

Therefore go and 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:19-20

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Discipleship Involves Edification

Jesus said, “Teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” 

When most people think about discipleship, they think about edification or Christian growth. This is right and good. The challenge is making sure that we don’t overcrowd people with choices, many of which are “spiritual junk food.” That is, it fills the calendar, but it doesn’t truly edify or lead to transformation. We have to be more concerned with achieving discipleship outcomes rather than increasing the number of times a person is physically in the building. Our discipleship pathway is effective when we see people living out the actions seen in Acts 2:41-47 and leveraging their gifts to build up the Church. If we don’t see these outcomes increasing, then we are not effective in edification, even if program attendance is steady or increasing.

The difficulty in churches comes when the status quo is challenged in search of greater discipleship effectiveness. It can be a hard sell to go for great when most people are okay with good enough. In reality, many churches spend time doing things that have little to no spiritual growth for people or in repackaged Bible study times that result only in knowledge but not transformation.

An effective Discipleship Pathway establishes the desired actions and outcomes and then builds ministries to achieve those things, tweaking them for effectiveness as needed.

Discipleship Involves Evangelism

Thinking again about “teach them to obey everything I have commanded,” we need only look to the previous phrase to see Jesus’ most recent command – “Go and make disciples…”

Let’s use Acts 2:41 and 47 and see them as bookends. The discipleship process begins by responding to evangelism (responding to the Word). A large crowd on the day of Pentecost heard Peter preach, and “about 3,000” became believers that day. Don’t miss this. People come to faith in Christ after hearing the Good News about who he is and what he has done for them. This proclamation is not the sole job of “professional Christians.” We are to be equipping others to proclaim the Gospel and live transformed lives before others. 

The discipleship loop is closed then in Acts 2:47 by “having favor with all the people” (evangelism in deed and word). In this way, it’s like an evangelism sandwich. We need both evangelism through proclamation and evangelism through action. Our actions toward others as those transformed by the Holy Spirit both demonstrate Christ and till the ground of their hearts to receive the Gospel. When we divorce evangelism from the process of discipleship, we turn what’s intended to be a lifestyle into a classroom exercise.

A Discipleship Pathway is a Positive Feedback Loop

Here, we want to focus on the fact that discipleship should be a positive feedback loop and should act like a flywheel. It’s not a personal process that is only about growing on my own, but a journey of transformation that reaches outward to include others. Yes, it involves me taking my next best step on a personal level, but an effective discipleship pathway is always turned outwards, and its effectiveness is judged by how well it draws others into the journey of gospel transformation.

People transformed increasingly into the image of Christ will affect others. Some will come to faith and begin their own journey that will continue in the lives of still more people. This is the positive feedback loop of discipleship.

The mission of the church, as commanded in the Great Commission, is to proclaim Christ to the nations and to train people to become disciples-makers, too. An effective discipleship pathway in the church seeks to accomplish that with the greatest effectiveness and efficiency. Like a flywheel, momentum builds over time, with more energy required to spin up than to maintain. It’s a powerful force in its output.

Discipleship is the Whole Work of the Church

It’s an interesting dichotomy: The whole work of the church must fall under the banner of discipleship. The church isn’t called to be a club, a social organization, a community organizer, etc. The role of the church is to make and mature disciples. Therefore, EVERYTHING the church does must fall within that paradigm. And yet, not everything the church could do is automatically discipleship just because the church is doing it. It’s the role of the leadership to have a discerning eye, knowing what to say “yes” and “no” to and knowing where a ministry, program, or event fits within the discipleship pathway process. The leadership must judge between what is good and what is best in order to keep a singular focus on discipleship. To focus on anything else is a distraction and necessarily detracts from the spiritual vibrancy of the church.

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A.J. Mathieu is the President of the Malphurs Group. He is passionate about helping churches thrive and travels internationally to teach and train pastors to lead healthy disciple-making churches. A.J. lives in the Ft. Worth, Texas area, enjoys the outdoors, and loves spending time with his wife and two sons. Click here to email A.J.

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