Transformed through True Discipleship

True discipleship has transformative power. In this article, Dr. Pennington delves into the meaning of true discipleship, discussing how it can lead to radical transformation in the life of the church.

Joshua Pennington

February 1, 2023



Radically Transformed through True Discipleship

Billions of people in the world call themselves Christians–from Roman Catholics to Protestants to Conservatives and to Liberals. There are many different views wrapped up in the term “Christian.” To be more specific, studies indicate that there are approximately 2.3 billion Christians in the world today. If that is true, then the variance of belief from one person to another is almost unquantifiable. One can almost become lost in the complexity of religious jargon. It seems that most Christians blend in with the values, lifestyles, economics, and politics of the culture, that the worldview of the average Christian is no different than the average American, and that the theology of most Christians is more American than it is biblical. At times, it’s hard to distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian. It is also extremely rare to see Christians stand out for their faith; and if they do stand out, then often they are labeled “odd,” “weird,” or “radical.” Even as I write this article, the United Methodist Church is splitting over the same sex debate (and rightly so). People from both sides are arguing that they are following Jesus, yet with theological and moral sense, we know this cannot be the case. Personally, I am dumbfounded to see men of the cloth somehow willing to pronounce blessings over things that God has deemed sin. Clearly, something is drastically wrong. So, what’s the problem? Why the dichotomy?

What exactly does it mean to be a Christian?

As a student of the Scriptures, I have discovered that following Jesus is more than just a confession. I believe that the heart of the issue, especially in America, is discipleship. “Discipleship” is a popular word in our churches, and its language can be heard from our pulpits to our creeds. Churches have developed “growth tracks,” “small groups,” “accountability circles,” and countless classes to initiate the process of discipleship. But what exactly is it? And again: what does it mean to follow Jesus? In order to properly understand the context of discipleship as a church, then the Scriptures must be our guide and our authority. Discipleship is more than just a confession of Christ as Savior; discipleship is a total surrender to the values, attributes, and teachings of Jesus Christ, which are stored and organized for us in the biblical texts. For millennia, the nature of discipleship has always been rooted in the Scriptures. Ironically, the Latin word for “rooted” has actually become the derivative of our modern word for “radical.” So I guess I might wonder: Is it such a bad thing for the Christian to be labeled as a radical so long as he or she remains rooted in God’s Word? This was, in fact, the case for the early church, since “they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:42). And even today, if the Scriptures are the driving force of discipleship, then radical transformation will be the byproduct. Interestingly, as many of us know, radical transformation is not something to be withheld only for a few but to be distributed to all. Discipleship yields disciple-making—a mandate and mission not come only from the pens of the apostles, but rather from the lips from Jesus Himself (Matt. 28:19).

He calls us to reproduce in every neighbor we meet, every neighborhood we live in, and every nation that we call home.

Although the word Christian conveys discipleship, the sort of discipleship being discussed here is not nominal Christianity. Again, it is a radical devotion to Christ, a complete surrender of the whole person. The early church fathers defined true Christianity (discipleship) as Orthopathy (right feelings), Orthopraxy (right living), and Orthodoxy (right believing). Aubrey Malphurs’s Strategic Disciple Making: A Practical Tool for Successful Ministry suggests a similar plan for discipleship. Malphurs advocates a holistic approach which encompasses four areas of a believer’s life:

Head (right thinking) — The Word
Heart (right affections) — Worship
Hands (right living) — Service
Feet (right direction) — Mission

True discipleship transforms the whole person. It is a complete surrender of his or her thinking, affections, and behaviors to and under the lordship of Jesus Christ. And because of this complete surrender, the believer becomes a radical missional witness to the world. Perhaps Neil Cole, the founder and executive director of Church Multiplication Associates, said it best

“Ultimately each church will be evaluated by only one thing—its disciples. It does not matter how good your praise, preaching, programs, or property are. If your disciples are passive, needy, consumeristic, and not moving in the direction of radical obedience, your church is not good.”

Most churches already have full calendars with programs, events, and activities taking place regularly; but we must remember that activity does not equal growth and busyness isn’t always a sign of health. We must stop and think about the things we do. We must ask the right questions to get to the right answers. For example:

  • Regarding personal spiritual growth, we might ask, “Am I reflecting the character and nature of Christ more today than I did yesterday?” If not, then we must do the work of identifying blind spots and avoiding triggers.
  • Regarding widescale church discipleship, pastors and other church leaders might ask, “Do our activities help people follow Jesus Christ more?” If not, then we must develop systems that are more people driven than program driven.

Developing discipleship plans both for church congregations and for personal spiritual growth remains essential in the process of maturing into missional believers. I hope that much is clear. The difficulty in doing so, however, is in the implementation and in the process of arriving at “the how.” But at the risk of over-simplifying, allow me to remind you of the biblical warning that in the last days “some would depart from the faith” (1 Tim 4:1). Nothing happens by accident. I urge you, therefore, to simply get started. I learned long ago that “how” cuts the vision off at its knees. God isn’t as concerned about “the how” as He is about our obedience. So focus your efforts, practice consistency, and trust that God will do what only he can do—radically transform lives. We don’t need another program; we only need a little intentionality.

To that end, allow me to make a few propositions and provide a few examples to illustrate what an appropriately biblical discipleship path might look like. Ultimately, a discipleship path (or plan) should resemble a map, revealing the obvious steps to take towards growth. For a local church context specifically, each step in the progression must be considered universally essential for everyone within the congregation; but again and more importantly, the key is simply to challenge others (Christian and non-Christian alike) to begin walking down a path toward greater spiritual maturity and deeper engagement.

First, I believe an effective discipleship path will functionally accomplish the following:

  • Illustrate the practices that form us into Christ’s likeness
  • Evaluate one’s disciple-making proficiency
  • Integrate opportunities for outreach and Christian community.

Second, in conjunction with Malphurs’ holistic growth plan, I believe a discipleship path will emphasize the following four components:

  • Heart (Connection) - So disciples can fellowship with other believers.
  • Head (Growth) - So disciples can learn and practice the unique mission, vision, and core values of Christ and of a local church.
  • Hands (Service) - So disciples can serve/volunteer in the church and community.
  • Feet (Mission and Outreach) - So disciples can impact the world.

Finally, I believe a discipleship path should be practiced in and aligned with the primary ministries of the local church. Especially for a church leadership team seeking to implement a discipleship system, this sort of alignment with core ministries—those ministries you expect everyone to attend, be part of, or be impacted by—is essential. For example, a worship service would encourage corporate connection and spiritual growth. Or alternatively, one’s desire to engage his or her neighbors missionally might be best achieved with the oversight and guidance of a local church’s small group ministry.

In the end, developing a biblical pathway to growth will take consistency, time, and dedication, but the rewards will outweigh any risk involved. Remember, discipleship is more than simply professing Jesus; it is radically active engagement in the Scriptures, and therefore, into the life of the church. As Dallas Willard aptly summarizes, “Since making disciples is the main task of the church, every church ought to be able to answer two questions:

What is our plan for making disciples?
Is our plan working?

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