Discipleship: Teaching the Identity and Activity of Christ Followers


Discipleship: Teaching the Identity and Activity of Christ Followers

A 2015 Barna Research study on the state of discipleship in America revealed that only twenty-percent of practicing Christians are actively involved in discipleship.[1]  The findings reaveal that the clear majority of those who say the Christian faith is crucial to their life are not currently working to reproduce that faith in the life of someone else, nor are they allowing another believer to challenge them to grow in the faith.  In other words, eighty-percent of practicing Christians are not being discipled, and they are not actively working to make disciples.

The lack of ongoing or active discipleship among Christians in evangelical churches is revealed when the following statistics are given appropriate consideration; seventy-three percent of Americans self-identify as Christians, yet only thirty-one percent can be classified as practicing Christians[2].  Of those practicing Christians, only thirty-five percent attend church on a weekly basis; thirty-four percent read the Bible, eighteen percent volunteer to serve at church, seventeen percent attend adult Sunday school classes, and sixteen percent participate in a small-group.[3]  The data reveals a strong disconnect between identifying as a Christian and living as a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ.  Why does this disconnect exist?  Why do many people say their faith is an important part of their life, yet they make a point not to practice their faith regularly?  Why are an increasing number of Christians counted among the unchurched in America?  George Barna and David Kinnaman provide much-needed insight into some of these questions in the book Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. Barna and Kinnaman wrote: “We must admit the possibility that our churches are somehow enabling many people to stall out on their journey toward deep, transformative faith…We must confess that we are sometimes complicit in the stalled spiritual journeys of the unchurched, and commit to becoming more effective as communities of transformation”.[4]  Barna and Kinnaman’s admission is troubling because the church does not exist to enable people to stall out on their journey but to build up and equip believers for growth in godliness and maturity throughout their spiritual journey.

Discipleship is a call to radical transformation, but discipleship must be about more than knowing what to do.  Discipleship must accurately convey the identity of the believer before it focuses on the activity of the believer.  Unfortunately, focusing only on the imperatives of the Christian life, while neglecting to establish the great truths of the believer’s union with Christ is where many, if not most of the traditional discipleship programs and methods commonly found in American churches fail.   Biblical discipleship programs should focus on both the identity and the activity of Christ followers to produce spiritual growth and transformation in the life of a disciple. By taking this approach, churches will not enable spiritual stall out but will encourage spiritual growth, fueled by the understanding of what regeneration accomplishes in a believer, while at the same time teaching them how they can live for Christ and why they should pursue a path of radical transformation.

The Call to Make Disciples

Jim Berg, in his book, Changed into His image, provides a helpful definition of discipleship. Berg wrote, “Biblical discipleship is not primarily a program.  It is a certain kind of relationship between two believers with a very specific spiritual goal in mind.  Discipleship is helping another believer make biblical change toward Christlikeness—helping others in the sanctification progress”.[5]  When Jesus gave the command to all believers to make disciples, He did not intend for His followers to engage in a life of evangelism, leading people to faith in Christ, then abandoning those new converts to try to figure out the Christian life on their own.

Instead, Jesus commanded all believers to make disciples by going to every nation to share the message of the gospel with people who are lost, far from God, and without hope.  However, the message of the gospel is not only sufficient to bring people to salvation but to teach them how to live out their salvation every day. Tim Keller made an excellent point concerning the importance of the centrality of the gospel for spiritual development, he wrote:

We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced”. The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.  We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience, but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal.3:1-3) and are renewed (Col.1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom.1:16-17).[6]

The centrality of the gospel for spiritual development is why Jesus instructed every believer to “make disciples…(by) teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, 20).  Teaching, one person instructing another, is vital to the disciple making process.  Consider this point by Mark Dever, “Discipling is not merely about accountability and behavior modification.  Jesus tells us to make disciples by teaching people to obey, but they cannot obey what they haven’t been taught.  We first have to teach”.[7]

Unfortunately, the teaching demanded by biblical discipleship is unfamiliar to American Christians.  Americans have learned to accept a Hellenistic style of teaching in which a student listens to a lecture given by a teacher. In the Hellenistic system, the teacher relies on testing the student to ascertain whether the student received and retained the required information.  This approach to teaching is evident in children’s discipleship programs such as Awana.  Awana clubbers are encouraged to memorize verses to complete assigned sections to gain rewards.  During a typical Awana meeting clubbers can be found regurgitating bible verses to leaders, yet the clubbers often fail to have even a basic understanding of what they have memorized. In the end, Scripture is not viewed by clubbers as the eternal truth that should influence their actions and attitudes; instead, scripture is seen only as a means to gain a jewel, a ribbon, a plaque, or a trophy.  The “teacher” is not necessarily interested in the level of understanding of his or her student; rather the teacher often wishes only to see students memorize many verses and pass as many sections as possible.  This style of teaching and learning would have been completely foreign to Jesus, therefore, it was not the method that he employed in developing his disciples during his earthly ministry.

The type of teaching Jesus and his disciples knew and understood was vastly different from modern methods.  In Jesus’ day, the common method of teaching involved a rabbi and his disciple(s). A disciple is a learner, and as a student, he would agree to submit to the authority of his rabbi and together they would work through scripture so the disciple could learn about God through God’s word. The rabbi would teach his disciples by generating dialogue that encouraged his students to think critically and ask difficult questions.  Rabbi’s did not approach their task by giving impersonal lectures or by using a written curriculum. Instead, the rabbi would constantly observe his disciple’s life and challenge the student to give an account of his actions, and attitudes, and to make application of the scripture to life.  By establishing a close, personal relationship with his disciple, the rabbi put himself in a position to see and correct wrong behavior, encourage right thinking, and teach wisdom and discernment while working to form the life of his disciple.  While the rabbi was watching the student, the student would also look to his rabbi as a living illustration of how a Jewish man was to comport himself; this practice would provide his rabbi additional opportunities for further instruction.  The rabbi/disciple relationship was not a ten-week program, but a relationship that often lasted several years.  The purpose of a rabbi taking a disciple was not to pass along information but to form a life. The daily interaction of the rabbi and the disciple proved to be a very effective method of teaching, often establishing a life-long pattern of belief and behavior for the disciple.

When Jesus’ disciples heard his command to make disciples, they immediately knew what he meant because they had experienced the same kind of relationship with him.  Jesus’ goal was not only to pass information to his disciples but to teach his disciples how to live.  Through his life, Jesus showed his disciples how to love God, how to obey God, how to live for God, and how to love and serve others.  Jesus taught his disciples by correcting their wrong behavior and attitudes, while, at the same time, affirming right conduct.  Every day of his earthly ministry Jesus helped his disciples become more like himself by personally and passionately investing in their spiritual journey.

Because of Jesus’ example, and being motivated by his command to make disciples, the eleven original disciples began to invest themselves in the life of new converts.  The priority of discipleship is clearly seen following Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost.  Immediately after believing in Jesus for salvation, the disciples began to pour themselves into the life of those new converts by teaching doctrine, enjoying fellowship, showing them how to pray, and by spending much time together.  Thus, the new believers learned about the riches of salvation, and they observed how to live out their salvation as followers of God in the world.[8]  The book of Acts reveals a pattern of discipleship in the infant church that would be repeated throughout the New Testament.  The pattern involved disciples going to a town or village to preach the gospel.  When the gospel was proclaimed, unbelievers were convicted of their sin and turned in faith to trust Jesus for salvation and were baptized.  Following their salvation and baptism, the mature believers would invest themselves in discipling the new converts.  Once a church was established, and new believers had been trained, the disciples who planted the church would move to the next town or village, leaving behind a group of maturing disciples with the task of repeating the same pattern to reach more people with the gospel.  In the New Testament, mature followers of Jesus would invest themselves continually in new converts, teaching them how to live for Christ.  In short, those who make disciples imitate Jesus to reproduce themselves in the world.

Biblical discipleship is not, nor has it ever been a program.  Discipleship is not limited to memorizing Bible verses or working through a list of spiritual disciplines.  Biblical discipleship is about forming relationships with other believers for spiritual growth and development. However, biblical discipleship is not easy and can be messy.  New believers often come into a relationship with Christ with lives that are heavily damaged by sin.  Some converts fight addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Others enter a relationship with Christ while every other human relationship in their life is crumbling around them. In addition to the challenges mentioned above is the fact that most new believers know nothing of theology, or how a Christian is supposed to reflect Christ to the world.

Because the disciple-making process is not easy, those who will make disciples must first be disciples.  Those who will make disciples must continually heed the call of Jesus to “deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).  A disciple-maker must know how to follow Jesus if he or she leads others to follow Jesus.  A disciple-maker must willingly give his or her time to help lead a new believer to know the riches of God’s grace provided in salvation, and how those spiritual benefits allow every believer to live for Christ daily.  A disciple-maker must be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to develop a relationship with those they disciple.  Every believer has received a call to make disciples; therefore every believer must seek to build a relationship with other believers that will result in progress toward Christlikeness.  Many believers have answered the call, and have invested countless hours in the life of others, only to watch them walk away from the church.  In such cases, the following question must be addressed, what went wrong?

A Review of Activity Driven Discipleship Methods

A great variety of program driven discipleship methods are readily available to American churches, and a trip to any Christian Bookstore will reveal the myriad of options available for consideration.  Nearly every Christian publishing company invests considerable resources in developing a pre-packaged discipleship program because such programs have been the norm in evangelical churches for decades.  However, the fruit of this programmatic approach is hardly impressive.  According to Barna’s research, “The majority of unchurched individuals (76%) have firsthand experience with one or more Christian churches and, based on that sampling, have decided they can better use their time in other ways”.[9]  Barna’s findings indicate that a significant number of unchurched people in America are actually, to use Barna’s term, de-churched.[10] These facts lead us to believe that something is amiss in popular discipleship methods.

After carefully examining various discipleship resources produced by different authors and made available to churches such as Disciple’s Path by LifeWay, First Steps for New Christians by Striving Together, The Discipleship Challenge by Partners in Ministry, and several different resources produced by The Navigators, the common thread shared by these resources is a focus on the activity of the believer with very little concern for the identity of the believer.  For example, Disciple’s Path is “a series of studies founded on Jesus’ model of discipleship”[11] that was designed for use in a small group setting, or for one-on-one discipleship meetings.  The six-book set begins by defining a disciple as “someone who has chosen to follow Jesus”, and “(disciples) are those learning to base their identities on Jesus Himself”.[12]  The second half of the definition of a disciple is promising; however, the study itself did little to teach the student about his or her identity in Christ, and all the marvelous benefits of salvation that belong to the believer as a gift of God’s grace.  Like most popular programs, Disciple’s Path makes a point to push students to begin to faithfully practice important Christian disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, involvement in the local church, giving, and evangelism and missions.

The Navigators, founded by Dawson Trotman, provide some of the best-known discipleship resources for evangelical churches in America.  Their concept of disciple-making is based on “The Wheel” that was created by Trotman in the 1930’s. At the center of the wheel is Christ, which signifies the centrality of Christ in the life of a disciple.  The rim of the wheel signifies obedience to Christ while the spokes of the wheel represent Bible reading and study, prayer, fellowship with other believers in the local church, and witnessing to the lost.[13] Much like Disciple’s Path, the discipleship program developed by The Navigators rightly teaches a new believer what to do for Christ, but it lacks important instruction concerning what Christ has done for the believer.

The Failure of Modern Discipleship Methods

While good men and women, motivated by a love for Christ, his church, and the Great Commission, have invested much time and effort into writing, editing and producing the aforementioned discipleship materials, analysis of their methods finds that modern discipleship curriculum are not sufficient to ground new believers in the faith.  The curriculum examined for this paper appears to be designed to teach a student the importance of religious activity instead of grounding them deep in the spiritual realities that exist in the life of every Christian.  By stressing activity, new converts are provided a to-do list which they are encouraged to accomplish on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, traditional discipleship resources and methods can give new converts the impression that religious activity is what makes a person a “good” Christian.  Furthermore, religious tasks are often given with little or no connecting instruction concerning the believer’s union with Christ, which is crucial if a disciple is to understand why these activities must be added to their life, and how they can begin to accomplish them on an ongoing basis.  However, many new converts dutifully attempt to do what is required of them as instructed in the curriculum.

The impersonal, programmatic, activity-encouraging way of discipleship described above is, as stated earlier, completely foreign to the model exemplified and commended by Jesus. Jesus taught the disciples to pray, but their desire to learn how to pray came from watching Jesus’ example. Jesus taught the disciples to evangelize, but their willingness to go into the world directly correlated to the radical difference Jesus made in their life.  Jesus taught the disciples to love, to serve and to sacrifice for others, but their desire to love, serve and sacrifice as Christ came from seeing and experiencing his example.  The same pattern is put forth in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul.  As part of his letter to believers in Philippi, Paul wrote, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things,” (Philippians 4:8-9).  What exactly was Paul telling his brothers and sisters to do?  Richard Melick, in his commentary on Philippians, provides a helpful explanation of the meaning of Paul’s words: “These verses have a definite structure. They contain two lists, each introduced by its own verb. The first list completes a clause with the main verb “think about such things” (logizesthe, v. 8). The word means far more than simple thought. The church was to count on these things and to chart its course according to them. The second list completes the verb “put into practice” (prassete, v. 9). By using these two verbs, Paul combined the mental and ethical concerns of his Jewish background with Christian thought. For him, knowledge always led to responsible Christian living” (emphasis mine).[14]

The result of Paul’s time disciplining the Philippian believers was that they learned or gained knowledge of the gospel from Paul through his instruction and through any personal experience they had with him.  Next, they received the gospel and possessed “an inner understanding of the nature and spirit of the moral life of the Christian which grows out of the contagious power of example. The Philippian believers received Paul’s teaching of the early church traditions of the gospel of Christ, including the hymn of Christ (2:6–11), and they also received the power of Christ’s life through their personal experience with Paul”.[15] Finally, they heard and saw Paul’s life display the life of Christ.  The Philippians did not know about the Christ life from hearsay only, but they witnessed the power of the believer’s union with Christ through watching how Paul conducted himself.

The process of discipleship described in the New Testament provides a dramatic contrast to today’s simple, activity-driven discipleship models.  The New Testament shows the necessity of personal interaction that comes only through establishing a relationship with those who are being discipled.  The New Testament also highlights the importance of passing knowledge to those who are being discipled.  Knowledge of the gospel is foundational to creating and developing devoted followers of Jesus Christ.  However, most of the methods that were reviewed for this paper seek only to pass along knowledge concerning what to do, not knowledge of who the believer is in Christ, what the believer has received in Christ, or how it is possible for the believer to live for Christ. Furthermore, unlike the New Testament model, most modern methods of discipleship require a small investment of time, with much of the material encouraging those who are being discipled to spend as little as an hour per week with the person responsible for discipling them.  How can genuine biblical discipleship happen apart from a sizeable investment of time?  Can disciples be made in only ten weeks?  What happens after the student completes the course, are they left to grow independent of another believer’s personal influence and instruction?  Because of the lack of continuity between the example of New Testament Discipleship, and modern discipleship methods, the failure of non-biblical methods is not only plausible but likely.

Thankfully, some converts succeed and become grounded in the faith despite the inadequacies of the discipleship methods under which they were trained.  Unfortunately, many new disciples will not experience success and will become disillusioned when they fail.  Such failure causes infant believers to feel as if they cannot bear the weight of their new-found faith.  Failure leads to a discouragement, and frustration, which can ultimately drive a new believer to walk away from the church, and back to the life they already know they can live.

A Better Way

Many, if not most church leaders have witnessed the successes and failures of modern discipleship methods. Those same leaders will also be tempted to invest in the newest and next great discipleship curriculum produced.  However, what if Christian leaders began to focus on an organic, identity-driven, relational approach to discipleship?  What if church leaders adopted a method of spiritual training that seeks to follow the pattern established in many of the New Testament Epistles in which the reality and benefits of the believer’s union with Christ was established in the life of the Christian?  What if new believers were taught how to live out their union with Christ day-by-day?

Instead of adopting a pre-written discipleship curriculum, a better way to disciple exists in a letter that was written by the Apostle Paul between 60-62 AD to a group of believers in the city of Ephesus.  The book of Ephesians, as it is known today, may be the most effective and thorough discipleship curriculum ever written because it puts forth a concise plan to ground and grow believers in the truth of the gospel and the conduct of those who follow Christ.  A simple overview of Ephesians proves the thesis of this research. Beginning in chapter one, the reader is introduced to some of the great realities of salvation.  A Christian is a faithful saint who is in union with Christ Jesus (v.1), and, thus Christians are “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (v.3).  As a believer reads further, they find that God has adopted them, and made them sons through Jesus Christ (v.5).  Then the believer comes face-to-face with the life-changing truth that “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” (v.7-8). While still in chapter one, the reader discovers that salvation is not a temporary condition, but it is an eternal state because the believer is sealed with “the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession” (v.14).  These things are only a taste of the great, transformative truths found in the first three chapters of Ephesians.

Chapters one through three of Ephesians proclaim the truth and benefits of salvation, while chapters four through six describe how to live as a follower of Jesus.  In Paul’s writing, the indicative precedes the imperative.  As was stated earlier, the right knowledge often leads to right living.  In chapter four Paul reminds believers that they are not to live the way they used to live, or in a way that is common to those who are not saved.[16]  Then, in verses 20-23 Paul explains why they should live differently.  Paul wrote, “you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind”. From that point forward, Paul explains the conduct that is to be avoided and the behavior that should typify those who seek to imitate Christ.

Perhaps a better way to disciple a new believer would be to spend time working through Ephesians, verse-by-verse, and paragraph-by-paragraph.  By utilizing this approach, the disciple would learn how to read, study, comprehend and apply the Word of God.  The disciple would learn to pray by reading the prayers of Paul, and by following the robust instruction concerning prayer found in chapter six. They would understand more fully what their union with Christ means, and how they have the power to live for God because of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, the disciple would see the contrast between the life of a believer and an unbeliever.  They would learn how to practice God-glorifying worship, how to have godly relationships, and how to fight spiritual battles against the enemy who seeks to entrap and derail their spiritual growth.

Implementation of such a plan would require much prayer among the leadership of a church.  Following a season of prayer, an expositional sermon series through Ephesians, along with additional training of those who desire to disciple others should take place.  After a period of preparation, those who would like to make disciples would be paired with those who want to know more of Christ.  The process put forth in this paper is not short, nor would it be easy, but it would be fruitful.  Timothy Lane wrote, “each of us lives out of some sense of identity, and our gospel identity amnesia will always lead to some form of identity replacement.  That is, if who I am in Christ does not shape the way I think about myself and the things I face, then I will live out some other identity”.[17]  The methodology outlined in this document will ground a willing believer in their identity in Christ.


Clearly, that data reveals that most modern methods of discipleship have failed, producing a generation of “de-churched” people. Churches must shift from teaching new Christians what to do, to begin teaching them who they are and what they have in Christ.  Such teaching will direct new converts away from religious activity that masquerades as discipleship, and it will teach them to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ.  When a believer embraces their new identity and nature, they will begin to live a radically different life.

[1] Barna Group, “New Research on the State of Discipleship” Barna Research, 2015, last modified December 1, 2015, accessed November 29, 2016, http://bit.ly/2gHzgkL

[2] Practicing Christians are defined by The Barna Group as self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important to their lives and who have attended a worship service, other than for a special occasion, one or more times during the past month.

[3] Barna Group, “The State of the Church 2016” Barna Research, 2016, last modified September 15, 2016, accessed November 29, 2016, http://bit.ly/2fSerFB

[4]  George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum), 187-188, Kindle Edition.


[5] Jim Berg, Changed Into His Image: God’s plan for Transforming Your Life (Greenville: BJU Press, 1999), 11

[6] Timothy Keller, “The Centrality of the Gospel”, accessed November 21, 2016, http://bit.ly/1P4Tyhe.

[7] Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 83-84

[8] See, Acts 2:42-47.

[9] Barna Group, “10 Facts About America’s Churchless” Barna Research, 2014, last modified December 10, 2014, accessed November 27, 2016, http://bit.ly/2h0lbQu.

[10] The de-churched are those who have been churched in the past but are currently on hiatus. Many of these people have a history of cyclical church attendance patterns, going through a phase when they are involved followed by a phase when they are not, and so forth. The de-churched are the fastest growing segment, presently one-third of the population.  George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum), 7, Kindle Edition.

[11] Sam O’Neal and Joel Polk, eds. Disciples Path (Nashville: LifeWay Press, 2015).

[12] Ibid, 5.

[13] Navigators. “The Wheel.” The Navigators.  Last modified January 31, 2006.  Accessed November 30, 2016, http://bit.ly/2hus4sl.

[14] Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 150.

[15] G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 301.

[16] See, Eph. 4:1-19

[17] Lane, Timothy S. and Paul Tripp. How People Change. (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, c2006, 2008), 5.

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