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What is discipleship?

Many claim faith in Jesus. Fewer are discipled.

Discipleship or Evangelism? Choose Both!

Discipleship is a fancy word meaning how you mature in Christ, how Christ is formed in you — in your thoughts, your actions, your life. Discipleship is not church attendance or Bible study. Some folks who have gone to church their entire lives have never been discipled. Take me. I went to church for almost twenty years before I was actually discipled.

Discipleship usually happens in pairs of women or men (wherein one of whom having already been discipled guides another). Discipleship is a walking together in the way of Christ, learning to die, learning how to leave who you were, and learning who you now are. Learning to follow Jesus, becoming his disciple, means walking alongside someone further in the Christian faith for a significant period. It is personal. It is challenging. Jesus walked with his disciples for three years. This is no six-week curriculum. My husband once remarked to me:

People have no issue when they hear someone told, “Here, spend the next four years of your life learning how to kick this ball,” but when it comes to discipleship — learning how to live like a Christian — churches offer a six week curriculum, as if that could cut it. Isn’t that curious?

Discipleship is often done one-on-one because it allows the two to go much deeper than in a group. Smaller groups of three to four folks can work also. Jesus had his twelve, his inner circle of three on whom he focused, and his special one, John (who, interestingly, was the only one left standing at the cross when Jesus died). So whether meeting one-on-one or in a small, intimate group, it must be consistent, comprehensive, personal, and penetrating. Discipleship is opening yourself up so completely to another person to let her look into your life in the secret places with a level of spiritual honesty and vulnerability that you have not given to anyone else. It’s not coaching. It’s not counseling. It’s not BFFing. Your personalities may not mesh for a long-term friendship, but for the time of discipleship, you respect this woman enough to learn from her.

How do babies learn to walk? Search “babies walking” to check out a few YouTube videos and observe the process. What made the difference for these babies? They had someone ahead of them, giving them direction and encouragement. It took trust. It took practice. It involved laughter. There were some mistakes, successes, falls and pick-me-ups. There were distractions and interruptions. That’s a lot like learning to walk in Christ.           

Whether or not you have been discipled before, think back to when you first learned about God. Who was involved in that process? In the same way, as we learn to follow Jesus, we cannot learn to walk in Christ by ourselves. What do you see happening between these two? For me, this is a picture of discipleship. Discipleship is walking together for a period of time, discussing life’s challenges and God’s answers together.

What about me? I grew up in church and learned a lot of Bible stories. At age fourteen, I was distinctly called out by the risen Savior to follow him in a personal experience. For anyone who has met the living Christ, you know what I mean. Whether the call occurs in an explosive rescue or a quiet encounter, it is real. I would not suggest you seek a certain type of experience. Seek Christ. He invites you in a most compelling way to reach you personally and uniquely. If you have not experienced an actual time where you sensed God in Christ calling you . . . ever . . . perhaps you might ask for it. Ask to meet the living God personally (Revelation 3:20). We are told when we are God’s (Romans 8:16).

It was not until my sophomore year at university that I was discipled. I knew a lot about God by then, but it was another gal living in the dorms who literally walked with me —for two years — through what following Christ looks like on a daily basis. Over the years, I have had several women continue to disciple me along the way of my faith. Kathy first grounded me in my faith. Diane pulled me out of a deep pit I had dug. Janis helped me to start living the new life I had in deeper ways.

Discipleship has at least five parts, in my opinion. These are in no particular order, and the Bible is studied throughout the process to inform each of these:

#1 Beliefs of a Christian

#2 Living like a Christian

#3 Habits of a Christian

#4 Learning God’s Word (the Bible)

#5 Special topics specific to your life’s journey

My mum and dad faithfully taught me #2 and #3. My Sunday school teachers taught me #1 and #3, sort of, with gaps. Diane and Janis each helped me with #5. Kathy was the one who taught me all five, over a concentrated two-year period.

I wrote Walk with Me: Learning to Love & Follow Jesus to start you on a discipleship journey with someone, covering the five areas listed above. I thought writing letters might make it easier to understand while also making it more personal. There is a lot to learn and even more to apply, and the second part is much harder. Take it slowly.

Walk with Me is arranged into four parts. Part One discusses what a Christian believes. Part Two describes what a Christian looks like (or should look like). Rather than explaining a list of dos and don’ts, I describe virtues as ways of being, ways one lives as a Christian. These will guide you then in what to do or not do in a given situation. Part Three offers the habits of a Christian — the exercises that shape your spiritual muscle tone, so to speak, and strengthen you in your Christian experience. Part Four summarizes the Bible, breaking it down into parts to give you the big picture of Scripture and how it all masterfully weaves together. Lastly, I cover some special topics of common interest that did not fit into the previous chapters. At the end of each letter, you will find a set of questions that you should answer with your discipler and/or those you disciple.

These letters form a discipleship manual of sorts, covering the basics to start your faith journey. Read these letterswith someone, hopefully the person who is discipling you or whom you are discipling. The verses listed throughout each letter are embedded hints for the questions at the end. Work through the questions together, using these verses. The open-ended, general questions are meant for you to explore ideas. You may learn as much about yourself from your answers as the questions. The Christian faith is not just about you and Jesus; it is to be shared, so asking these questions in community, or at least with someone else, is best. Ideally, you can read one letter each week, taking the rest of the week to chew on the topic. Take your time, ask good questions, and search the Scriptures. I have tried to cover the main subjects, but please understand that this is but a broad overview as a beginning point. There is much, much more to discover!

Jenny McGill (Ph.D., King's College London) works in international education and intercultural training, having served clients and students from over sixty nations. A Fulbright recipient, she researches productivity, culture, and identity. Connect with her at or Twitter @drjennymcgill.

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