Author: Crystal Kirgiss
Ask ten people to define discipleship and you will get ten different responses. Ask fifteen people to describe what’s involved in discipleship and you will get fifteen different lists. Ask twenty people to identify the main goal of discipleship and you will get twenty different ideas.
Overwhelmingly, Christians believe that discipleship goes hand in hand with following Jesus. And yet, according to a 2015 Barna study (The State of Discipleship), Christian adults, educators, and leaders struggle to clearly articulate the what, why, and how of discipleship.
Perhaps we are over-complicating a straightforward reality. Or maybe we are over-simplifying a profound mystery.
Whatever is behind the current discipleship conundrum, the global Young Life mission remains just as committed to the second half of its mission statement — helping adolescents grow in their faith — as to the first half — introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ.
In order to do that effectively and collaboratively, we need a clear and concise working definition of not just discipleship but also disciple-making or discipling. One of the confusing issues is that many people conflate these two things. When I recently asked a trusted theologian for some recommended titles on discipleship, he asked me: “Do you mean discipleship? Or disciple-making?”
Aha. Gotcha. Epiphany.
So let’s start with discipleship.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines discipleship this way: “The habit or fact of devoting oneself to following the teachings and example of Christ.”
The Barna study offered several definitions for people to choose from. A majority of laypeople chose this one: “Discipleship is a lifelong process and journey rooted in a relationship with Jesus.”
A majority of religious leaders and teachers preferred this: “Discipleship is the process of learning to follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, seeking to observe all that Jesus commanded, by the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father.”
We could boil these down to something as simple as:
Discipleship is becoming more like Jesus.
That means disciple-making or discipling could be defined as simply as this: Helping others become more like Jesus.
But we are practical people, so we want to talk about how, not just what. If we expand our definition by just one little word, the practical takes the stage:
Disciple-making is helping another become more like Jesus by…
Read the gospels to see what Jesus did with his disciples, then finish the sentence. By…
spending time with them
letting them help in his ministry
asking them questions
welcoming their questions
using everyday objects and situations to illustrate important truths
using stories to explain difficult concepts
talking to them about scripture
talking to them from scripture
praying with them
praying for them
speaking truth about their true identity
giving them a clear purpose
And so much more.
Defining disciple-making in this way clearly states the goal of our mission and also empowers staff and leaders to tailor things for their unique ministry context, community culture, personal giftings, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
We are a disciple-making ministry. It’s right there in our mission statement. More importantly, it’s in our DNA.
We introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ (by our presence and our proclamation), and we help them grow in their faith (by grounding them in The Faith). That’s who we are. It’s who we’ve always been.
Leadership conversation starters on discipleship and disciple-making.
- How would you define discipleship, based on your personal journey and experience of following Jesus?
- Is that different from disciple-making / discipling? In what ways?
- How does Young Life’s mission statement — both parts of it — drive your local ministry?
- Based on the definition provided above, what does your local ministry include in the by list for disciple-making?
- What is your ministry doing well when it comes to disciple-making? What areas need growth?
- How do your leaders - both individually and corporately - focus on their own discipleship?
Crystal Kirgiss (PhD, Purdue University) is the VP of Global Discipleship. She’s married to Mark, a Young Life Senior Area Director. For over 30 years, she has been involved in youth ministry as a Young Life and WyldLife Leader, a youth ministry trainer, and an author and speaker. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find a summary of the Barna Discipleship Study HERE.
You might want to check out The Skinny on Discipleship: A Big Youth Ministry Topic in a Single Little Book (Group Publishing, 2015) by Katie Edwards, a veteran youth worker. Her book was the inspiration for the simplified and streamlined definition of disciple-making offered above.