Global Discipleship

The Anatomy of Discipleship

discipleship: becoming more like Jesus by...
discipling: helping another person become more like Jesus by...
  • Followers of Jesus embrace and enter their own life of discipleship in a myriad of ways – devotional, contemplative, communal, sacramental, missional, practical, theological, and more.
  • Followers of Jesus embrace and enter the process of discipling others in a myriad of contexts – relational, conversational, missional, instructional, collaborative, and more.

Those a lot of different words, so let’s take a look at how we practically do that.  I like to think in terms of Discipleship Anatomy to help us identify and lean into these different contexts.


  • Meeting with a small group of people to talk about life and faith.
  • May include friendly chit-chat, discussion, prayer, Bible study, creative activities, etc.
  • (Relational. Conversational. Devotional. Instructional.)


  • Meeting one-on-one to encourage and guide someone towards personal development and spiritual growth.
  • May include everything in Face-to-Face, plus deeper levels of guidance, challenge, exhortation, encouragement, etc.
  • (Relational. Conversational. Devotional. Instructional. Pastoral.)


  • Specific eye-to-eye times of deep challenge, guidance, correction, affirmation, counsel, and heart-to-heart difficult conversations.
  • May include prayer, Bible study, deep conversation, pastoral listening, etc.
  • (Relational. Pastoral. Instructional. Exhortative.)


  • Activity-driven context for those who may not yet be ready or comfortable with solely face-to-face connection, who are still learning how to converse comfortably, or who need to move in order to focus.
  • May include play, action, competition, interspersed with questions, conversation, listening, etc.
  • (Relational. Active. With-ness. Conversational primer.)


  • Working together in service or mission.
  • (Relational. Missional. Collaborative. Service-centered. Sacrificial.)


  • Part of every discipleship/discipling context – the joining of two or more followers of Jesus in prayer, partnership, solidarity, and unity.
  • (Relational. Sacramental. Kingdom-focused. Other-centered. Communal.)


The mysterious beauty of all these contexts is this:  not only do leaders disciple their students and help them become more like Jesus, but students also disciple their leaders. As leaders listen, converse, respond, guide, encourage, and simply be with students, leaders themselves will become more like Jesus. In other words, the act of discipling others will circle back on itself so that spiritual growth flows both ways, and the hearts of everyone are changed. This is the most powerful and sacred discipling context of all. Let’s pursue it with a passion.


Written By Crystal Kirgiss, VP of Discipleship







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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.

Words matter.

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

  • teaching them

  • encouraging them

  • letting them help in his ministry

  • correcting them

  • 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

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.

Think About The Llama!


Written By Dan Jessup

My leadership strategy and thinking has changed some over my 30+ years of leading in Young Life.  Today, I think a lot about the llama.  Yep, since you can find these wild and unruly beasts all over South America in the Andes Mountains, I sometimes ponder, what would happen to the mission I lead if I got run over by a llama?  What would happen if I were trampled to death?

Think about it:  one day I will not be leading Young Life in Latin America and the Caribbean, which means that one day, someone else will.  Have I led and am I leading with intentionality so that we have a robust, thoughtful, proactive succession plan (that’s corporate speak for good leadership development) in the works, just in case the llama makes his move?

Jesus knew he had only three years to prepare the leadership to spread the Gospel.  Paul seemed to know that his time on earth was finite, so he got after it with a vengeance.  The apostle Paul sure seemed to think this way in 2 Timothy 2:2. Jesus seemed to be clear in Matthew 28:18.  But for much of my 30+ years of leadership I did not think this way.  I lead, albeit unintentionally (this is the heart of the problem!), as if I would be leading forever.  Things are different now. 

Leadership Trees


For our division, there are two simple strategies that are crucial for combating the llama: the Leadership Tree and the Second Branch Project.  Chances are you have seen the Leadership Tree, you understand the principles, and you have taught the principles.  My question is, do you actually have one yourself?  Do you have one on paper, in your Bible that you look at and pray over, or pull out at area meetings and regional retreats?  Answer:  I do.  In fact, every senior leader in our division has one and by the end of this fiscal year, every volunteer leader in the division will have one!  I might suggest, if you don’t have one in writing, it is likely that you are more susceptible to the llama than you might want to admit.

Second Branches

Second, we have intentionally expanded the influence of the Leadership Tree by identifying the “next best leadership” in the division in what we call the Second Branch Project.  Here’s the simple thinking: I am fairly confident that I will develop the people on my leadership tree (those on my “first branch").  However, those on my “Second Branch” meaning someone else’s “First Branch,” are the next, next future leaders of the mission.  The Second Branch Project is a way for our divisional team to keep in front of all of us who we see as the next best leadership in the development process.  

All of this is just another way of saying we take Jesus’ words seriously about “go and make disciples.”  In doing so, we have a very intentional system of making disciples.  It is more than having a good club,  good campaigner program, large area ministry, good numbers at camp, or a kicking region.  This involves senior leaders being good senior leaders by recognizing one day, the llama will win.  When he does, our intentionality of leadership development will be what determines how well the mission grows and expands long after we are dancing in heaven!  This is not morbid; on the contrary, this is how we should lead with the Spirit as Paul and Jesus led.  

So I say – “think about the llama...”


Dan Jessup


Want to create your own Leadership Tree?  Here's a simple download where you can make your own!

Need training on Second Branches?  Contact:  Scott Miedema -