On Discipleship

What is discipleship? This is one of those perennial questions that get’s thrown around by those in some sort of ministry.

We’re all in favour, and we’re very happy to call a lot of things ‘discipleship’, but what is it?

Maybe it’s easier to start with what it isn’t. It’s not going and having a coffee with a more mature Christian—though that can be a very helpful thing to do. It’s not attending a course or an event—though courses and events can be great. It’s not growing your church or in-depth Bible study or a midweek group that meets in a home or having fun with other Christians or making younger Christians into copies of yourself.

All of the above can be good things in the right context, all of them are sometimes called discipleship, and not one of them is.


The word disciple just means learner. I do wonder if shifting away from the religious term would help us. ‘Apprentice’ is probably closer in our normal use to how the word ‘disciple’ would have been used in the New Testament. I like the way John Mark Comer talks about being apprenticed to Jesus as a metaphor for the Christian life, it’s a more holistic vision than when discipleship means meeting someone for coffee once every six months.

I’ve designed apprenticeship programmes for leading Universities and an award-winning global graduate programme for Rolls-Royce. I know how these things work.

When most people hear “apprenticeship,” or perhaps even “discipleship,” they imagine training courses. Which explains the way that lots of big churches approach the Christian life, “let’s run a course,” we imagine very quickly that the correct way to treat discipleship is to create the right programme. We proliferate our programmes to treat every area of life because what we think we need is skills.

This model then infects smaller churches as well because we use the courses produced by these big churches. None of this is wrong, but often rests on two faulty assumptions, one theological and one methodological. Firstly, we assume that what we need is skills, when we need character, but secondly we assume that this is how learning works.

We think if we need to learn we should run a course. The training programmes I designed included very little by way of training courses. We worked to a learning model as a guide that suggested 10% of an apprentice’s learning would come from courses and that these would be specifically targeted at specific needs.

The vast majority of our learning comes from experience, with a sizeable chunk from feedback and reflection—our guide would have been 70% experience and 20% reflection and feedback. Which is to say you learn by doing activities, by considering how well you do them and being guided to do them better, and then when required this is topped up by formal training.

Discipleship is apprenticeship

So, to apply to our ordinary lives following Jesus, to be a disciple is primarily to live and to have our course corrected by the Lord, often in the voice of disciples who are a little ahead of us. Which means we need to be receptive to ‘feedback,’ and we need to realise that means we need to be ready to repent.

But for churches it means that we need to be slow to make a course. Got a leadership development issue? The natural answer is to run a leadership development course, which is not entirely wrong, but if it’s going to work it needs to be primarily framed around actually doing things and getting feedback on them.

If your church has a discipleship issue—and it probably does, to some extent we all do—then the solution will not be in courses or events, but in the hard graft of actually living the Christian life, reflecting on where we are and having others help us to see how to move forwards.

This isn’t controversial, no one has ever disagreed with me when I’ve told them this, but we still run to the courses. Part of this is fear, I think. You want to be seen to do something that helps. It’s difficult to know what else a church can do to help, and they are often helpful—but they work when they support lives that are already living the Christian life in a community that supports ‘reflection and feedback’. Which is business speak for self-awareness, hearing from God, and community.

When a church wants to support its people in their discipleship, we need to look at subtle things that half of our people won’t even notice that we’re doing: foster community, teach reflection—people in my experience think they can reflect but have absolutely no idea how to until they see it modelled and are then actively coached to reflect.

Maybe a sports team works as a better example. Most of the time you have to play or practice skills, receiving some coaching to help direct you. Occasionally a specific piece of ‘training’ from outside might help, but it then needs embedding in the playing, practicing, and coaching.

Playing matches or practice games here is living our lives, facing suffering, being obedient, in and out of church contexts. Practicing skills here is our regular disciplines: prayer; reading the Bible; being with other Christians to pray, read, and eat; and most importantly receiving the good news of Jesus each week at Church in word and water, wine and song.

It’s also a good analogy because it’s not individual, to be apprenticed to Jesus is a team effort. We win or lose together.

Who disciples us?

Our language doesn’t help us, we talk about ‘being discipled’ by this or that person. That’s not discipleship—the one we’re apprenticed to is Jesus. What’s actually happening when I’m ‘discipled’ or when I ‘disciple’ someone else is that I’m helping them to follow Jesus better.

Ok, so it’s mostly the language, but it changes how I would think or approach it too. For a start their “performance” isn’t really about me, though it may be about the whole church. Beyond that it hopefully rids the pressure you sometimes see that everyone must be ‘discipled’ by someone and instead refocuses that we’re all being apprenticed all the time. Is it by Jesus?

We do need coaching, we do need experiences—and typically an apprentice cannot create their own experiences, so we have to have them given to us—but mostly we need to follow Jesus.

Photo by Vance Osterhout on Unsplash

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