Relational Discipleship: The Way Jesus Did ItApril 10, 2013
The Great Commission, the parting command of Jesus to His first disciples, is stated in a number of New Testament passages (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:46-49; Jn. 20:21; Acts 1:8). The passage most commonly quoted is the one in Matthew's Gospel:
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
At the heart of this assignment is the command to make disciples. Maturing disciples of Jesus are committed to obeying everything Jesus commanded. They are transformed into His likeness as they apply the truth of His Word to their daily lives, and they intentionally influence others to do the same. The ultimate goal of this disciplemaking process is the multiplication of disciples who can make other disciples, so that the Gospel message effectively penetrates every people group in every region of the world.
How close are we to completing the task? God is moving mightily in the hearts of many of His people in various places around the world, empowering them to plant new churches and make disciples among unreached people groups. However, many more are needed who will step up to the challenge of becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ and leading others to do the same. There are still thousands of people groups with little or no access to the Gospel in the modern world, and Christianity seems to be losing ground in America and other places where it was once much stronger.
What is the most effective way to make disciples? One of the most exciting developments in the effort to make disciples in contemporary America is called "relational discipleship." This is not really a new approach at all but the very method that Jesus used to train the twelve apostles.
Jesus invited them to follow Him. He took them with Him wherever He went. They observed His behavior and interactions with other people, they heard His teachings, they watched Him perform miracles, and they asked Him questions. Later on, He began to delegate His authority to them by giving them assignments. He sent them out to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom and extend His healing ministry, then He asked them afterward what they thought about the ways God had worked through them. He provided rebuke and correction when they needed it. He poured His life into them and trained them in the context of close, personal relationships. His training was even more intense with a select group of three within the twelve.
The book of Acts reveals a similar relational training pattern used by the apostles following Jesus' ascension to heaven:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
The relational dimension of this disciplemaking process for new converts can be seen in such phrases as "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship" and "continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house." Unlike contemporary America, when it is often unusual for Christians to spend time with other Christians outside of scheduled church services, these first century believers spent a lot of time together.
This method of training new converts was immensely effective because those early Christians were accused of turning the world "upside down" with their teachings (Acts 17:6). This means that in addition to the individual transformation resulting from the relational discipleship process in which they were engaged, they were impacting the very society in which they lived.
So the question must be asked, is something missing in the modern church when it comes to making disciples? Is disciplemaking even at or near the top of our list of priorities?
A true revolution is taking place in ministries where disciplemaking has been put on the front burner. It is called Relational Discipleship! It may be a new term, but this is the way reproducing disciples of Jesus have always been developed.
What does Relational Discipleship look like? The essential elements of this approach to making disciples are an intentional leader, a relational environment, and a reproducible process (see Lisa Sells, "Discipleship Revolution: Avery Willis' Last Dream," Mission Frontiers (January-February 2011), p. 8). The intentional leader is the person who commits to making disciples who can also make disciples by investing his life in this all-important work. The relational environment is small group Bible study. The reproducible process is the "road map" developed by such churches as Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho (see Jim Putman, Avery T. Willis, Jr., Brandon Guindon, and Bill Krause, Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010); see also Jim Putman, Church Is A Team Sport: A Championship Strategy for Doing Ministry Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008)).
Any disciple of Jesus Christ or local church willing to step out in obedience to make reproducing disciples will find that the power of the Holy Spirit is available to make it happen (Acts 1:8).
- Peter C. Hamilton, PhD
Adjunct Professor of Old Testament