When it comes to true discipleship in a community, planning can only get us so far. It requires intentionality and—most importantly—God’s involvement.
The retreat center sat nestled in the woods, blanketed by dark night. A few scattered lights directed me down the winding road toward the main building. It was a common occurrence, me being late to a meeting because of my job. But I was thankful that I’d get to attend most of the event, and as they say, better late than never.
As I approached the massive door, I noticed Jesus, at least a large image of Him carved into the wood. His outstretched hand formed the handle, and the words “Come unto Me, and I will give you rest” encircled His head. I entered and found my group. The members were deep in discussion, talking about their personal lives as if they had already spent an entire weekend together. Some of them were relative strangers, but we had all accepted our church’s invitation to join an “experiment” regarding discipleship.
I sat quietly at the table, listening as others laid bare their souls. We shared; we talked; we prayed. Much the way those lights had guided me through the dark, we sought something that could direct us through the murky waters of our task. So we asked the Lord for answers to two questions: What is discipleship? And how should it look for our larger church family?
Ten of us—five men and five women—had been selected for the group by one of our pastors. The experiment was set up to provide answers twofold: first, by allowing us to bring our own discipleship experiences to the table, and second, by practicing spiritual disciplines together, modeling the unified life in Christ. In short, we not only talked about but also practiced discipleship.
Without vulnerability, integrity, and honesty, true discipleship cannot exist.
Over a period of eight months, we assembled collectively and as smaller groups to explore the topic, learning from one another and combining notes. We realized the best setting was in groups of two or three. A few of us men would grab breakfast and talk about what the Lord had been doing in our lives. Pairs of the women would get together to pray for a specific need. It was here that we defined the disciple as simply one who increasingly reflects the character of Jesus in all areas of life. And it was during these moments when we discovered the most crucial component: intentionality.
Think back to the calling of the 12 disciples. Jesus handpicked these men. He wanted to spend time with them. As Dr. Stanley says in his Life Principles Bible:
“Jesus trained His disciples primarily by being with them—walking with them, talking with them, eating with them, laughing with them, and listening to them. He welcomed their questions, just as He does ours today. There is no substitute for spending time with the Savior.”
And just as we must choose to spend time with God, we have to put effort into relationships with other Christians. But to do this effectively, we need three essential components if we’re to be intentional: vulnerability, integrity, and honesty. Without these, true discipleship cannot exist.
Vulnerability supposes a trust that will allow us into the deeper places of one another’s life. It means we’re willing to open up to our trusted brothers and sisters in Christ, knowing they want God’s best for our lives. This can be really tough. Many of us have been wounded in the past when our trust was abused by others, and we need to seek the restoration of our Father, who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3). It is critical to lower the walls of our heart to both love and be loved.
Integrity is a mark of godly character.The root of the word means “complete” or “whole,” lacking defect. Though we all were once “dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). We now put on His character. The apostle Peter encouraged believers to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12 NIV). The willingness to walk in this kind of character is crucial to healthy discipleship because it allows us to trust one another.
Honesty is at the heart of the gospel. With the same complete abandon people must give in turning to Jesus, we must open ourselves and share truthfully about our lives with one another. Those in discipling relationships can go only as far as they’re willing to live and speak truthfully. For instance, when we ask one another, “How are you doing spiritually?” we need a sincere reply because we cannot grow deeper roots without that. When I asked my wife to marry me, I handed her a card. It said, “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips” (Pro. 24:26 NIV). And it is.
Though our group realized the necessity of intentionality, we weren’t looking to simply institute another program in our church. Planning and structure will get us only so far. To see God’s life flourish within us, we need Him to do the deep inner working He alone can provide. And so we realized that true discipleship requires organic growth as evidenced by the presence of the Holy Spirit. That growth requires our involvement, but the responsibility is God’s. It is the embodiment of Proverbs 16:9: “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Or as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).
As with anything worth fighting for, we have to consistently ask ourselves difficult questions to deepen our relationship with the Lord. Are we willing to spend significant time with other Christians to disciple them and likewise be discipled? Will we walk the Christian life out with others in close community—close enough that we risk looking like fools for walking on water one moment and sinking the next?
What began that weekend in a dark, secluded wood led to our experiencing the light of Christ in one another. By being intentional about discipleship, we were able to expect God to bring the growth He longs to provide.
Jesus is the door to the abundant life of discipleship, and He beckons us to enter. May we accept that invitation.
Life together is essential for discipleship to flourish. When spending time with one another, earnestly ask:
• How are you doing? (3 John 1:2)
• What are you doing to promote spiritual growth?
• What challenges are you currently facing?
• What is God doing and saying in and through your circumstances?
• How may I/we specifically pray for you?
By Joseph E. Miller