“Make disciples of all the nations,” Jesus said (Matthew 28:19).
During my adult life, I recall when the word “discipleship” became a big thing during the late 1970s. It’s one of several competing themes in the mainstream religious market that probably came and went repeatedly. I don’t doubt the term was in use before the 1970s, but it seemed to blossom into prominence well after I felt called of God to pay attention to the business of His Kingdom. I recall the books that burst on the scene and suddenly older preachers who didn’t use the term before were now referring to it as a thing of importance.
In my experience, it took on a rather fixed and consistent meaning during that time I was at Oklahoma Baptist University. It didn’t feature in our professors’ lectures, but was a part of the background stuff we students pursued amongst ourselves. The impact of a college education is as much about those informal influences as it is about the ostensible academic program. Whatever shape the concept of discipleship took at the time has remained fairly constant since then. It has taken on the status of a sacred term, one of those religious holy words that seems to have a definition in practice that is not precisely the same as any official written definition.
The practical definition is therefore fuzzy because the official definition is seldom shared. It’s a word that comes with bulky baggage that is seldom opened. Those who use the term simply assume you already know, so a lot of people use the word in conversation without bothering to open the bags and see what’s included. Thus, the full meaning is actually reduced somewhat in practice by how people attempt to put it to work.
In essence it works out to a program of training that remaps the mental reflexes. It’s doctrinal conditioning. There is an implied caveat that the individual “disciple” will experience this program at the hands of one or a few designated leaders. When done well, it includes a conscious curriculum with milestones for progress and a lot of one-on-one attention.
Somehow, people imagine that this is what Jesus did with His disciples. It sounds good; there’s nothing sinister about it. Still, it’s not what Jesus did unless you completely fail to understand the Hebrew culture and Old Testament religion. Jesus didn’t follow a curriculum in the sense we have among evangelicals today. Rather, He operated from a heart-led sense of what those men needed most at any given time, against the background and context of what He was obliged to do whether they grasped it or not.
Jesus clearly understood that at some point after His resurrection, all those experiences would be reawakened by the Holy Spirit. Until that time came, it was necessary only that they receive the experiences in a way that left an imprint on their souls. In other words, the whole exercise presumed that heart-led way, sooner or later. The heart remembers things the mind cannot; the heart understands things for which the mind needs a lot of help. That’s the whole point behind teaching in parables in the first place (Matthew 13:10-17). Parables register on the heart independently of the intellect, for most people. But the heart is all about people; it’s intensely moral and personal, not informational. His disciples were granted access to the man behind the parables, so they had the equipment to process them, even if their conscious minds were still struggling.
The essence of revelation is a Person, not a bunch of ideas. By experiencing the Person, we all gain an insight that boils up from within. The one thing that must be communicated is the sense of conviction; only personal communion with Christ can awaken that. This explains the Day of Pentecost — the Spirit of Christ was granted so that discipleship was built into their souls. It’s not just three years or so, but everyone can have a lifetime with Christ. They can still miss the point, as 2000 years of Church History well attests, but the potential is there. That our modern day version of discipleship succeeds at all is because of the personal element, not the curriculum. People will witness the power of conviction; it’s an experience that touches the heart, never mind whether the intellect catches on.
Perhaps now you realize that there is no significant difference between evangelism and discipleship beyond the academic boundaries we describe. Once it starts to work, it’s better to recognize that the boundaries between the two are provisional, a way of getting from here to there. Evangelism is not about conversion, but leaving an imprint on the soul. Discipleship is that same process, but it presumes an acceptance in the disciple that is apparently missing in the one you evangelize. Since it’s all the work of God in the first place, we remain faithful and trust Him that our consistency in moral compassion and mercy is success in itself.
So we make disciples of everyone in our world by walking according to Biblical Law — “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you,” Jesus said (Matthew 28:20).