What is Discipleship?

At a discussion forum for Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples, someone asked, “What does discipleship look like?”  It’s easy to talk about the need for discipleship without having a clear grasp of what it is.  If you did not grow up in a culture of Christian discipleship, you may be wondering yourself. Let’s create a working definition to get started:

Discipleship is what happens when one Christian helps another Christian become a better follower of Jesus.

That simple, almost all-encompassing definition really is what constitutes discipleship.  Before we look at specific examples, let’s talk about a few things discipleship is not.

Discipleship is not a program.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything Christians do needs to happen under the auspices of a formal program.  Want to feed the hungry?  Join St. Vincent de Paul.  Want to teach the faith?  Sign up to be a catechist at the parish.  Want to play sports?  Join the church league team.

We forget that we can feed the hungry just by picking up a bag of groceries for the neighbor who is out of work.  We can teach the faith by answering a friend’s question after Mass on the playground.  We can play sports by grabbing a ball and finding out who’s up for a quick game.

So it is with discipleship.  While we can indeed help others become better followers of Jesus by creating programs designed specifically for that purpose, we should never think that this is the only way discipleship occurs.  On the contrary: If we are carrying out our mission as baptized believers correctly, the bulk of Christian discipleship should happen as a natural part of our everyday lives.

Discipleship is not the sole province of a special ministry.

It is encouraging seeing more and more dioceses and parishes take seriously the call for evangelization and discipleship. Dedicated, formal programs do have their place.  Pastors of souls may reasonably decide that, given the state of Christian belief in their area, it may indeed be desirable to dedicate one or several specialists to nothing but targeted efforts towards renewal of the lost arts of Christianity.

Such efforts don’t mean that everyone else is off the hook.  If you participate in any capacity whatsoever in your parish, you should be involved in discipleship.  Usher, pewsitter, collection counter . . . no part of parish life should be considered a No Discipleship Zone.  Whether you are ministering, being ministered to, or just sitting around, if you’re a baptized believer, discipleship is for you and by you.

Discipleship is not the work of specialists.

You don’t need a degree, a certificate, or a formal training program.  If you are a sincere follower of Christ, you are a disciple: You are a person who is trying to follow Christ as well as you possibly can.  Your mission towards others is just as simple.  Do what you can, when you can and how you can, to help others become better followers of Jesus.

What does discipleship look like?

Here are some typical ways that discipleship happens:

1. Going about your business.

Do you pray before meals?  Do you read the Bible daily?  Attend Mass with devotion?  Keep the Ten Commandments?  Behave lovingly towards others?  Get your work done?  Take Sundays off? Choose clothing, entertainment, and possessions consistent with your calling as a Christian believer? What we do as Christians is the number one way we communicate to others what this Christianity business is all about.

If you look and act like everybody else — if you blend in seamlessly with the wider non-Christian culture — you’re not following Jesus.  Christianity isn’t a call to weirdness, but it is a call to holiness.  There should be a tangible difference in your life because you are a follower of Christ.  People who want to know how to follow Christ should be able to look at you and get an idea of how it’s done.

2. Actively teaching others the faith. 

Not everyone has the spiritual gift of “teaching.”  We all, however, have times when we must use our words and explain to others what Christians believe and how we act.  I didn’t know any of the customs around Eucharistic Adoration until a friend explained to me the basics.  I’d never heard of the Green Scapular until I got sick and a friend gave me one, and told me to Google it.  I still have horrible Latin pronunciation, but thanks to a kind friend at least I have a better idea of when to cringe at the sound of my own voice.  I am eternally grateful to the owners of local Catholic bookstores for providing the places I can seek out answers to my 10,000 questions about the Catholic faith.

When we disciple others, we must answer their questions.  Sometimes that’s a small job, a spiritual one-liner.  Sometimes it means meeting every week for a year to study the Bible together.  Example is important, but most of us also need explicit teaching in order to better follow Jesus.

3. Gently but firmly striving for perfection together.

Having studied business and economics, and having studied the Catholic faith, I understand that we followers of Christ have an obligation towards the poor.  That doesn’t make me very good at it, though; I have a friend who absolutely schools me in the sphere of selflessness and simplicity.  We have some choices:

  • We could give up on me.  Never mind, lost cause.
  • We could decide the Christian ideal doesn’t exist.  Dismiss her particular gift of holiness as so much scruples, or some kind of “special calling.”
  • We can keep encouraging me to do better, even though it’s a slog.

Discipleship is the slog.  Sometimes you give someone the gentle nudge, “Hey, how about making it to Mass every Sunday?” and they get right on it.  Oh yes.  That is important, I see how that works.  I’ll do that from now on.  Other times it’s steady work, year in and year out, with very little noticeable progress.  In discipleship, we don’t give up on each other.

Yes, it’s that simple.

Discipleship is hard to pin down because it isn’t some weird extra thing that stands out.  Either you’re a sincere follower of Christ, or you’re not.  If you aren’t, no amount of training and programs will cause discipleship to happen.  Don’t want to be a better Christian?  God doesn’t force you against your will.

If you do want to be a better Christian, you’ll make an effort at it.  You’ll seek out others who have what you want — a sincere and profound relationship with Christ. You’ll ask questions, you’ll examine your life, you’ll make changes.  You will, in turn, provide that same help to others.

That’s what discipleship is.

Copyright 2014, Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications. She writes about the Catholic faith at her Patheos blog, Sticking the Corners.

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