The Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) created a stir in 1990 when the Church Training department became “Discipleship Training.” Discipleship was a popular word then, and our leadership rightly emphasized disciple-making as an essential function of the Christian life and every church.
I remember much was said and done regarding discipleship, but in the end more was said than done. Perhaps the word was overused, but the true meaning of discipleship became watered down. Discipleship was reduced to a 13-week course, or a new class, or a new small group. All of these things may be a part of discipleship, but none of these is a guarantee that any true discipling is going on.
What then is essential for our churches to produce disciples?
- Develop a passion to be a disciple of Jesus who makes disciples. Pastors are the ideal persons to lead this, but anyone who is serious about following Jesus can be a disciple who makes disciples. Too often, churches and pastors allow many good things to choke out the one essential thing. Jesus never said to build great buildings, put together a first-class staff, or organize a world-class worship team. All of these are good things, but the Great Commission is very specific: “Make disciples.”
- Recognize discipleship is a “life on life” enterprise. Teaching disciples everything Christ taught us involves time, requires personal interest, and takes extraordinary commitment. Everyone likes the idea of disciple-making, but only those who actually take the time to invest in others are disciple-makers. Who are you discipling right now?
- Start with the end in mind; know what a disciple is. In Mark 8:34, Jesus made it clear that a disciple must “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” These three imperatives are meant to be the daily activity of every disciple, and the order is sequential. Without the first two, the third is impossible.
Deny yourself — Denial of self is unnatural for us, because it requires that we repudiate our autonomy and yield our lives to God. This involves mortifying our old flesh-nature by the process of daily repentance. Denial of self strikes at the heart of who we are, because we human beings love to protect the ability to make decisions for ourselves. There can be no discipleship until we understand our lives are not our own and we acknowledge Christ as Lord.
Take up your cross — In the ancient world, a cross was a symbol of shame and death, and most who first heard Jesus say this were confused. Yet for us, we see the cross in light of the resurrection. The cross represents the shame of our sins placed upon Jesus so that we now can live in his grace. Notice that Jesus did not say to take up our righteousness, or our talents, or our politics, or our family backgrounds, or our investment portfolios, or our theological expertise. We are told to take up one thing: the cross. Nothing else can save, and grace alone makes life as a disciple possible.
Follow me — To follow Jesus means to obey him. We are called to do what He commands, to adopt His mission, to trust His Word, to have compassion as He did, to live with His character, and to pray like He prayed. Following Jesus means to live the life He would if He were in our place. Every thought, every word, every decision, every action in the disciple’s life must be motivated by denying self, taking up the cross, and following Jesus.
There is no more important priority in our churches than making disciples of Jesus, and yet so few churches are doing this well. What would happen if every one of our churches became passionate centers of disciple-making and our members became vibrant followers of Jesus? Christ would be honored, for sure, and the world would certainly be stirred up by the power of the gospel to change lives. Let’s get going.
— Marshall Blalock is pastor of Charleston First Baptist Church and president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.