Sometimes, we are like that story of the king with no clothes. He thought he was dressed majestically but was–in reality, naked.
You’ve come to this blog page, so I guess you must be interested in discipleship and church multiplication and exposed to a variety of teachings on discipleship. I have a question for you, “Have you ever been confused about discipleship after you read a book about discipleship or listened to a teaching on discipleship?” I guess you have!
Why do we have this type of confusion? When we think and talk about discipleship, we spend 90% of time in learning HOW to make disciples (strategies and methods). But we don’t pay attention to defining WHAT a disciple of Jesus really is. And the ironic thing is that Christian leaders have been telling people to become a disciple and to make disciples without giving them the clear mental picture of it.
Growing Numbers, Not Disciples
A few years ago, our church was enjoying numerical growth (which is very rare in Japan). But, I was frustrated with what we were doing. We were raising Jesus lovers and church lovers. But something was missing. I didn’t have a sense that we were raising up Jesus’ disciples. I knew it was a discipleship issue.
I started to ask my leaders what they think discipleship is. What was sad about it is there was no same answer in spite of me advocating discipleship in the church for so long. Some said it’s a small group. Others said it’s a relationship that you have with a younger follower of Jesus. One guy said it’s doing a Bible study and helping others to start and lead their own group. Obviously, they were confused.
So, I changed my question. “OK. Then tell me what you think a disciple of Jesus is.” Nobody gave me a clear answer. Again, they were confused about it. I was shocked but had to admit it was my failure not theirs. I wasn’t presenting any clear mental picture of a disciple of Jesus. Worse than that, I didn’t have the clear mental picture of what a disciple of Jesus is. One of my leaders said, “Pastor Fumi, you’ve been asking us to make disciples. But it’s as if you were telling those who’ve never been to States to cook American food without telling us whether you are talking about a hamburger sandwich, a hotdog or a pancake! What do you mean by a disciple!? Tell us!” He was right. I was naked, believing I knew it all when I didn’t.
I humbled myself and admitted I was the one who didn’t do my job. I was the one who didn’t have a clear picture of a disciple. I decided to commit myself to looking for a clear definition of a disciple of Jesus until I found it.
Japanese Premier Pastors Have No Clear Definition
First, I asked some of the premier pastors in Japan for their definition of a disciple. Sadly, not one pastor gave me a clear answer. Their answers were biblically correct. I fully agreed with them. But, they did not draw a vivid picture of a disciple of Jesus in my mind. No wonder the population of Christians, in Japan, is less than 1%. Though our master told us to make disciples, we pastors don’t know very much of what we have been asked to do!
Finally, I went to a pastor who I respect the most in Japan. He is an associate pastor of a big, premier church in Tokyo. I asked him the same question. “What is a disciple of Jesus?” Pastor K graciously gave an unexpected but brilliant answer: “Pastor Fumi, don’t ask me for the definition. You are the senior pastor of your church. It is your job to define what a disciple is for your congregation. I can’t even define it for my congregation because I am an associate pastor. It’s a senior pastor’s job. All I can do is to apply my senior pastor’s definition of Jesus’ disciple to whatever I do in church and try my best to create one in the lives of the people who I am taking care of. So please don’t ask me the question. I can’t answer for you. I believe God is going to give you a clear answer as you seek him. Please spend time and wrestle with God for a clear mental picture of it.”
Have a Clear Mental Picture of a Disciple
If you are a senior leader of a local church or leader of a Christian organization and if you believe disciple making is the primary goal as it is written in Matthew 28, it’s your job to come up with a clear mental picture of a disciple and cast it in such a way your people can buy it. It’s only after we tell them what a disciple really is that we can tell them to make one.
I spent next two whole years just to come up with a clear picture of what a disciple of Jesus is. For those two years, I was constantly asking myself: “What was Jesus imagining in his head when he said we must go and make disciples? What did it mean by ‘disciple’ in His context?”
The great commission was given to the disciples as a part of the conversation between a Jewish Rabbi and his followers. In their cultural context, the disciples were not content with just knowing what the master knew or becoming who he was. They strove to do what the master Rabbi did. They wanted to speak like him, pray like him, talk like him, heal people like him and even walk on the water like him. That’s discipleship in His context. In spite of much prayer and thought, I couldn’t come up with a definition. But I assembled five essential characteristics of a disciple. I worked on them and tried my best to make them short, simple and memorable.
5 Characteristics of a Disciple
1) Honors God: Jesus honored God through his holy lifestyle, mega sized faith and submission to His Father’s authority.
2) Loves the Word: Jesus was a master interpreter and communicator of the scripture. He loved it, kept the love for the word in himself and used it at his will as his guidance and protection and sometimes as his weapon in spiritual battles.
3) Values the church: Jesus believed that the community of disciples would change the world. He put great value on it to the extent of washing his disciples’ feet. He valued the relationships, the vision and mission and the health of the community. He paid the ultimate price for it.
4) Touches the hurting: He touched the hurting and wanted his disciples to learn his kind of compassion and take action. Jesus didn’t give extensive/intensive care for all the people who he encountered. But he stopped to touch the hurting.
5) Invites others: Jesus invited sinners into his community of disciples. He invited his disciples to leadership position. And He invited every one of us to join in the revolution called “church”. The welcoming approach toward people was the foundation of his disciple-making strategy.
For Japanese locals, these five descriptions are much clearer than the frequently used phrases like “Simply follow Jesus” or “know God and make him known”. I agree with these common explanations, but they are not very clear. We needed something much clearer. I’m glad I found one (or should I say five?).
Keep It Short and Memorable
Do you have a clear picture of a disciple? It’s naive to assume that our people have already known it just because they have been hanging around our churches. Ask God for it–wrestle with God for it. Find it and cast it. Don’t copy someone else’s definition. Learn it, live it then teach what you live!
When you teach it, make it simple, short and memorable. Then repeat it like crazy. Repeat it in your sermons, in the printed brochures and in your social media pages. And ask your people to repeat it and resound it in your church in whatever they do. If making disciples is the greatest commission from our Lord, repeat it as the purpose statement of your church. At the end of the day, disciple-making is the purpose of the church.
After I came up with these 5 simple phrases, people in my church started to get it! Becoming a disciple or making disciples is no longer an abstract concept, but a clear job description.
If you haven’t got a clear mental picture of a disciple, then it’s time to admit that you have been a naked king. Nothing to lose! Let’s humble ourselves and find it. Through this process God will give fresh new royal clothes to all of us. Let’s make disciples.
Fumi Chito, Lead Pastor – Crossroad Church Nishinomiya, Japan
So what’s your definition? What is your minimal definition of a disciple of Jesus? Put it in the Comments box below…