01 Defining Discipleship

Defining Discipleship


Terms for Discipleship

Before we can understand the state of discipleship, we must ask, “What is discipleship?” The clearest insight from this study . . . is that it’s unclear! Some terms are more preferred than others, and general themes emerge from the data, but Christians and church leaders of all types use a wide range of vocabulary and definitions. Before exploring the practices of discipleship in use today, let’s look at the terms, definitions and goals related to this quintessentially Christian idea.

The most common term selected by Christian adults and church leaders alike to describe the process of spiritual growth is “becoming more Christ-like.” More than half of practicing Christians prefer this term (54%), compared with one-quarter of non-practicing Christians (25%). Half of Protestant church leaders prefer this label (51%). The phrase also echoes the sentiments of leaders in exemplar churches, who most commonly define discipleship as “becoming more like Jesus.”

“Discipleship” is a close second among church leaders, with 46 percent preferring this term. Leaders in non-mainline churches (48%) are more likely than those in mainline congregations (36%) to use “discipleship.” However, only 17 percent of Christians (23% of practicing Christians) say they use “discipleship.” This substantial gap suggests either that church leaders often use a layperson’s label to communicate about what they personally think of as “discipleship,” or that Christian jargon does not resonate well with the general population—or both.

It is important to note, however, that among the eight in 10 Christians who do not prefer “discipleship” (83%), 28 percent still consider the term “very relevant” and another 37 percent consider it “somewhat relevant.” Further, four out of 10 practicing Christians who do not prefer “discipleship” (41% vs. 10% of non-practicing Christians) consider the term “very relevant.” Thus, although the lay community does not commonly use the term “discipleship,” it is still a familiar and understandable term to a substantial majority of Christian adults.

Likewise, among church leaders who do not prefer “discipleship,” only 10 percent say their preferred term is different from “discipleship.” Forty-seven percent say “discipleship” is the same as their term of choice.

Some exemplar leaders and educators speak about the concept of “spiritual formation” as a newer approach to spiritual growth. Many cite the writings of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, with educators more narrowly focused on these authors and exemplars citing a broader range of perspectives. However, only 17 percent of church leaders and 5 percent of Christian adults say they use the term “spiritual formation.” This concept is more common in mainline churches, in larger faith communities and in Northeastern and Midwestern congregations. Three in 10 mainline church leaders (30%), compared to 13 percent of non-mainline leaders, prefer “spiritual formation.”

“Sanctification” is another term used by more leaders than congregants. Nine percent of Christians versus one in four church leaders (26%) prefer “sanctification,” and the term is most prevalent in non-mainline (28% vs. 17% mainline) and smaller churches.

Finally, “spiritual journey” is preferred by one in four mainline (25%) and one in seven non-mainline churches (14%), with leaders in the Northeast embracing it most enthusiastically (30% vs. 12% of Southerners and 18% elsewhere). A similar proportion of the general Christian population expresses a preference for this term, with 28 percent selecting “spiritual journey.” It is slightly more preferred among non-practicing Christians (33% vs. 24% of practicing Christians).

Navigators alumni align closely with church leaders on terminology, with most preferring “becoming more Christ-like” (55%) and “discipleship” (49%), followed closely by “sanctification” (41%). Among those who do not pick “discipleship” as their preference, almost all consider the term “very relevant” (84%).

Compared with the general Christian population, they are less likely to use “spiritual growth” or “spiritual journey.”

Goals of Discipleship

When it comes to defining the goals of discipleship, church leaders, and especially discipleship pastors, do not like to narrow them to a few main objectives. Rather, many select nearly all of the surveyed goals as important outcomes of discipleship. This suggests a sense that there are multiple benefits to discipleship, but perhaps also a general lack of clarity about its purpose.

Goals generally align with the preferred terminology for discipleship (that is, “becoming more Christ-like”). Those most commonly selected by leaders are “being transformed to become more like Jesus” (89%), “growing in spiritual maturity” (83%) and “knowing Christ more deeply” (83%). By contrast, Christian adults overall choose “learning to live a more consistent Christian life” (60%), “learning to trust in God more” (59%) and “knowing Christ more deeply” (58%). These preferences suggest lay Christians focus on outcomes somewhat more than leaders, whose top goals tend to be more transformational.

Exemplars report priorities similar to church leaders. Many say their objectives for discipleship have shifted away from pursuit of “head knowledge” toward life transformation, usually in the context of relationship. For example, one exemplar leader wrote, “The idea/concept of spiritual formation in a postmodern world has greatly expanded the definition to be more organic and relational vs. the transferring of information.”

The least-preferred, though still popular, goal of discipleship is conversion. Six in 10 church leaders (59%) and less than half of Christian adults (46%) say “winning new believers to become followers of Jesus Christ” is a primary goal of discipleship. This is consistent, once again, with exemplars, of whom more than half refer to “making disciples” as an important component, but not the only goal, of discipleship. Some provide context that their idea of “making disciples” has expanded from only conversion to growing in Christ, because real, healthy disciples should naturally produce more disciples.

The concept of mentoring falls somewhere in the middle: Three-quarters of church leaders (77%) and half of Christian adults (50%) consider “mentoring and being mentored in the area of Christian maturity” an important goal of discipleship.

Notably, 15 percent of non-practicing Christians do not select any goals of discipleship, saying instead that they “don’t know or have never thought about it.” Navigators alumni once again resemble church leaders with respect to the goals of discipleship: They have more goals overall, and their primary goal is “being transformed to become more like Jesus” (84%). Other top goals, very closely aligned with the core tenets of the Navigators approach to discipleship, include “mentoring and being mentored in the area of Christian
maturity” (74%) and “knowing Christ more deeply” (67%).

Definitions of Discipleship

Developing a single statement that encompasses the definition of discipleship is difficult. Church leaders are relatively split on three definitions, as seen in the table below; the more comprehensive definitions, however, are preferred over simpler forms.

Christian adults, by contrast, express a slight preference for the idea of a “journey rooted in a relationship with Jesus” (ranked an average 2.9 out of 6) and “the process of learning to follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord” (ranked 3.0). Yet no definition emerges as a clear winner in a ranking of the six statements.

Those discipled by Navigators appear somewhat like other Christians. Their preferred definition is, “Discipleship is the process of learning to follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, seeking to observe all that Jesus commanded, by the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father” (ranked 2.7).


“What is discipleship? In two words, discipleship could be described as spiritual parenting. As 1 Thessalonians 2:3-13 tells us, discipleship involves many of the characteristics you would expect to find in a responsible parent:

• To have single-minded purpose in pleasing God and growing a believer spiritually (vv. 3-6)
• To care for a believer as a mother cares for a child, in word and in deed (vv. 7-8)
• To be a role model to a new believer (vv. 9-10)
• To give individual attention and encouragement as a father (vv. 11-12)
• To help them learn the Word of God (vv. 8,13)

In short, discipleship is not only taught but caught. It is important to teach a disciple the Word and ways of God, but equally important to live out what we teach. The character of the discipler is critical for the formation of the disciple. A disciple will learn both from what you say and what you do.”
Christian educator

Scripture-Shaped Discipleship

The following are scripture passages cited by educators and exemplar church leaders as essential to their understanding of discipleship. All quotes are from the New Living Translation (NLT).

Matthew 4:19

Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!”

Matthew 28:18-20

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

John 15:8-9

“When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.”

John 17

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so he can give glory back to you. For you have given him authority over everyone. He gives eternal life to each one you have given him. And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth. I brought glory to you here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began.

“I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world. They were always yours. You gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything I have is a gift from you, for I have passed on to them the message you gave me. They accepted it and know that I came from you, and they believe you sent me.

“My prayer is not for the world, but for those you have given me, because they belong to you. All who are mine belong to you, and you have given them to me, so they bring me glory. Now I am departing from the world; they are staying in this world, but I am coming to you. Holy Father, you have given me your name; now protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are. During my time here, I protected them by the power of the name you gave me. I guarded them so that not one was lost, except the one headed for destruction, as the Scriptures foretold.

“Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!

“O righteous Father, the world doesn’t know you, but I do; and these disciples know you sent me. I have revealed you to them, and I will continue to do so. Then your love for me will be in them, and I will be in them.”

Acts 2:42-47

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.

1 Corinthians 4:15-17

For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. So I urge you to imitate me.

That’s why I have sent Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord. He will remind you of how I follow Christ Jesus, just as I teach in all the churches wherever I go.

1 Corinthians 11:11

But among the Lord’s people, women are not independent of men, and men are not independent of women.

Philippians 4:6-7

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Colossians 1:28-29

So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.

1 Thessalonians 2:3-13

You can see we were not preaching with any deceit or impure motives or trickery.

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else.

As apostles of Christ we certainly had a right to make some demands of you, but instead we were like children among you. Or we were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too.

Don’t you remember, dear brothers and sisters, how hard we worked among you? Night and day we toiled to earn a living so that we would not be a burden to any of you as we preached God’s Good News to you. You yourselves are our witnesses—and so is God—that we were devout and honest and faultless toward all of you believers. And you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children. We pleaded with you, encouraged you, and urged you to live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy. For he called you to share in his Kingdom and glory.

Therefore, we never stop thanking God that when you received his message from us, you didn’t think of our words as mere human ideas. You accepted what we said as the very word of God—which, of course, it is. And this word continues to work in you who believe.

2 Timothy 2:2

You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.

2 Timothy 3:16

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.

Hebrews 10:24-25

Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good
works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do,
but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.


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