11 Appendix B – Educators

Appendix B - Educators


Defining Discipleship

Educators’ definitions of discipleship are wide-ranging and even conflicting, especially with regard to the optimal number and types of participants. Most emphasize the “heart” of discipleship (growing deeper in relationship with Christ), while some refer to outward manifestations of growth (obedience to God’s Word, serving others, living a life “worth imitating”). Many focus on “becoming a disciple” or “becoming a follower of Jesus,” which requires growing in Christ-likeness through study (individual or with others), community and obedience. Two educators cite the importance of both “vertical” (with God) and “horizontal” (with believers) discipleship.

The widest disagreement on definitions centers on whether discipleship requires individual attention and encouragement (one-on-one or “life-on-life”), or if it can happen between peers or in small, or even larger, groups. According to various educators we interviewed, discipleship may consist primarily of new-believer education or entail spiritual development or “formation” anywhere in one’s faith journey.

Some, but not all, draw distinctions between discipleship (training up a younger/less mature believer) and disciple-making (focused on conversion). Others prefer a broader, generational approach to discipleship, where faith is passed down from mature believers. A small proportion draws no distinction between the terms. “Spiritual parenting,” based on 1 Thessalonians 2:3-13, is mentioned by a few.

All agree that Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples; therefore, discipleship is not optional.


Most educators lament churches that approach discipleship from a programmatic standpoint, believing that, in general, programs are too “cookie-cutter” and can even hinder real discipleship by taking up precious time. Accountability, vulnerability and intentionality are considered by many to be essential—and these are difficult to achieve through structured programs. Further, discipleship is ongoing—a process that should continue throughout the course of life—whereas programs can lend themselves to a “tick the box” mentality.

  • Thus, educators most commonly cite “church programs” when asked to identify the most significant barriers to effective discipleship. Other barriers include:
  • Overly formalized processes (rather than organic approaches that enable deeper, more meaningful, Spirit-led relationships)
  • Hyper-focus on evangelism and conversion, to the detriment of ongoing nurture
  • Overemphasis on worship and experiential spirituality; consumerist approach to church
  • Church leaders not modeling and/or championing discipleship
  • Potential disciplers feeling under-equipped, not qualified or spiritually unready
  • Impatience, especially on the part of younger Christians
  • General “busyness” of life and an unwillingness to invest the considerable amount of time required for real spiritual growth
  • Distractions from media that prevent believers from learning how to really read and “dig into” the Bible (despite access through media to useful biblical tools)
  • Individualistic nature of society, especially among Millennials (however, some point to agreater desire among young adults for meaningful relationships—a desire which the church can fulfill especially well through discipleship)


As for the optimal format for discipleship, educators’ preferences vary, and most believe flexibility is important. Quite a few have expanded their definition of discipleship from a one-on-one “Paul- Timothy” style to more communal and peer-to-peer. Educators are nearly evenly split on the single most impactful approach to discipleship: 1) one-on-one Bible study with a more mature believer, 2) regular one-on-one conversations about discipleship issues with a more mature believer or 3) small group Bible study.

Most say two or more of these, as well as personal Bible study and memorizing Scripture, can be very effective. Several mention the notion of “iron sharpening iron” through peer relationships, while others insist the passing of faith from older to younger believers remains an essential tenet of discipleship. Whichever model is preferred, the majority of educators consider community essential to spiritual growth. Biblical support includes Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, Ephesians 4, 2 Timothy 2:2 and Jesus’ model of discipling 12 men recounted in the Gospels.


Among educators the most appreciated, frequently cited writers and books about discipleship are:

  • Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines
  • Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
  • Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship

The majority of educators also refer to their own personal growth in defining discipleship. Many say where they once considered biblical education, transmission of knowledge, worship or general church programming as essential means of discipleship, they now better appreciate the slow, transforming work of the Spirit. Further, they say that slow work happens more often through life experiences and relationships rather than through programming. A few are excited about the opportunities to reinvigorate the practice of discipleship based on this deeper, more God-dependent definition.

Most express concerns about the state of discipleship in the U.S. The following sentiments are emblematic of a widespread outlook: “The church in America will die, and the Church in other countries will flourish. . . . I see widespread neglect excused by busy-ness, an emphasis on worship or preaching or multi-site churches where pastors don’t know parishioners or farm out ministry to others.”

Educators demonstrate a diversity of opinions about what discipleship is and how it should be carried out. Additionally, the number and nature of barriers that concern educators suggest a fresh look at discipleship is much needed.

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