What is Discipleship and Personal Growth?
Let us first begin by defining each of these two topics, specifically as they relate to a follower of Jesus.
To “grow” as a Christian implies some observable and measurable improvement, progress and otherwise positive change over the course of time. Being a Christian is not a binary state of existence any more than being a human is. That is, one does not simply “flip a switch” to become a Christian and leave it at that. The language and analogy of becoming “born again” helps explain this concept: a baby once born is not “done” being a human, it must embark on a life-long journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual development, aided and directed by peers, and inevitably filled with varying seasons of “ups and downs” and observable trends.
Exactly what must we measure for improvement? Well, the short, ambiguous answer is “everything.” Christianity is meant to permeate every aspect of one’s life. 1 Corinthians 10:31 (NLT) states as such: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (Also Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:17, 1 Peter 4:11). A transformed mindset (Romans 12:2) governs our thoughts, decisions, actions, and relationships, by conforming, submitting, and merging our will with God’s. That close relationship with God, based on love and fear, is one purpose for which God created us. (See anthropology)
Unlike physical growth, of course, spiritual growth is not measured in pounds or inches. What then can we look to as markers of spiritual development? The transformative and guiding power of a Christian is the indwelling of God’s spirit; this is the gift of the church age. The results, or “fruits” of a life submitted to God’s spirit are listed in Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT): “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” Elders and Deacons, selected in part for their spiritual maturity, were given a more specific list of qualifications, all of which can be related to the fruits of the spirit. (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4) These are indicators not of perfection or “completion” but of enough maturation over time that they are no longer considered spiritual “infants.”
Discipleship is nothing more than personal growth in the context of other believers. While a Christian’s growth is “personal” in that it involves internal, specific transformation of an individual, it is not “private” because it is meant to be shared, passed on, and multiplied. That is how the global church began, immediately following the gift of the Holy Spirit, as can be seen throughout the book of Acts. Like a holy virus, it spread from one man, Christ, to his closest disciples, the apostles, and from them to thousands, from those thousands to millions and so on.
Discipleship is peer-guided education and improvement. It is learning from more experienced (or differently experienced) believers, and in turn, providing mentorship for others. Even a “newborn” Christian has enough information to start propagating other new followers immediately. (See Mark 5:19-20 for one example).
By its very definition, discipleship is the engine for continuous multiplication, edification, and growth, for individuals and the church at large. Ephesians 4:16 (NLT) describes this concept at its best: “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” The body is not a static fixture; a crucial function of “each part” is to help the other parts grow. Discipleship is not an optional or secondary function of the church; it is the core function of the church.
To be a follower of Jesus is to strive to emulate His example, and live out His commands. Jesus was holy and blameless from birth and therefore free from needing any “improvement” in that regard (more on that, and scriptural proofs to come in Christology). However, even He grew, as every human must, over time (Luke 2:52) and it was not until He was about thirty years old that He began to minister publicly and make disciples. (Luke 3:23) From that point on, He invested His life heavily into those of His disciples, setting a precedent and example for each of them to pass on.
Personal growth is an explicit prescription for all Christians; we are expected not to remain stagnate, as infants, but to actively and continuously seek growth. (Hebrews 5:12-14, 6:1, 1 Peter 2:2-3, 2 Peter 1:5-8, Colossians 2:6-7, Ephesians 4:13-16) And of course, Christ not only modeled discipleship, but He also commanded his disciples to make disciples. (Matthew 28:16-20)
Recognizing God as our creator and savior should be enough reason on its own to inspire us towards personal growth, seeing that He has prescribed it to us through His Word. However, it is also our pleasure and honor as humans and results in greater satisfaction and fulfillment in life. To quote John Piper, “God’s ultimate goal in the world (his glory) and our deepest desire (to be happy) are one and the same, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Not only is God the supreme source of satisfaction for the human soul, but God himself is glorified by our being satisfied in him. Therefore, our pursuit of joy in him is essential.” In other words, fulfilling our truest purpose is what ultimately results in our greatest joy.
(Psalm 16:11, 25:11, Ephesians 1:4-6, Isaiah 43:6-7, 43:25, Romans 15:7-9, 3:25-26, 11:36, John 7:18, Matthew 5:16, 1 Peter 2:12, John 5:44, John 14:13, 12:27-28, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Peter 4:11, Philippians 1:11, John 17:24, Habakkuk 2:14,
Philippians 1:19-23, 4:4, Psalm 1:1-3, 19:8, 34:8, 37:4, 32:11, 33:1, 67:4, 90:14, 100:1, Jeremiah 15:16, Deuteronomy 28:47, 30:6, Hebrews 11:6, 11:24-26, 12:1-2, John 6:35, 15:11, 16:24, 20:31, 2 Corinthians 1:24, 8:1-8, 9:7, 1 Peter 2:2, 5:2, Matthew 13:44, 5:10, Romans 5:2-4, 15:13)
Having defined each and established them as critical to a Christian’s life, how then can they practically be achieved? As I mentioned earlier, there can be a great deal of variance depending on the context of any given situation. However, I believe each of the following is fundamental to achieving discipleship and personal growth in any situation.
Discipleship is impossible apart from relationships; its definition implies this. Discipleship is a relationship, a specific, intentional category of relationship. Discipleship is not achieved in isolation. The nature of this relationship should include friendship and love, and inevitably both parties are sharpened in the process. However, discipleship is different from general fellowship in that the one who disciples has some level of authority or experience compared to the one who is discipled. This allows for components in the relationship such as teaching, correction, and guidance. Such relationship dynamics can be observed throughout the gospels, Acts, and epistles.
Scripture is the binding common denominator of the relationship. The knowledge and purpose of the Christian faith rely on the Bible as our source of truth and guidance. It is the standard which shapes our worldview. (John 17:17, Romans 10:17) Two people with nothing else in common can find common ground in God’s word. (See bibliology and anthropology). It is only logical, then, for scripture to be central to any discipleship relationship. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT) says: “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. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.”
The fundamental concepts of Christian service should be an underlying current and goal of discipleship. We are all called to be ministers (2 Corinthians 6:3-4), and workers who are ready and prepared for the job (2 Timothy 2:15). After all, good works are the purpose for which we are redeemed. (Ephesians 2:10) Ministry should be a way of life for a Christian, and discipleship is a venue to teach it as such while accomplishing good work at the same time. (Matthew 5:16, James 1:22, 1:27, 2:14-26, 2 Timothy 3:17, Titus 2:14, 2:7, Galatians 5:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:13
The health and growth of the church has already been established as a reason for the importance of discipleship, but what exactly is the role of the church in discipleship? Discipleship being a form of close, productive relationships, it is not accomplished by or dependent on a centralized structure. However, that is not to say that organization and corporate gatherings have no benefit to discipleship. A full discussion on ecclesiology is reserved for another essay, but I want to point out a few ways the church relates to discipleship, because discipleship is a function and result of the self-propagating church. First, a group of people pooling their resources and skills enables a more efficient distribution of ministry and service. Second, a larger gathering of people can provide opportunities for people to meet each other and form discipleship relationships within the body. It is also an opportunity for encouragement and inspiration, sharing what God has been doing and motivating each other to make disciples and seek discipleship. A church can also organize programs to facilitate discipleship. I think there is a danger in such programs in that they can tend towards classroom environments, or on the other end of the spectrum, party-like events with little to no focus on real spiritual growth. Neither one of those things is wrong, and both can certainly be beneficial. They can be wonderful supplements and tools. However, neither are a replacement for the genuine relationship necessary for true discipleship.
Just as scripture should be central to discipleship, it should be central to one’s personal life. One of the most effective ways to grow is to simply read and meditate on God’s word, absorbing and soaking in it so it becomes a part of you. (Psalm 143:5, 119:15, 63:6, 1:2, 119:11, Joshua 1:8, Hebrews 4:12, Jeremiah 15:16) Access to scripture in our culture has become ubiquitous, so memorization has become less of a necessity, but it is no less of a beneficial habit. Memorization truly binds scripture to your psyche, so it can be a part of your life even while you are not actively reading it. In addition to meditation and memorization, it is helpful to spend time studying scripture. Examining historical contexts and literary devices, tracing themes, and other such academic endeavors can provide a greater depth of understanding and appreciation of God’s word. (2 Timothy 2:15, 1 Timothy 4:15, 2 Peter 1:5)
Necessary for the development of any relationship is communication. Prayer is our method of communication with God, and thereby important to developing our relationship with Him. It is only logical, then, to say that spending time in prayer is conducive to overall personal growth. Equally important is praising God, which could be considered a specific type of prayer, whether in song or otherwise. (Ephesians 6:18, James 5:13, Romans 12:12, Luke 6:12, 18:1, Philippians 4:6, Colossians 4:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, James 5:16, 1 Chronicles 16:28, Daniel 2:20, Jeremiah 20:13, Ephesians 1:5, Deuteronomy 10:21, Psalm 100:1-2)
I have already covered the topic of ministry, but I think it is important to reiterate that ministry is a way of life, which means it is not merely a component of discipleship or something that can exclusively be accomplished in a group context. A pervasive internal mindset focused on God’s mission is critical to personal growth.
Similarly, I want to reiterate that discipleship and personal growth are not mutually exclusive, rather, they are components of each other. Someone who is discipled well will experience personal growth, and the more someone grows, the more they should be equipped to disciple others. Again, “personal” growth is only “personal” in that it is the growth of a specific person. It is not isolated growth, nor is it meant to be kept private. It is growth that happens in a forest full of trees, all of whom are dropping seeds and nurturing each other with God-given water, as they all stretch toward the same source of light. May we remember that this is our foremost purpose: to grow closer to God and others, with others, and bring more people into the family to do the same.