To be a disciple is primarily to live and to have our course corrected by the Lord, often in the voice of disciples who are a little ahead of us. Which means we need to be receptive to ‘feedback,’ and we need to realise that means we need to be ready to repent.
We’re all in favour, and we’re very happy to call a lot of things ‘discipleship’, but what is it?
Maybe it’s easier to start with what it isn’t. It’s not going and having a coffee with a more mature Christian—though that can be a very helpful thing to do. It’s not attending a course or an event—though courses and events can be great. It’s not growing your church or in-depth Bible study or a midweek group that meets in a home or having fun with other Christians or making younger Christians into copies of yourself.
All of the above can be good things in the right context, all of them are sometimes called discipleship, and not one of them is.
The word disciple just means learner. I do wonder if shifting away from the religious term would help us. ‘Apprentice’ is probably closer in our normal use to how the word ‘disciple’ would have been used in the New Testament. I like the way John Mark Comer talks about being apprenticed to Jesus as a metaphor for the Christian life, it’s a more holistic vision than when discipleship means meeting someone for coffee once every six months.
I’ve designed apprenticeship programmes for leading Universities and an award-winning global graduate programme for Rolls-Royce. I know how these things work.
When most people hear “apprenticeship,” or perhaps even “discipleship,” they imagine training courses. Which explains the way that lots of big churches approach the Christian life, “let’s run a course,” we imagine very quickly that the correct way to treat discipleship is to create the right programme. We proliferate our programmes to treat every area of life because what we think we need is skills.
This model then infects smaller churches as well because we use the courses produced by these big churches. None of this is wrong, but often rests on two faulty assumptions, one theological and one methodological. Firstly, we assume that what we need is skills, when we need character, but secondly we assume that this is how learning works.
We think if we need to learn we should run a course. The training programmes I designed included very little by way of training courses. We worked to a learning model as a guide that suggested 10% of an apprentice’s learning would come from courses and that these would be specifically targeted at specific needs.
The vast majority of our learning comes from experience, with a sizeable chunk from feedback and reflection—our guide would have been 70% experience and 20% reflection and feedback.