What is Discipleship? A Definition.


For one of my spiritual formation classes, I had the privilege of reading Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesustwo incredible books. Last night, after having read these books, we were then asked to offer our own one sentence definition of Discipleship, and then spend some time expounding on the definition. Here was my contribution. Feel free to add your own definitions below.


Discipleship: The cultivation of an inner and outer life–with both ourselves and others–that is marked by a humble reliance on the work, words, life, and leading of Christ and His Spirit.

The thing that struck me most about these readings as it pertains to discipleship was the weird paradox of one’s inner- and outer-lives. In both Nouwen and Bonhoeffer, there is such an emphasis that our hearts’ goal should be nothing less than the heart of Christ Himself and our reliance upon it. And yet, the primary access point to this Heart is found in the simple, mundane bodily actions we take upon ourselves with regularity.

The way in is from without, I suppose.

Especially for those of us in seminary and who minister in a Church context, isolation in these endeavors can be such an easy temptation. I don’t even pastor a church, and yet as a deacon leading a home group or class or the Sunday liturgy, I feel that damnable desire just to be liked, and not be seen for who I really am.

And so I can subtly isolate myself and become estranged to my brothers and sisters. Even in my “vulnerability” I feel I am often performing, as for us cool hip urban twentysomethings, “vulnerability” and “authenticity” is, in effect, the “social currency” that gets one liked, sought after, their blog read, and their Facebook posts “liked”.

This is why one’s pursuit of this heart of God has to be radically centered around Christ. He acts as the goal, the source, the measuring rod, the comfort, the author, and perfector. To focus too much on one’s own performance and “progress” can do nothing but twist and deform the soul. The heart becomes like an ingrown hair.

In my Discipleship definition, I really wanted to use the usual biblical phrasing of “following”. But as I wrote last week, I’m really trying to find out what a “grace-driven” discipleship looks like that doesn’t simply turned me into a little Pharisee. My mind and heart so easily pervert the beautiful true articulation of discipleship as “following” and simply turn it into a new performance routine.

I in essence end up saying, “You want me to follow you, Jesus? Sure! You just go ahead and start walking and I’ll be sure to follow just enough that I can numb myself to the ways I don’t, or at least make others tells me I seem to be following you well. Now get walking!”

This is why I chose the words “cultivation” and “humble reliance”. “Cultivation”, for me, is meant to capture the importance of both the effort and time-consumption in this process. Nouwen’s line, answered in the negative, “Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?” emphasizes that time itself is not the key, but time actively spent in this endeavor. I also appreciate the agricultural (literally “pastoral”) imagery that comes to mind of hardened earth being broken and planted and watered and harvested.

“Humble reliance” is meant to save me from spiritual performance anxiety. These outer practices of which Nouwen and Bonhoeffer speak are not the ends but the means of discipleship.

I too often turn disciplines and practices into the focal point of my Christian life (as I’ve recently confessed). I often catch myself thinking, “If I could only do ___________, I would feel I was pursuing Christ.” But this is the wrong heart to bring to spiritual disciplines. We shouldn’t do these things because “that’s what disciples do”, but we do them because they are what form us into disciples.

In other words (and in conclusion), it’s a move from life as legalism to life as liturgy.


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