Discipleship As a Web of Relationship and Why This Is Important In Leading People in the 21st Century
Discipleship, Part 1
By Jared King
Discipleship…discipleship….discipleship. A word every church talks about and yet it seems like one of those elusive ideas that we all struggle to put our finger on. Every few years the church world hangs onto a new buzz word or idea. Books are written about this idea. Conferences title their big events after it. And churches seek to make themselves more focused on it. It’s not uncommon for “discipleship” to be one of these buzz words or ideas that pops up in christian and church culture every few years. Yet for all the ink that has been used writing about it and all the classes taught on discipleship, it seems, at least to me, that we still wrestle with what discipleship is, how our churches participate in it, how we as individuals make it a part of our lives.
Why is this?
We all know discipleship is important. Then why do we struggle to be disciple makers or to be disciples ourselves?
Laura and I had the opportunity this summer to build a “1 to 1 Discipleship” course for Lipscomb’s Hazelip School of Theology. It was a great experience. To build it we looked back at the seven years we have lived in Seattle working to start a new church. We are now several years into the life of our church and are discovering what we feel like is a useful, healthy, and effective understanding of discipleship. In the next few blogs we will share a bit of this discovery and, hopefully, it will serve you as you seek to be both a disciple of Jesus and to be a discipler of others.
How Do We Define Discipleship?
At its most basic understanding discipleship is an intentional relationship that encourages both parties to be WITH Jesus, BECOME like Jesus, and DO what Jesus did. John Mark Comer has been instrumental in helping us better understand some of the simple language of discipleship. At his church in Portland, Bridgetown Church, he taught a series with this framework of being with Jesus, becoming like Jesus, and doing what Jesus did. I’d encourage you to go listen to those teachings as they are excellent.
With this simple definition in mind we can begin to piece together some of the major elements of discipleship that are important for our 21st Century world. Namely, that discipleship is an intentional relationship with another person where both you and the person you are discipling are growing toward Jesus.
One of the greatest flaws we have committed in churches is teaching that discipleship is a top/down relationship where you sit on top and you are imparting your wisdom and knowledge of Jesus onto another person. This top/down kind of discipleship relationship has 2 main failings, that we will discuss in a couple weeks, which are narcissism and burnout. But beyond those two failings, the top/down model does not accurately describe the nature of two people walking together toward Jesus. But if it’s not a top/down model that is the best for discipleship, then what is the best model?
Discipleship As A Web of Relationships
The model we have used to describe discipleship is, what we have been calling, the “Web of Relationships.” If you draw a straight line and on one end write your name and the other write the name of a person you have a relationship with. The line between your two names is Jesus. What happens in discipleship is not that you pull someone else up to where you are in your relationship with Jesus. But rather it is Jesus pulling the two of you closer to him. As Jesus pulls the two of you closer to himself then the two of you actually grow in your relationship with one another as well.
This is the beauty of discipleship. Discipleship will bring you and another person closer together because Jesus is standing between each of you pulling each of you closer to himself. This means that each of you have something to bring to the discipleship relationship that Jesus will use to teach, develop, and grow you. In the top/down discipleship model discussed above, often the person who is the discipler is taught that there is either nothing for him/her to learn from the disciple, or, there may be regular everyday life things you can learn, just not spiritual things.
However, a discipleship relationship with you and another person on an even plane, with Jesus in the middle pulling each of you closer to himself, will naturally assume that, while one person may have been a Jesus follower for longer, both have something to learn about being with Jesus, becoming like Jesus, and doing what Jesus did. Fundamentally discipleship is about you, another person, and Jesus working to be WITH Jesus, BECOME like Jesus, and DO what Jesus did.
What Does a Relationship Web Look Like?
With this focus on the 3 relationships that make up discipleship (you, another person and Jesus as the connector between you both), we can begin picturing what a web of our relationships can look like. If this discipling line is one relationship, let’s begin to draw out all of our relationships in this way.
If you were to draw out a web of your relationships, you would start with your name in the middle. Then think of mentors and people who have discipled you in your life. Draw lines out from your name and at the end of the line write their names. They may or may not be currently discipling you. But somewhere along the way they served in that role for you. Then think of peers you have. Draw lines out from your name and write their names at the end. These peer relationships will have a lot of give and take in them. Some seasons you will more actively disciple them. While in others they will disciple you. Finally, think of people who see you as their mentor. Draw lines for them and write their names down. Hopefully what you begin to see is your web of relationships. And each line on this web, connecting you to some other person, represents Jesus as he is pulling both of you closer to himself.
How This Helps in the 21st Century
There are two really important points to consider about this Web of Relationships. First, this web should not overwhelm you and cause you to stress about all the people you have to disciple and make plans for their formal discipleship. There will always be people you are formally discipling with a greater sense of intentionality, planning, and teaching. However, with practice, what I hope you will find is that all your relationships will naturally become these mutually beneficial discipling relationships. The web of relationships should not cause you to feel overwhelmed but rather feel empowered.
The second important aspect of this web is to begin to see beyond your own web and realize that each person who is connected to you on your web has a web of relationships of their own. The more interconnectedness we have the more evenly the burden of discipleship is spread out. This is what discipleship is supposed to look like. Unfortunately, our church and Christian culture has created an unhealthy structure where the pressure to solve the problems of both the church and the individuals in the church rest primarily on the shoulders of the pastor. The pastor then not only has to carry all of his own struggles but all the struggles of the people in the church. But as you model your relationships in this discipling web you’ll begin to see people learn to do the same. And when you’re called away from your dinner table to help someone in crisis you’ll find that someone from your church has already invited them to dinner to listen, and someone else sent them an encouraging text, and so on. And there is nothing like the joy in seeing your people disciple one another.
Why This Matters
Changing our understanding of discipleship from a top/down model to a Web of Relationships matters a great deal. It means that we will accurately see ourselves as people who can learn from the person or people we are discipling. There has been a deeply troubling trend of narcissistic pastors and leaders in our nation. Again, we will talk about the major failings in a future blog. But this Web of Relationships will help us create less narcissistic pastors and leaders. It also helps eliminate burnout by sharing the burden of discipleship with more people. We have seen how effective this is numerous times in our ministry. When we allow people to be discipled by a plethora and diversity of individuals, we are setting them up for a lifetime of following Jesus. Churches, at times, have forgotten that discipleship is not a short term endeavor. Nor is it something you will be able to stick with for the entirety of a person’s life. Which makes helping people see their relationship web so valuable as you teach people to rely on a host of discipling relationships rather than one.
This also matters as it helps weed out the types of things that cause Christians to NOT look like Jesus. If we are to truly become like Jesus then we need a plurality of voices who help us see more than just a single (American, male, white, etc.) way of relating to Jesus.
Next time we will look at Jesus as our Guide to Discipleship.