Missional Living: Definitions

Here's a simple question. How do you define the word "disciple?"

Whether I am with a group of pastors or having a conversation with an individual, I have found that people struggle with that very fundamental question. I know I did. Such a definition is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is that without a clear definition of "disciple" how will we know if what we are doing to "disciple" our people is resulting in what we would define as a "disciple?"

I talk with leaders all the time who can neither quickly nor clearly tell me how they define "disciple." This should not be a trick question. If the Church is charged with "making disciples" and the leaders of the Church can neither quickly nor clearly define what a "disciple" is, is it any wonder we are having trouble "making disciples" in America?

I personally own this because had you walked up to me 15 years ago and asked, "How do you define the word 'disciple?'" the first thing you would have heard from me would have been stammering. I had not really thought it through. Weren't we making those by "coming to church?" However, once we ask the question, we can start to wrestle with coming to clarity.

So, how do we define the word "disciple?"

Here's my working definition: A disciple is someone who has taken up the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus.

If that is accurate and clear, then the next step is to define what a "disciple" actually does.

If I have taken up the teachings and lifestyle of my Master, what does that look like? How do we summarize that? How do we live?

One response might be, "Love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus gave that response in Mark 12 when He was asked what the most important commandment was. When the man asking the question agreed with Jesus' answer, Jesus said, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God." So for us, such an answer would certainly not be wrong. However, our question is different. We are not asking to define the most important commandment but to define what a disciple of Jesus does. "What does a disciple of Jesus do?" is a more specific question.

In general, I can know that a disciple of Jesus is to love God and love his neighbor. If that is happening, I can know, like the man in Mark 12, that I am not far from the Kingdom. But in any given moment, when the Kingdom of God is pressing in, what are we specifically to be doing as a disciple of Jesus?

Here's the answer: whatever Jesus is asking of us. Whatever Jesus is asking of us will certainly be within the circle of loving God and loving people, but it will also be more specific, more personal than that.

You see, I know I can easily fall into what is nothing more than a moral obedience to loving God and loving people. I can "generally" do this without it being personally connected to a response to what the living, present Jesus is asking specifically of me. I am not far from the Kingdom whenever I am loving God and loving people, but when I am specifically responding to the Master coming near and asking something of me, that is when I am doing what a disciple does.

To put it clearly, morality (keeping the law of love) unconnected to relationship with Jesus and the leadership of Jesus is not discipleship. The Pharisees could do this as could those who were "God-fearing" in the book of Acts. But these people are not yet disciples.

So, here is a definition of what a disciple of Jesus does: A discple recognizes and responds to what Jesus is asking of them.

We will talk more about this, but let's start with you getting your own clarity on these two definitions: what is a disciple and what does he or she do?