Is discipleship just the flavour of the month? The reality behind the buzzword

A relief carving in the Amiens cathedral, France, shows Jesus teaching his disciples. image: © Jim Womack and Anne Richardson CC by-sa 4.0
Published January 3, 2024

First in a two-part series

“Discipleship” seems to be everywhere. There are books about discipleship and sermons about discipleship. Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, suggested in the Journal two months ago that baptism isn’t just entry into the church, but also the gateway to—you guessed it—discipleship “Discipleship is for every baptized Christian.” Another article suggested that discipleship is the key to the church’s survival (“No ‘nominal option’: Calling Anglicans to discipleship”). And on the international front, apparently more than a hundred dioceses around the world have decided to make discipleship a key priority, it being the theme of one of 10 statements or “calls” made by Lambeth bishops to the Anglican Communion in 2022.

Not surprisingly, people in the pew are asking, “But what on earth is this discipleship thing?” Is this just one more in a long line of bright ideas guaranteed to solve our problems and grow our churches? We’ve seen this before—remember the Decade of Evangelism? Back to Church Sunday? Ideas like this come and go, like those famous Baskin-Robbins flavours of the month—but nothing really changes. So how is discipleship any different?

New life from the roots

I think the clue is this: In times of spiritual renewal, something very counter-intuitive happens. As people pray for something new, when that new thing arrives it bears an uncanny resemblance to something very old, something that takes us back to our roots. The good thing about returning to roots, of course, is that roots are precisely where new life comes from, so this shouldn’t surprise us.

In the Christian story, discipleship is about as old as it gets—as old as the four gospels. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that story, because it sheds light on what discipleship is, and why it is more than a buzzword. Early on in each of the four gospels, two things happen: Jesus announces his mission, and he calls disciples. The two seem to be intimately connected, but how?

Jesus called his mission “the kingdom”—an image which didn’t have the negative connotations it can have in our day. Quite simply, it was shorthand for saying that with the coming of Jesus, God was beginning to work in a new way to put right everything that is wrong in the world. This, Jesus says, is Good News. Indeed, it is the best possible Good News for the world: it is gospel! And this new kingdom is somehow connected to the arrival on the scene of Jesus.

For three years Jesus lives a life that embodies what “kingdom” means: he teaches about it, he tells stories about it and every day he demonstrates what it means to live the way of the kingdom. As a result, in every village that Jesus visits, people get a taste of what life in this new kingdom feels like. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright even speculates that in the villages Jesus visited, small communities would have sprung up composed of people inspired to live out this new way even after he had left.

From kingdom to discipleship

So that’s the first theme of the gospels. Jesus announces—and demonstrates—this radically new way of doing life and of being human, to a world that is alternately delighted and outraged by what it sees.

But the second thing he does is to call disciples. Why? Because the kingdom is not a one-person show put on for our entertainment for a three-year run. This is not a religion but a movement, with a dynamism that will grow and spread around the world like—well, like those natural growing things that Jesus is always telling parables about: vines and yeast and mustard seeds and fig trees and wheat. And he calls disciples in order to sow seeds of the kingdom in their lives, and to nurture those seedlings to the point where they can continue to grow and reproduce even when he is no longer physically present.

A better word than ‘disciple’

“Disciple” is an old-fashioned word we don’t often hear in everyday life. Sometimes people explain it by saying that a disciple is a learner or a student, and that’s true. But to me those terms always sound a bit academic—maybe because I spent too many years in classrooms! No: the word I think best conveys what Jesus was up to with the twelve is the word “apprentice.”

You know how an apprenticeship works. Maybe you have been an apprentice yourself. There is a theoretical component, of course, often with books or lectures or written assignments. But the majority of the apprenticeship is about a different way of learning: on the actual job with the trainer. The educationalist David Kolb coined the phrase “experiential learning” in 1984—which might make us think this is a relatively recent invention. Really, however, what is new is sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture and regarding that as education. That’s not how Socrates taught in the ancient world. Nor is it how the rabbis of Jesus’s time taught. In both cases, students would simply hang out with their teachers and learn by living life together.

That’s what Jesus is doing with the twelve. As they spend time together, day in and day out, they learn on the job how to live the kingdom. In fact, as the gospels unfold, you can see how the disciples develop in their kingdom skills. Think of the time when Jesus sends them out two by two (the twelve in Luke 9 and the seventy in Luke 10). They’ve watched him at work, teaching and preaching, healing and working miracles. And now he says, “OK, now it’s your turn. You go and do these things too!” You can imagine how they must feel. But this is part of the apprenticeship—and they do it, with results that startle and delight them.

Or again, remember the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus has been teaching for the whole day, and the listening crowds are hungry. The disciples do what comes most naturally. They come to Jesus and say, “Um, Lord, we’ve got a problem, and here’s what we think you should do about it.” To which he replies—I like to think it was with a smile—“OK, why don’t you give them something to eat.” What happens next is actually a partnership: They find the food and get the crowd seated, and he prays and does the miracle. That’s another way apprenticeship grows: novice and expert working together.

Here, I believe, is the church in a nutshell: it is the trade school of Jesus, where he trains apprentices in the ways of the kingdom. Is the church not more than that? Of course there is more, lots more. A nut needs a shell to protect and nurture it—as the church needs institutional structures—but the kernel is where the life is. The shell by itself is dead.




  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is an emeritus professor of evangelism at Wycliffe College, Toronto. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021). He is a member of St. John the Evangelist parish in Hamilton, Ont.

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