Discipleship & Discipling

What they are

Most ministries and churches have their own in-house definition of discipleship. A digital search for "discipleship definition" kicks back almost 72 million hits, meaning plenty of people have weighed in on what discipleship actually is.

The Oxford English Dictionary (granddaddy of all dictionaries) defines discipleship this way:

"The state, condition, or position of being a disciple or professed follower of Jesus Christ."

Recently, discipleship has shifted to often mean someone's ministry of discipling others. But it's helpful to distinguish between discipleship and discipling for a few reasons.

First, they're two different things. Discipleship is a person's own walk with Jesus. It is "Christ in me." Discipling is a person's ministry to others. It is "Christ through me." Discipling is just one part of someone's discipleship.

Second, by conflating the two, it's easy to gloss over one's own life with Jesus and jump right into ministry conversations and actions. But discipling should always flow out of discipleship. Just as we are called to love God first and then love others, we are also called to faithfully follow Jesus first before faithfully discipling others.

In Young Life, we've landed on these short and simple definitions for discipleship and discipling:

  • discipleship:​ becoming more like Jesus ("being conformed to the image of Jesus" in more formal language)
  • discipling:​ helping others become more like Jesus ​

There's a third layer, too — leader development, which is helping others help others become more like Jesus.

Each definition can be expanded this way:

  • discipleship:​ becoming more like Jesus by (fill in the blank)
  • discipling:​ helping others become more like Jesus by (fill in the blank)

When we expand the definitions, we start getting into the nitty-gritty of what-why-how. For example:

  • discipleship:​ becoming more like Jesus by
  1. spending time in God's Word
  2. spending time in prayer
  3. learning about who God is and what his plans are for this world and his people
  4. living an obedient life
  5. serving others humbly
  6. etc.
  • discipling:​ helping others become more like Jesus by
  1. reading the Bible with them
  2. having deep conversations about faith and life
  3. encouraging them to pray regularly
  4. worshipping with them
  5. modeling a life of faithful obedience
  6. etc.

The short definitions state the goal and purpose. The expanded definitions unpack the particulars and the methods.

Here is the most important thing to remember: your own life of discipleship is the ongoing prequel to your ministry of discipling. Discipleship is never finished or complete. Followers of Jesus will continue learning, growing, and becoming more like him for their whole lives.

Followers of Jesus are called to be faithful disciples who disciple faithfully. It's both that simple and that complex.


Reflect - Discuss
  • How have you defined discipleship up to this point? Where did that definition come from?
  • Why do you think it's important and helpful to distinguish between discipleship and discipling? How might that impact your own life and your ministry?
  • How would you expand both definitions? Make a list and talk about it with others.

Some verses about becoming more like Jesus

*All of these passages have a larger context that's important and helpful to read.

But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord — who is the Spirit — makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God — truly righteous and holy. (Ephesians 4:21-24)

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Life a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. (Ephesians 5:1-2b)

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. (Philippians 2:5)

Put on your new nature and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (Colossians 3:10)

So you must live as God's obedient children. Don't slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn't know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, "You must be holy because I am holy." (1 Peter 1:14-16)

For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)

And we can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. If someone claims, "I know God," but doesn't obey God's commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God's word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. (1 John 2:3-6)

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. (1 John 4:16b-17)

Resources for people who help others become more like Jesus.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2103 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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