Making disciples who truly follow the way of Jesus is sometimes more difficult than it seems. A 2019 Lifeway study of discipleship reveals that only “(65%) [of pastors] say they are satisfied with the state of discipleship and spiritual formation in their local church.” Also, “78% indicate there’s room for improvement.” We know biblically sound, Christ-centered teaching is key, but what specifically is lacking in our current discipleship models that prevents us from making disciples who make disciples, who won’t falter when life challenges their faith? What we need is to combat some of the “feel-good” and “blessings” models of discipleship currently in place, by slightly SHIFTing our discipleship content to re-emphasize the following:
We must undergird our discipleship programs with a theology of suffering. Too often we’re teaching God has a wonderful plan that excludes trials. We forget that this world is broken and we are broken. We forget that God is more concerned about our holiness than our retirement plan. Some discipleship content leans more toward the idea that the Christian life is about improving our family relationships, our community, and our comfortability. So when life doesn’t meet our expectations, we get upset, blame God, and doubt why faith is even important. We’ve forgotten Jesus said, “You will have suffering in this world” (John 16:33) and that finding joy in suffering is part of our discipleship. Developing perseverance and patience is part of character-building. Our discipling needs to confront suffering as inevitable.
Once we understand suffering as a part of our Christian walk, it will be easier for us to be humble. But current humility standards say we want to put others first, but only when the other person is someone we respect, or when it doesn’t cost anything, or when it doesn’t demote us. We end up being humble in sweetness, not in sacrifice. At the end of the day, we still want honor, we still want to get ahead, we still want to be right, liked, and validated (in the world and in the church). In our Bible studies, we want to know how verses benefit us, so we focus on ourselves instead of on God. But what if we told ourselves it’s not always about us? What if, instead, we asked more questions about God and His kingdom? What if we truly put aside our interests and our need to be affirmed and recognized, and put God’s and others’ interest before our own? The world says, “Be first;” Jesus says, “the last will be first” (Matthew 10:16).
Sometimes we’re afraid of humbling ourselves because it might lead to self-deprecation or low self-esteem. But if in our discipling, we focus on a correct understanding of our identity, we can both be humble and have a correct view of self. Yet we all have identity issues because Satan, who himself couldn’t remain satisfied as an angel, tempts us to be dissatisfied with who God called us to be—beloved children of God, co-heirs with Christ, victors over death, guilt, and shame. The world wants us to define ourselves with more uniqueness, tempting us to believe our value comes from being our own person. These ideas can seep into our discipleship. We thus must reinforce that our identity in Christ is sufficient and defines who we are more than any other identity we embrace or is put on us. We are “remarkably and wondrously made” (Psalm 139:14). The world says, “You choose who you are;” God says, “I created who you are.” And that is more than enough.
Another deficiency in our discipleship that needs shifting is our lack of emphasis on us being foreigners in this world. Too often we are comfortable in this life, and we’ve forgotten we’re just passing through. We long for roots, stability, and the pleasures of this world over an eternal legacy. We long to keep up with the Joneses, and even surpass them, forgetting this all will fade. Like the saints of old who recognized “they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13), the more we can see ourselves as such, the more we can long for our eternal home, the more we can love those who seem foreign to us, the more our thoughts and actions will reflect an eternal perspective that aligns with God’s perspective. We will take more risks for God. We will not live in fear of following God to places that disrupt our lives. Let’s train our disciples to not decorate our worldly home, but live in light of our eternal home.
And last, we need to re-emphasize transformation. We cannot have an effective discipleship program if we do not focus on life change and growth. We know Christ accepts us as we are, but He does not want us to stay where we are. If we are not transformed, we cannot know new life; if we have not changed, we will not attempt to change others and the world around us. If we are not growing into maturity, we become stagnant and stale. Our discipleship needs to do more than just give people information. It should challenge us; it should change us; it should cause us to move—“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). If discipleship doesn’t change us, we become receptacles of knowledge, instead of disciples transformed by knowledge.
This SHIFT in discipleship is only applicable because it comes directly from studying Christ Himself. We need to re-emphasize suffering because Jesus’ suffering allows us to understand ours. His sacrificial humility in emptying Himself, “assuming the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7), reminds us that our humility should be sacrificial as well. His identity as the Son of God and Messiah is always consistent with His actions. He knows who He is, His purpose, and mission, so we can too as we identify with Him. He knew He didn’t belong to this world; He knew home was elsewhere—“The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58)—so in following His steps, we too look to heaven. Through Jesus’ incarnation, glorification, and resurrection, we see a needed transformation in our own lives. Thus, Christ is our example; Christ is our model. Let’s shift our focus back on these aspects of Jesus so our discipleship can express fully all that Christ is.