I recently overheard someone saying “I was discipling someone for awhile.” Most people that say this mean something like “I was helping so and so in their individual pursuit to be more like Christ.”
This begs a question. After a person becomes a Christian, what is the goal for them?
The answer to this question shows the filter through which people think about the Christian life. A common (and biblical) answer to this question is discipleship.
God is not an individual
In recent posts, we’ve been examining the Christian life when viewed through a communal lens (as opposed to an individualistic one). This is because God Himself is not an individual. While there are individuals within God, every thought that those individuals have is with the community in mind. So much so that we can say they are one.
Both individuality and oneness are present at the same time. But one’s uniqueness is only realized to the extent that oneness is embraced. And oneness is only realized to the extent that each person’s uniqueness is embraced.
The same must also be true when it comes to making disciples.
Through an individualistic lens, discipleship training and programs are about doing individual activities that will result in becoming more like Christ. The strategy usually involves some type of interaction with the Bible, prayer, involvement in some sort of ministry where that person’s individual gifts are being used, and mentoring from a more seasoned Christian.
This is the individual piece. But when this is where it stops, we fall short.
Through a communal lens, the strategy completely changes. Instead of discipleship consisting of a bunch of individualistic activities to become more like Christ, it becomes primarily about something else. Yes, we still do activities as individuals, but those activities are done with a communal goal in mind.
It’s the same goal that the Persons within God have – oneness.
Being built together
Discipleship in a healthy church is about being built together into the walls of a Temple where God can live by His Spirit. The individual activities we do to develop ourselves are for the goal of being built together.
All of the activities we do to become better individual Christians mean little if not applied to a process of becoming one with other believers.
In fact, it works the other way around too. Going through the process of being built together with other believers is the most effective tool of individual transformation.
So what you’ll find is…people make very little progress in the Lord when they’re not part of a close-knit community that’s making a serious effort to be built together.
The primary goal of discipleship
When an apostle like Paul went into a city and converted people into believers, he made them into disciples for a period of time before he left. His primary goal was to teach them how to be one. Did they do individual activities? Of course. But mostly they pursued the Lord together.
They knew their life and activity were to be done within the context of a corporate effort to become one. The two work together. They are the two sides of a coin.
How did they know this? God Himself was their example. But check that. He wasn’t their example. He was their Life. If you live by a Life Source that’s communal in nature, your life activity will be communal in nature. It’s in the DNA.
Being like Christ
By the way, regarding this concept of being like Christ…that also needs to be viewed through a communal lens. Here’s what Milt Rodriguez, author of The Community Life of God, points out about being like Christ…
As individual believers we are told that this is our goal: to be like Christ. This is what most “discipleship” programs are all about. We are here to “make disciples,” whatever that means. After all, it’s part of the “great commission” (Matt. 28: 19, 20) to make disciples.
We have interpreted this to mean that we are supposed to take individual believers and help them to be like Christ. Usually we do this by teaching them doctrine, how to study the Bible, how to “pray,” how to serve God on the mission field, and basically how to be a good Christian.
Where in the scripture does it talk about becoming like Christ? The only thing that I can see is the passages that deal with being conformed to His image. We must look at the context of each of those passages.
If you read the passages that have to do with being conformed to His image, you will quickly see that the context is always corporate (Rom. 8:28 – 20; Rom. 12: 1 – 5; II Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10, 11). It is we who are being conformed to His image. It is us together, the Body, that is to look like Him.
You can never be like Jesus. But She can! I am referring to that beautiful woman, the bride of Christ, who is destined to be His wife (Rev. 21:9).
Let me clarify a bit what he’s saying here. He’s not saying you individually cannot behave like Christ at times. Of course you can. There’s something more though. There’s a fullness of the expression of Christ that only a community can display.
So the first step in true discipleship is immersion into a committed community of believers who are working on becoming one. This is what baptism is supposed to symbolize. The community can be like Christ and you can be a part of her.
Rodriguez goes on to say…
This renewal happens because we are learning to think as a body instead of just a bunch of individuals. We are “learning” Christ. We are learning and experiencing the oneness of the Head and Body. We are learning to think and function as the One New Man (see Col. 3:9-11). This is true discipleship.
Shifting from individual to corporate
Discipleship in churches has become mostly about individually learning things. It’s become redefined to be this because, for the most part, we’ve lost the desire and need to become one with other believers.
It’s risky, it’s hard, you have to lose, you have to die to yourself. It’s the hardest challenge every church is presented with.
We tend to pass on it. But this is God’s purpose.
When you look at it through a communal lens, discipleship is being a part of a group of people that pursues together the experience and expression of the Life of Christ more fully and completely.
You want to be a disciple of Christ? Learn what it means to be built together and pursue that.