The 7 Essential Elements for Growing as Disciples


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We often think about discipleship in terms of how to disciple others. But let's look at it from another direction. How do you grow as a disciple yourself? What are the essential elements you need around you to help this happen?

You may have grown up without particularly deliberate discipleship. Maybe there's been no one in your life who can provide that kind of encouragement and function for you. Yet you sense the need to be discipled by someone, to somehow jump-start you, and get you growing again.

You may be in a Christian leadership position. You're giving out and giving out, but you feel you need to be grounded yourself. You need to be "poured into" afresh. You feel stunted and need to break out.

I hope this analysis of discipling will help you figure out -- with the help of the Holy Spirit -- how to go about doing just that.

I see seven essential discipling elements that are necessary to grow and keep growing as a disciple. Now it's kind of fortunate to have seven elements because that's the so-called perfect number, the number of completion in the Bible. But it really comes down to about seven essentials.

1. An Open Heart

James J. Tissot, 'The Sower' (1886-96)
James J. Tissot, 'The Sower' (1886-96), watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, New York. Larger image.

First is an open heart. In the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:1-15) Jesus says that the "good soil" consists of those who hear the Word, hold it fast with an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

This "honest and good heart" is an essential element of the disciple who bears fruit. This kind of person breaks free of the choking "thorns" that keep the fruit from the maturing -- the cares and riches and pleasures of life. The struggle to have an open heart includes humility, a willingness to be corrected and to learn, and then to obey what Jesus is saying. What it comes down to is surrender to Jesus. Not just once, but an ongoing process of surrender.

Sam Shoemaker once said, "Give as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of God." Of course, as you give yourself and learn more of God, then you have more to give to God who now seems greater. Your capacity increases.

It begins with an open heart, and that starts with repentance -- you coming to Jesus.

2. The Word

The second essential element is the Word. In Jesus' Parable of the Sower, the seed is the Word, the message. Growth as disciples requires regular exposure to Jesus' teachings in the Bible. I think it's important that you find Christian teachers or pastors who preach the Word whom you can sit under and learn from. 

Just listening isn't enough. Those who have studied how to maximize spiritual growth have found that the greatest spiritual growth comes from reflection on the Word, not only listening. What does that saying mean? Grapple with it!

I think this works best with a small group of people who are really trying to seek after God. It takes time to process things. We hear it, but to really understand it so that we can start to incorporate it into our lives takes processing time. It takes other people and reflection.

I think of Jesus sitting around the campfire after he has been teaching all day. The disciples are talking about his parables. "What does that mean? Why did Jesus do that?" one says. "What about that lady that came and got healed?" asks another. There's a learning process going on related to the Word. It's a reflective process.

Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. WilsonThis is where my JesusWalk Bible Study Series comes in. I've just revised my Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel (www.jesuswalk.com/luke/). It looks in detail at how Jesus trained his disciples, using the Gospel of Luke as the basis of study. We try to understand what is he doing. What his method is. And then, as his modern-day disciples, grasp what are we supposed to get out of that teaching. That saying. That healing. That encounter. What are we disciples supposed to learn? The series includes not only the teaching and some stories that helped me understand it, but also discussion questions that will help you grapple with and start to process the material.

3. A Mentor

The third essential that I see is a mentor. Call this person what you want. Maybe this is a pastor or small group leader, a teacher, a youth group leader, a discipler, a spiritual director. It doesn't have to be someone who is older than you. As you get older, it could be someone who is your peer, who is equally serious about following Jesus. It could be a prayer partner. A couple of people who team up to hold each other accountable.

It needs to be someone, however, to whom you can submit for counsel, guidance, and rebuke as needed. As I've studied Jesus' teaching, rebuke is an important part of how his disciples learn. You need someone you can receive a rebuke from and still love. When we try to do this by ourselves, we don't have this kind of feedback that is so important for growth.

Of course, this happens in the home all the time. Little children learn to act like their parents act. Recently, I was at a park that had a big pond. When the mother and father geese got into the water, the little goslings of trot down to the edge, all in a line, and start swimming after them. It's called "patterning" in biological science.

When you're younger, it's especially valuable to have somebody that you can pattern your life after. To see how they live, and then start imitating that. This requires being invited into their lives. This happens naturally in a Christian family, particularly if the parents are deliberate about it. But Christian leaders who are open about their lives, who allow people to see them -- warts and all -- can allow you to journey through life with them. This can be a wonderful experience to ground a person in Christ.

A mentor is essential, whether it is someone older than you, more experienced in the faith, or someone who is a similar age and maturity to whom you can submit yourself for counsel, guidance, and rebuke.

4. An Active Devotional Life

The fourth essential element for growing as a disciple is an active devotional life. This is a regular daily practice of worship, reading the word, reflecting on the word, listening for God's voice, and prayer.

I've been doing this for many, many years. Sometimes I get sort of dry. Something isn't working. Time to reassess. Five or six years ago I began to see was how important singing worship is at the beginning of my quiet time. I have a guitar hanging on the wall. I pull it down and plan on singing three songs -- sometimes more -- to get my heart opened up towards Jesus. Otherwise the connection isn't there and reading the Word and prayer can be dull and by rote. So whether you're a singer or not, find some way to open up and worship your with your heart as you begin. Read the Word on a regular basis. I try to read widely through the Scripture, reflecting on it. What does this mean? What does it say?

Listening for God's Voice, by Dr. Ralph F. WilsonI try to listen for God's voice. I've written a series of lessons called Listening for God's Voice (www.jesuswalk.com/voice/) that I encourage you to take, if you haven't already. It'll help open you up and make you more sensitive to how God might be speaking to you.

Finally, a time of prayer -- talking with God about your day to come, repentance from sins that you are aware of, confession, praying for other people -- submitting yourself to the Lord at the beginning of each day. Cultivate a deliberate openness to the Holy Spirit. As you do that you'll grow as a disciple. This is an essential: an active devotional life.

5. Service or Ministry Experiences and Involvement

Ford Madox Brown (British Pre-Raphaelite painter, (1821-93), 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet' (1852-56)
Ford Madox Brown (British Pre-Raphaelite painter, (1821-93), 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet' (1852-56), oil on canvas, 1167 x 133 mm, Tate Gallery, London.

Number five is service or ministry experiences and involvement -- ongoing involvement. Sometimes we get in the mode of receiving only. We can become self-centered.

A disciple, on the other hand, is someone who starts caring about others and giving of oneself. We learn to receive and give. It's a pattern by which we grow. If we can't learn a life of service, we won't grow as well-rounded disciples. We will still be selfish. We will still be concerned with what something does for "me" rather than how can I serve others.

I encourage you to look for opportunities for ministry or service that include some debriefing, some feedback from the person who is leading that ministry. We're just learning. It's okay to learn. And it's okay to make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes. That's what life is! Just doing things without feedback isn't as helpful as getting feedback.

Jesus would talk to his disciples after a trip. They came back from a missionary journey on which he had sent 70 of them -- two-by-two -- 35 teams who had gone out, preached the gospel, and healed the sick. They came back and told him: "This is so exciting! We were casting out demons and they obeyed us. It was so cool!" Jesus replied: "Instead, be thankful that your names are written in heaven." Perspective!

Part of the importance of service and ministry experiences is to discover the spiritual gifts that God has given you, your unique gift mix. My experience is that we don't find that overnight. You may have taken a spiritual gift test. That can be helpful, perhaps, but you really start learning from doing. You find some things that don't work very well for you. And you find things that you just love and you want to do more of. It's very, very likely that those include your spiritual gifts.

Service and ministry experiences are part of the discipleship process that we see in Jesus' ministry -- and we need to reproduce that in our own situations.

6. Stewardship

Related to this is the sixth essential: stewardship. That is, taking responsibility to be a steward of what God has entrusted to you, and a willingness to give it out generously as the Lord leads.

The most precious thing you have is the time God has given you. The willingness to give your time generously is huge! You have time to give to people. Time to give to God's work. Time to give to the Lord each morning, day by day, as you seek him rather than rush. You are a steward of your time.

You've heard probably thousands of stewardship sermons about giving money. The Baptists say that you need to get baptized along with your wallet. That's true. I'm convinced that unless you learn to give your finances to the Lord generously, you won't really get free from greed and possessiveness.

Part of stewardship is taking on responsibilities in God's household for various parts of Christ's ministry.

Jesus told the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In Luke, it's called the Parable of the Minas (or Pounds; Luke 19:11-27). A king goes off on a long journey. Before he goes, he says to his servants: "Take this money and do business with it until I return." A long time later when he returns, he brings each of the servants before him and asks: "What did you do with the money I gave you?" One replies, "You gave me one mina and I made 10 more; I've got 10 minus now, and here they are. " The servant is excited. The master says, "Well done, good and faithful servant." Another servant says, "You gave me this one mina, but look, I've got five minas. Isn't that amazing." The Master smiles and says, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Then the one servant shows up and says, "I knew you were a hard man. You try to get something where you weren't doing the work yourself. You are trying to get us to work for you. And so I just buried it in the ground so I'd have it to give to you when you got back." Then he looks at him and says: "You wicked servant!" Not serving Jesus with the talents, the spiritual gifts that he has given us is wicked. It is selfish. God gives things to us and then holds us accountable. So stewardship in a disciple is really, really important.

7. A Caring Christian Community

The seventh essential is to become part of a caring Christian community.

I know that, if you've been in church for some time, you may have been hurt. There are some pretty nasty people in churches. I've seen some pretty dysfunctional churches. Perhaps you've given up. Oh, you may watch some church services on television or listen to the radio, but you've given up on being part of a community.

My dear friend, it is so important that you find a community, even a very small one! Of course, if you're looking for a perfect church -- even if you find one -- good luck! Because as soon as you join it, it is no longer perfect! We are just human beings and we're sinners. Jesus is working in our hearts and changing us. We are people in process. The way Jesus set up his Kingdom is for his disciples to be part of a Christian community together, growing together -- a worshiping, loving Christian community.

One of the processes here is learning to love hard-to-love people. And there are plenty of those around! If you isolate yourself from people like that and refuse to love them, the fruit of the Spirit doesn't grow in you. You can't isolate yourself for any length of time and still keep growing.

Now, during the COVID lockdown some of us have found it can be harder to get together. But we can still get together on the phone. We can get together via Zoom. We can work with others even though we don't have the same flexibility we used to. We must!

Jesus' twelve disciples were a community. You and I are part of a Community! Jesus has called us to be the Church, the ekklesia, the "called out ones" who gather together. One reason is that you have spiritual gifts that the people in a Christian community need. And they have spiritual gifts that you need to help grow you to maturity. We're not designed to be Lone Ranger Christians. We are designed to be followers of Jesus together in the Kingdom of God.

They're All Vital

So these are the seven essential elements needed to grow well as a disciple:

  1. An Open Heart.
  2. The Word.
  3. A Mentor.
  4. An Active Devotional Life.
  5. Service or Ministry Experiences and Involvement.
  6. Stewardship.
  7. A Caring Christian Community.

You may well be tempted to omit one of those. "I just can't do that," you say. I hear you. But I want to say to you as a pastor who has worked in ministry for over 50 years: If you leave out any of these essentials, you won't grow the way Jesus wants you to grow! You'll grow some, but the more of these you leave out, the more messed up you'll remain.

Flat tireIf you take a round rubber ball, let it sit on the floor for a few months, and then try to roll it across the floor, it goes thump-thump, thump-thump as the flat side keeps hitting the floor. You can be like that. You're not well-rounded. You've grown in some areas, but in other areas you are weak. I really encourage you: All seven of these are important to you! None of these is optional.

Again, they're all important to you. I encourage you embrace the full life of a disciple that Jesus has for you. Give yourself to it, even if parts of it may be uncomfortable for you. Do you really want to grow in Christ? Then follow through with what I've said. It's sound. You can check it out in the Word.

I ask you: Which of these elements are missing from your life? What creative things can you do to add those elements to your spiritual life. Some of these won't be easy. Others of these are sitting right in front of you waiting. I encourage you pray and ask God: "Show me Lord, how to add stewardship. Show me how to add a caring Christian community. I don't know of one in my area." Ask God. He's your Lord. He will lead you.

Our goal is to become servants pleasing to our Master -- moldable, usable, and blessed in his loving hands.

Prayer

Father, I thank you for my brothers and sisters. We desire to grow, to be the disciples that you want us to become. Many of us, Lord, are lopsided disciples and we need help. I pray that you would help my brothers and sisters to get on a new growth track with you. That they might become growing disciples with your help, with the help of your Holy Spirit, and the other people that you provide in your Kingdom. That they might be disciples indeed, productive disciples whom you will use in all sorts of different ways. God, we love you. We pray these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

Copyright © 2020, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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