What is discipleship?

October 19, 2011

The word “discipleship” has been replaced in many place by, “spiritual formation.” I’m not certain of all the reasons for this change, but it may have something to do with the idea that the latter is more descriptive than the former. I would argue, however, that we’d do well to stick with discipleship and to work to redeem the word and understand it even as we use it. It is, after all, a good biblical word rooted in the world that Jesus occupied and is rich with meaning.

Simply put, discipleship is, as Dallas Willard has observed, apprenticeship to Jesus. The concept of apprenticeship is somewhat more familiar to us. We’re all familiar with a young craftsman who desires to learn his trade more fully or an artist who wishes to master his craft. For generations younger artists and craftsmen have apprenticed themselves to a master, to an older, more experienced artist or craftsman. That master has tutored them in the way of their craft. The relationship encompasses all sorts of elements–it goes beyond our traditional, modern Western approach to learning.

The master models the practice of a craft which his apprentice observes perhaps initially simply copying the master until the apprentice eventually comes to find a voice of his own. The master may tutor the apprentice–advising in matters of technique and watching as his understudy creates. There is an element of learning as well. The apprentice will study other great masters, will consult great theorists who impart wisdom about his disciplines from the richness of their study of the matter. Often there is a community of artists who pursue their art together–stimulating, encouraging, and challenging one another.

This is discipleship. It encompasses the intellectual, the practical, its communal and yet individual, it is centered on a master. The church is a community of artists learning to emulate and be transformed more into the likeness of their master.

Discipleship includes the practices of the Christian life, both individually and together. God has given us the means of grace — prayer, the Word, the Sacraments. We have received also a large number of practices that aid us in meeting Jesus and being transformed by Him (fasting, silence and solitude).

It also includes being formed through learning the content of the faith. This often happens through catechesis–internalizing a theological guide that will give us insight into who God is and who we are. Theology is not a dead academic field, it is living description of the interaction of the soul with God–through the ages. The real home of theology isn’t the university or the divinity school, theology lives and breathes in the church. As we learn the faith, we come to find both answers and explanations for the experience of God that we have had.

So let’s embrace discipleship as a way of life, a way of becoming more like Jesus through the good gifts that God has given us–and lets do it together, with joy.