What Is Discipleship and How Does It Happen?

Jayson Bradley

When Jesus returned to heaven after His resurrection, He left His followers explicit instructions. They were both for the people who were there with Him that day and for every follower of Jesus who would come after them. He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20, New International Version).

This instruction is known as the “Great Commission” because these words represent a critical assignment for the church as His people await His return.

But what exactly is Jesus asking His followers to do? What does it mean to make disciples? What does discipleship look like?

If you want to jump ahead, here’s what we’re going to look at:

How Did the Disciples Understand Jesus’ Instructions?

A “disciple” is a kind of student. It is someone who follows the teaching of, learns from and models their life after someone else — in this case, Jesus.

The people whom Jesus gave these essential instructions to had a pretty good understanding of what it meant to be His disciples. They had left everything to follow Him, and for three years they soaked up His instruction, experiencing incredible highs and lows as they discovered what it meant to follow their Lord.

When Jesus told His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, they wouldn’t have seen this as a casual assignment to squeeze between other interests. This would need to become their primary focus.

The disciples would have understood Jesus’ words to have some pretty important implications. Let’s look at each part of what He said.

Disciple-making is not a passive activity. It requires intentional, strategic behavior. Christ’s followers couldn’t wait around for people to come to them and ask to become disciples. They would have to go out and make them, which speaks to strategic and intentional behavior.

“Make disciples.”
To make other disciples, Jesus’ disciples would have to share the gospel message with people who had never heard it before. But that was only the first step. A disciple is more than someone who converts to a new religion. It’s someone who has committed their life to following Jesus. Communicating the gospel is a critical element of disciple-making, but it isn’t the end.

“Of all nations.”
Jesus was a Jewish man, but during His ministry on earth, He taught that God was not only redeeming the people of Israel to Himself; He was redeeming the world. Around the same time that He gave the Great Commission, Jesus told His disciples, “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV). This is critical to understand. The Jews despised Samaritans, but Jesus was tearing down walls of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). His message of peace and reconciliation — of restored relationships — isn’t just for Israel and Samaria; it’s for the whole world. Everyone on earth can become a disciple of Jesus, and Jesus commands His disciples to go to everyone.

“Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Baptism is an inauguration into God’s community. A follower of Jesus should declare their allegiance to Jesus by identifying with His death and resurrection, which is what baptism illustrates. It’s clear from this instruction that Jesus’ commission includes people becoming his followers, but it’s not limited to it. It’s about identifying with and giving your life to the God who knows you, created you and loves you.

“And teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
This is where discipleship goes beyond evangelism. The discipleship process is more than teaching people the right knowledge about God. A disciple models him or herself after someone. Making disciples of Jesus goes beyond teaching facts about Jesus. It means teaching people how to know and  be like Jesus — to obey God and seek His best for their lives.

Christian Community and Discipleship

Discipleship is a journey of intentional decisions leading to maturity in your relationship with Jesus so that you become more like Him in your attitudes, focus and ultimately behavior. It requires a commitment from the potential disciple and the disciple-makers. It’s not something that happens by accident or overnight, and it can’t be completed in a six-week class. This is a lifelong commitment to follow God with your whole self and to both learn from and eventually teach others about how to follow Him.

In a letter to a group of Christians in a city called Ephesus, Paul, an early follower of Jesus who wrote much of the New Testament, explains that God gives His followers gifts to help them make disciples. He begins by encouraging them to do whatever they can to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). This is critical because discipleship is intended to happen among a community of fellow disciples, which the Bible calls “the church” or “the body of Christ.”

Paul explains that God has equipped His people, the church, with specific gifts and skills. These gifts “equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12–13, New Living Translation).

The process of maturing in your faith and becoming more like Christ  is discipleship. Paul’s point is that discipleship happens as you are connected to other followers of Jesus. He says:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:14–16, NIV)

The process of discipleship in community protects you from false views of God, Satan’s attempts to isolate you with your own thoughts and feelings, and the constantly shifting ideas of culture.

God created His followers to follow Him and become more like Him in community. You will stumble and fall on your journey of faith. You will face difficulty, pain and loss. Jesus promised His followers they would. As that happens, you need others around you to remind you of the truth of the gospel: the good news of Jesus that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). The beautiful truth is that the righteous person falls seven times and gets back up (Proverbs 24:16).

When everything is going as it should, Christian community becomes a place where people are using their gifts to help each other grow, and the combined use of these gifts contributes to a culture that makes discipleship possible. And even when things become difficult, Christian community can be a place where we experience and live out forgiveness and reconciliation. In all of this, discipleship is a part of the process as we follow Christ together and as we are mentored and mentor others along the way.

Christian community is such a critical element of discipleship that the Bible says, in the Book of Hebrews, “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NLT).

Discipleship happens as the members of the church serve and encourage one another as well as other people. When you opt out of Christian community, you’re opting out of a process that Jesus uses to encourage your maturity, assist the growth of others and impact the world.

Mentoring and Discipleship

Church attendance does not automatically translate to discipleship. It’s difficult for someone to grow as a disciple without some connection to a local church, but going to church doesn’t guarantee growing in maturity.

Christian growth requires a hands-on approach. The Bible frequently demonstrates the importance of mentorship. Paul mentored other disciples of Christ to help them be mature and effective at making disciples. In the New Testament letter called Titus, you can see Paul’s mentoring relationship with another disciple, named Titus. In this book, Paul emphasizes the importance of mature believers encouraging and guiding immature believers.

The mentoring that happens in Christian discipleship is different from the mentoring you see in other contexts. For instance, someone who mentors you in your career may let you drive the relationship. The career mentor makes themselves available to answer the mentee's questions and concerns.

Mentorship that creates disciples is different. In a discipleship context, the mentor has an agenda. It’s more than meeting regularly to discuss a chapter of a book just for the sake of the discussion. There is a purpose and deeper goal behind the task at hand.

A disciple-making mentor intentionally shapes someone’s understanding, attitudes and behavior. They’re modeling what a disciple looks like in word and deed. Like Paul, the mentor can say, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthian 11:1, NIV). This doesn’t mean they are perfect or have it all figured out, but it does mean they are trying to follow God with their whole life. Part of that includes God’s commands to share Jesus with other people and to also teach the things they’ve learned about Him to others. Mentors have often been mentored by someone else. They may seek out mentors throughout their life.

A disciple-making mentor recognizes various levels of understanding and growth in the disciples they are mentoring and journeys with them, guiding them as they become more like Jesus. They create a safe space for the person they are meeting with to be honest. Mentorship doesn’t work if the two parties are at the same place on their discipleship journeys — though it is also helpful  to get accountability and community from people who are at the same place on their spiritual journeys. As someone grows in their faith, they reach behind them to others who are walking where they have already been, helping them become like Jesus too.

The Spiritual Key to Discipleship

Community and mentorship are integral to discipleship, but you can’t ignore the centrality of spiritual empowerment.

Jesus didn’t immediately release the disciples into the wild after issuing the Great Commission. He told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).

Why? Because the Christian faith isn’t just a matter of human effort or intellectual belief; it’s a supernatural reality. If you are a follower of Jesus, it’s God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, living inside you who fills you and enables you to live out and grow in discipleship and disciple-making.

Paul explains it this way:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,

‘Who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct Him?'

But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14–16, NIV)

As Paul communicates here, without the Spirit’s leading, you cannot grow as a disciple of Jesus. You need the Holy Spirit to help you understand, believe and obey Jesus’ teaching. The Holy Spirit draws you to Jesus. And once you are aligned with the Lord, the Spirit takes up residence in you (1 Corinthians 6:19), empowering you to live out the Christian life.

Not long before He was crucified, Jesus told His disciples, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4–5, NIV).

It’s the Spirit who enables you to remain in Jesus so that His work can be accomplished within you. You are comforted, guided, instructed and convicted by the Spirit’s work in your life. This is why learning to walk in the Spirit is the central task of discipleship:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (Galatians 5:16–17, NIV)

Followers of Jesus can walk alongside each other, encouraging each other to obey everything Jesus commanded, but they’ll never be able to accomplish that in their own power. It’s the Spirit of God who gives them the capacity to do so. And it’s the Spirit who produces what the Bible calls “fruit” — the natural results of having the Spirit in your life and seeking His will in what you do and how you live: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).

An essential element of discipleship is walking alongside other disciples as you learn how to live in the power of the Spirit in ever-increasing ways. Walking in the Spirit doesn’t come naturally. It’s critical that mature Jesus-followers model what a life of dependence upon the Spirit looks like to those who are less mature. They can demonstrate the practices and disciplines they have relied upon to follow God’s leading.

Disciples Create Disciples

Jesus spent three years training his followers to create new disciples because, as the well-known pastor A.W. Tozer put it, “Only a disciple can make a disciple.” It’s Jesus’ game plan that disciples create disciples who, in turn, create more disciples.

So if you find yourself wondering how you’re progressing as a disciple, ask yourself how driven you are to fulfill the Great Commission. Spiritual practices that you often hear about from followers of Jesus, like prayer, Bible reading or fasting, are vital for growing in faith, but you’ll know someone is mature when they recognize their responsibility to walk alongside others as they pursue Jesus.

The Christian life cannot be lived in a vacuum. It’s not just about you and Jesus. It requires investing in the lives of others. You learn to follow Jesus from those who have gone before, and you invest in others who are coming after.

In a letter to Jesus-followers in a city called Philippi, Pauls says, “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Philippians 3:17, NIV). It’s through the example of others that you learn what it means to be a disciple — and it’s through your example that others learn from you.


Next Steps

For some practical ways to get started with mentoring others in their faith, check out some of the resources on our page “Helping Other Grow”. Be sure to visit our discipleship page while you’re there.

If you’d like to be mentored as you start to mentor others, consider contacting our mentor center.

A Legacy of Changed Lives

See how students are making a lasting impact through summer missions with Cru.

©1994-2024 Cru. All Rights Reserved.