So what are we busy with? – the aim of discipleship

The Spaghetti-Marshmallow lesson

Sadly, lessons are better learnt though personal mistakes, so there is a certain group activity that I love to start with which teaches a very memorable lesson.  I’d hand each small group a big pack of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti, give them 15 minutes and instruct them to build the highest, freestanding tower they can, and to add some pressure I throw in a prize for the winning team.

A recent group doing quite well with their spaghetti-marshmallow towers.
A recent group doing quite well with their spaghetti-marshmallow towers.

Without fail the teams jump in and start building by sticking marshmallows to the ends of spaghetti sticks.  The towers usually look very crooked and rarely stand by themselves.  What is the lesson they learn? Without a clearly communicated goal even our enthusiastic efforts fail – passion is not enough.


This is spaghetti tower lesson is quite a generic life principle, but I often use it to help us reconsider our thoughts and efforts regarding discipleship.  What are we busy with now, and why are we doing this?  This is exactly Bill Hull’s point when he writes believers “engage in the process with no regard or the product” – we are often busy with “discipleship activities” without considering what we ought to achieve through it.

The aim of discipleship

So what is the aim or goal of discipleship?  Jesus made it quite clear when he said “A disciple is not above his teacher, but when he is fully trained will be like his teacher(Mark 6:40).  The aim of discipleship is for the disciple to become like his master through teaching and training.

It is interesting to note that the word “disciple” occurs only in the four gospels and a few times in the book of acts – nowhere else is this word in the New Testament.  It is indeed interesting, since Jesus’ core message was that of discipleship in the Kingdom of God.  The apostles used the word “imitation” through instruction and copying of modelled behavior as in his letter to the Ephesians: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians5:2).  [See also 1 Corinthians 4:17 and 1 Corinthians 4:17; 1Thessalonians 1:6-7; Philippians 4:9].

Both the concepts of discipleship and imitation therefore require deliberate effort to imitate someone’ life.  Thus the success of the disciple or imitator’s efforts rest on the clarity of the image or life they ought to copy.  The better you know the person you ought to imitate, the more likely you will resemble the master.

If discipleship is a life devoted to imitate Jesus, then the success of your discipleship activities rests on the clarity of your image of Jesus.


Walk as Jesus Walked

The Apostles teach us that our conformity to the image of Jesus Christ our Lord is our past purpose (Romans 8:29), present process (2 Corinthians 3:18) and future promise (1 John 3:2).  This requires deliberate intent, as the apostle John writes “Whoever says he abides in [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:6).

But what is the image of Jesus we ought to imitate?  What does the New Testament reveal of the character of Jesus?  The authors of the New Testament explicitly instruct disciples to imitate Jesus’ humility and obedience (Philippians 2:5-7) and meekness or gentle self-control (Matthew 11:29), servitude (John 13:14-15), selfless love (Ephesians 5:1-2; John 13:34), patience or longsuffering (1 Peter 2:21),  kindness and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32), as well as His missional intent (John 20:21) and ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).  In less explicit imitation language the apostles instructed disciples of Jesus to grow godly characters that are compassionate (Colossians 3:12), confident (2 Timothy 1:6-7), hopeful and peaceful (Romans 15:13).

But the Gospel writes records that Jesus also deliberately taught the disciples skills, including teaching, preaching, healing and deliverance (Matthew 10:8), discipling others (Matthew 28:19; see also 2 Timothy 2:2 and Titus 2:3), pastoral care (Matthew 25:36), teamwork and cross-cultural ministry (Luke 10:1).  The New Testament writers also dictate that disciples need grow in witnessing to unbelievers (1 Peter 3:15) and skills ministry skills such as facilitating and use of spiritual gifts in a meeting.

The disciples are to shape their lives by the disciplines modelled in Jesus’ life, including a devotion to prayer and studying and memorizing Scripture, a life of thanks, praise and worship, a commitment to fellowship, selfless serving and giving (see especially Matthew 20:28), and witnessing.  Jesus also modelled the need for times of fasting, solitude, silence and rest (or sabbath).  [I don’t see a need to “proof-text” these habits visible in Jesus’ life].

In the New Testament the apostles also highlighted the need for the disciplines of accountability and confession (James 5:16 and 1 John 1:7-9).

Lastly, in pursuit as imitators of Jesus (and also in our efforts to make disciples) we need to ask what are the most essential truths and beliefs a disciple of Jesus must hold onto?  Obviously this question has been asked through the ages, even within the first century.  From that question the Apostle’s Creed was formed, which new converts had to confess as their “oath of allegiance to Jesus their Lord” (from where we get the word sacrament) at their baptism.  This creed is a mere 110 words, containing the most essential doctrines of the Christian faith. The central part (about 70 words) centers on our belief of the person and work of Christ.  Although the doctrines contained in the creed is global in scale, I suggest that there are four doctrines I find necessary to teach in discipling contemporary Christians: Church and mission, Stewardship, Identity in Christ and Biblical sexuality.  Depending on your immediate context these four doctrines might be adjusted, although I suspect these issues are universally challenged by our contemporary culture today.

Profile of a Mature Disciple of Jesus

This leaves us with the following summary of a Profile of a Mature Disciple – a clear goal of what a disciple of Jesus ought to know and believe (head), live like (habits), skills he/she must master (hands) and what his/her character should grow to (heart).

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
one holy Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Church and mission | Stewardship | Identity in Christ | Biblical sexuality
Prayer Use Bible in ministry Compassion
Fasting Witnessing Kindness, mercy
Fellowship Healing, deliverance Humility, Selflessness
Bible study, mediation Use spiritual gifts Meekness, gentleness
Thanks, praise, worship Discern God’s voice Patience, faithfulness
Accountability, confession Teamwork, Delegation Confidence
Serving, giving Cross cultural ministry Joyfulness
Witnessing Pastoring others Hopefulness
Solitude, silence Discipling others Obedience
Sabbath (rest) Facilitation Peace

I find this profile very useful in my own pursuit of Christ-likeness, as well as the relationships with fellow believers with whom I walk a close road.  It helps me to “consider how we can stir one-another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25) as we meet to pursue Christ together.

On target
Discipleship requires a clear goal.

Deliberate effort and clear goal

Paul said that the culmination of his life efforts was to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28-29).  This maturity thus comes with deliberate effort towards a clear goal.  Not as though we can earn our salvation!  We simply respond to the graceful promptings of God’s Spirit as he writes elsewhere “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

So, how have you grown into the image of God?  And where will you respond to His promptings to continue to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”? (2 Peter 3:18)

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