Is Your Discipleship Model Missing Something?

The biblical pattern for disciple making offers not only education and experience but also an example for following Christ.

What does discipleship look like?

For some, it might be a Bible study over coffee. It could include meeting for prayer and accountability. Or maybe it happens as someone takes greater responsibilities in ministry.

I’d say my time in seminary was especially formative—though not just in the classroom. I was discipled in the living rooms and dining rooms of others in our church who showed me how to be a better spouse and parent, demonstrating genuine humility, patience, service, and kindness.

As I look back on my life, I realize I’ve been discipled along the way not merely through education and experience but also through the example of mature believers. I believe the biblical pattern for all disciple making includes this kind of formation through imitation.

Common Approaches

Our perception of how discipleship happens is often influenced by the ways the Western church pursues Christian formation. In my observations, our disciple-making methods at home and abroad fit into two basic categories: one seeks to make disciples through instruction and the other through investment.

Those who prefer the instructional model often come from churches where discipleship happens through a select few teachers. It takes place primarily in Sunday morning classes, informal Bible studies, expositional preaching, and ultimately Bible schools or seminaries.

Since we tend to make disciples in the ways we’re trained, Western missionaries from these backgrounds often emphasize the importance of Christian education. They seek to make disciples who are taught all that Christ commands.

In recent years, other disciple-making methods have emerged in response to this more cognitive approach. Rather than focusing on instruction, many missionaries now emphasize the importance of investment, in releasing new believers into immediate evangelism and church-planting work to prove their discipleship.

These methods have gained traction in response to colonialism, as Western missionaries try to avoid imposing outside ideas or exerting external influence on indigenous believers. Furthermore, a purely instructional model—especially one that terminates with seminary training—has proven slow, expensive, and unreproducible in the developing world.

Increasingly, missionaries who recognize these concerns have adopted methods that go beyond—and even critique—an instructional model. Since they’re eager to see new believers empowered for service and not simply gaining head knowledge, they seek to make disciples who obey all that Christ commands.

Pattern of Scripture

It’s important to acknowledge both approaches have biblical precedent. Discipleship requires instruction and investment. But these approaches are also incomplete, because the scriptural paradigm for disciple making also includes imitation.

Jesus spent much of his time intentionally teaching the Twelve and a broader community of his followers. He also entrusted his apostles with responsibility within a short period of time, giving them authority to carry on his mission even without his physical presence.

However, an initial component of becoming Jesus’s disciple was to “be with him” (Mark 3:14). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus models for his apostles what he expects of them, whether announcing the kingdom or casting out demons. Jesus also offers his service and suffering as an example for anyone who would come after him (Mark 8:34; 10:45). When Peter and John, uneducated Galileans, boldly gave testimony to Christ, it was clear to the Jewish leaders that “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Accordingly, Jesus says our discipleship will be evident to the world as we love others in the way he first showed (John 13:34–35).

This emphasis on shared experience and imitation isn’t limited to Jesus. Paul’s approach to disciple making relied heavily on his lived example (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 3:17). Yes, he taught the Scriptures wherever he went (instruction). And, yes, he empowered coworkers and locals to serve without him (investment). But Paul constantly gathered disciples to be with him and join his ministry (Acts 20:4). He expected church leaders and church members to become imitators of him (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Tim. 3:10) so they could then become an example to others (1 Thess. 1:7; 1 Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7).

One could argue that in every stage of Paul’s discipleship journey, whether authoritatively instructing new believers or eventually investing them with ministry responsibilities, he continued to employ a mentorship model. Imitation infused every aspect of his disciple-making process.

Formation Through Imitation

Of course, it’s not as if those committed to instruction have always failed to invest believers with responsibility. Nor is it true that those who emphasize ministry experience don’t care about Christian education. But if the biblical model for disciple making includes instruction, investment, and imitation, then it should lead all of us to take a more relational approach to Christian formation. We must know those we follow (Heb. 13:7).

Too often, Western missionary methods—following many Western churches—tend to treat ministry as primarily informational and transactional. But it’s not enough to teach content or to transfer responsibility. We also need to model, mentor, and be with each other. This happens most naturally in the context of the local church and through hospitality, where believers fulfill these responsibilities with one another.

Seeing the value of personal example within the church also undercuts the assumption that we can make faithful disciples through mediated presence or virtual gatherings. If imitation is central to formation, then the church can’t succeed at our central task apart from meaningful relationships and physical presence. In missions, this means we can’t make disciples sufficiently through short-term trips, virtual training sessions, or with missionaries serving from the sidelines as catalysts and consultants.

Lastly, this suggests that when a local congregation looks for a person to serve in the church or to send as a missionary, we can’t simply consider someone’s education (instruction) or experience (investment). We must also look for those who are an example to the believers (imitation). We should pursue candidates with proven character who can call others to follow their pattern of life.

From my study of Scripture and personal observations, I’m convinced the work of the Great Commission isn’t accomplished merely through instruction or investment. It happens when we leave an indelible mark of the living Christ through our observable conduct, exemplary service, and sacrificial love. We make disciples of all nations by showing them with our whole self what it looks like to follow Christ.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition on January 4, 2023. Used with permission.