4 characteristics of healthy disciples
As leaders it is unthinkable to get our mandate of “making disciples” wrong. But distilling down the result and process of discipleship is maddeningly difficult in practical terms.
Churches can be frantically busy organisations. Whether large or small, there seems to be an endless demand for events, programs, and ever-more glittery and exciting moments. But is it discipleship? Routinely pastors ask themselves, “Am I here to entertain people or to build them? Or is the former the only route to the latter?“
Often, the problem is that we simply can’t define the end-goal. What is, after all, first prize in all this? What does a culture of healthy disciples look like?
After many years in the spiritual formation and pastoral space I define the end-goal as building healthy and powerful disciples who go and do the same.
Nothing new there, but what exactly is a healthy and powerful disciple?
Below I give four critical elements that ensure a person is heading for their true north in a discipleship sense.
A heart of faith, hope & love
The primary focus of discipleship is not the obvious outward indicators we long for people to display. Discipleship is above all a heart journey where the prodigals and pilgrims come progressively home to their Abba Father.
We can teach almost anyone to behave as we think a Christian should – but that is merely performance and has little connection to Christian maturity. Most remain quite broken inside, and yet we send them out to fix a broken world. Reality check, that’s never going to work.
In 1 Cor. 13:13, Paul crystalises the Christian life down to three elements that mattered before the fall, after it, and will go on to matter forever – faith, hope and love. These are what we need to build into the hearts of our disciples.
Faith is a dynamic and relationally-based reliance on the nature and word of God. It is fuelled by feeding on every word that proceeds (note: “proceeds”, not merely “proceeded”) from the mouth of God, and fuels our soul. As such, it requires an open connection with God through His Spirit.
Hope is an expectant mindset that looks for what can be, or in the case of our eternal home what will be. It sees that potential, and both longs and works for it to be realised as much as possible now. Hopeful people live in the constant tension between what is present and what is possible, yet without prolonged discouragement.
This is a vital element of spiritual growth because many people feel stuck in their addictions and obligated to their past. They need genuine hope for breakthrough, and theological permission to pursue it.
Love is obviously all about connecting relationally, ministering to each other from the overflow of the love we have received from God. Love is the motivator and mechanism of outreach and community. Scripture consistently elevates love as the primary element of a godly lifestyle, and yet it doesn’t stand alone. Love must be fuelled from within, and much of that is sourced from the other elements of faith and hope.
A rhythmed lifestyle
Having already written books and articles on living out the Rhythms of Grace, I won’t labour the point much here. In summary, all of creation is designed to operate within the ebb and flow of seasons and rhythms. Few facets of life can be pursued in isolation without investing time in its opposite. Failure to do so brings exhaustion and ultimately a reduction in “performance”.
The principles and practice of Sabbath were made for us, giving permission to regularly feed our souls and embrace the recreation needed after the strenuous pressure of life. Spiritual growth especially requires intentional pushing forward with spiritual disciplines, and then retreating back in rest.
A lifelong journey of formation
The re:FORM course was developed to equip disciples in how to take comprehensive steps of growth. But even though some facets of growth are like sequential steps, spiritual growth is not a linear journey. The seasons come around time after time. Whether it be pruning (autumn); wilderness (winter); new growth (spring) or reproduction (summer) – the seasons keep on rolling and taking us to new experiences of capacity, character and competence.
The journey is all about becoming more and more like Christ would look, if Christ was you. There is no destination, or moment of completion – we go from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18).
A focus on building their people
When you find your people and you have found your purpose. Rather than relentlessly pursuing greener fields, we should look to the family, friends and communities God has given us. Our primary calling in a functionary sense is to impact people with God’s help.
This focus can easily get lost in the maelstrom of life and the individualism that pervades our nation. I developed the re:FOCUS course to help bring people back on track with their eternal purposes in Christ. We are to enjoy community and reach into our community intentionally.
What I have given here is a not a list of things to teach – it is a framework. You need to fill in the spaces and provide content for your context.
The resources on this site can help you do that, but there is more to it. You need to create a culture where this framework can come to life. But that’s for another article.