Episode 01: Defining Discipleship

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A friend of mine likes to say, rather than defining a disciple, he talks about describing a disciple.

I have with me two friends of mine, Rev. Matt McClure and Rev. Peter Cammarano. I’ve known Matt for about four or five years now; Peter and I met just a year ago but have become fast friends.

Rev. Matt McClure is the pastor of Prairie City Christian Reformed Church in Prairie City, Iowa. It’s a small farming community; Matt came there seven years ago after he graduated from seminary. This is a church that had a history before that of beating up pastors, one of those churches that almost closed, and then they went through a pretty remarkable recovery and looked forward to a better future. The church has been growing well under Matt’s leadership. I’ve been coaching with Matt and the church for about the last four years. We worked first on charting their next course as a church, and then around discipleship, and they’ve done a good job of this. I’m glad that Matt’s with us here for this episode.

And also here with me is Pastor Peter Cammarano. Peter is the pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Lake Jackson, Texas. That’s a church of about 160 people on Sunday morning. Peter has been there seven years, and 260 on a Sunday.

We’re going to have a conversation today around defining discipleship. Both their churches have done a really good job of this, as well as a lot of other churches. I thought it would be good for us to sit down and talk about this.

You know, a lot of times, churches say it can be frustrating trying to work on discipleship, and I can understand that. When people, a church, doesn’t have a clear sense of what we are talking about — are we all talking about the same thing?

Matt, tell us a little bit about what it was like for you all, trying to work on discipleship before you had a definition.


Before we had a definition, it was…an easy answer. So when we talked about doing discipleship in the church, we actually never really talked about discipleship, we just talked about “Sunday School,” or we talked about, “Cadets,” and “Gems.” And we ran into the roadblock of assumption. That assumption was that as soon as you do a ministry within the church, it is discipleship.


Bizarre is a good word for it. And those assumptions — yeah, people bring a lot of assumptions to the table. Kind of like you were saying, that anything you’re doing inside the church is discipleship, and how much of it is actually growing a disciple.

Peter, did you run into any of those assumptions, or other challenges you had before you all actually came up with a definition?


Yeah, I can agree with Matt’s conversation. Without a definition of discipleship, it was either, we were searching for activity, right? What things can we put on that will attract and make people active? But not all of those things were making disciples. And of course, we didn’t have a good definition for what a disciple was, and so as a church leader, when you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.

The other thing that was interesting is that my denomination wanted to know about activity. They wanted to know, my phrase is, “how many hineys were in the pews and how many dollars were in the plate.” But discipleship seemed to be more than THAT. Those who attended often and gave often, were not often considered our deepest disciples.

So, yeah, it was frustrating and challenging.


Peter, you referred to denomination. What’s neat here is that Peter and Matt represent two different theological backgrounds. Peter is United Methodist out of a Wesleyan background, and Matt is Christian Reformed out of more of a reformed background. Two brothers that have a lot in common, but we also have some theological nuances, which is good too. Feel free to talk about that if that impacts this at all.

So, Peter, what is the definition that you guys came up with there at Chapelwood?


Right, we had done vision, mission, and values using CHURCH UNIQUE. It’s a good book, it was a good process. And we’d come up with this idea that what the church is about is helping people take their next step. But what we found within the first three years of having that kind of mission, vision, value framework is that we kept encouraging people to take their next step, but we gave them no idea of what their next step was.

Our definition, with the help of Ascending Leaders, we took that vision, mission, and values, and some other images that were working well in the church. We had a church lay leader hike the Appalachian Trail one year, and he came back really changed and transformed. Then he turned around and took a couple men of the church to hike an easier trail, the Lonestar Trail, and we learned about how there are these little white blazes all along a hiking trail — they don’t happen on every tree but they happen within sight of each other. And so you know where you’re going because you follow the white blazes.

There are other indicators for difficulty or challenge. And so coming back from that trip, the leaders of the church really loved the idea that a disciple is someone who has identified and is taking the next step in their faith journey with Christ and helping others to do the same. So that’s our definition.

It gets beyond just hineys in the pews and dollars in the plate, and it begins moving people towards God’s desired future for them.


So I can see, people at Chapelwood UMC, when you talk about a disciple, hopefully they’re thinking about hiking a trail, taking your next step.

Matt, how about you? What’s the definition you guys came up with?


Alright, so the definition that we came up with. A disciple is one who is following Christ in an ongoing life process to grow closer to God, love others more deeply, and participate in the Great Commission. Our tagline that we really like to use is to be disciples who make disciples.

Those were a couple things that were birthed out of the fact that it can’t be seen as something that you arrive at, and then you’re done. We continually struggle with the mentality that you hit a certain point and you’re done.

So we wanted to help people move through that mentality and continue to see broadness and the depths of being a disciple, and so we worked a lot through the stages of faith that we got from DiscipleForward workshops with Ascending Leaders and Mike, and the breakdown of those stages.

We as a church really felt that a representation of that for us personally would be the stages of a tree. Acorn is that first “Strangers to Jesus,” and then the Sprout is “Friend to Jesus,” and Sapling is “Close to Jesus,” and Oak is “Christ-centered.” And I really love the ending one, the oak tree, because it’s not really an end. The oak tree provides food for animals, provides shade for the traveler, it provides security and groundedness… it keeps even the ground grounded. It offers a place to play; for me, it’s one of those continuation ideas of DiscipleOn.

Tune into the podcast for the full story of how these two different churches arrived at their definitions of discipleship, and what struggles they each faced.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

Episode 0: What is Discipleship?


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Often as I talk to pastors and church leaders today, when they really get honest there is a frustration with discipleship in their church—with helping people move forward in Christ.

In the early 90’s when I was church planting, God led us to lead a number of people to Christ, to build this church out of people who were outside of church. But what we didn’t do a very good job at was growing people.

I became frustrated by that, and I looked around and saw that other churches weren’t doing it well either.

So that started me on a quest to find out how to disciple people better. How to do it well. I tried some different things, tried some groups, and we really made some good progress. It also got me started on what has become a life-long habit of reading books about how people grow, how Christians grow, and how Christians grow as disciples.

One of the things that I saw from experience that was also confirmed in literature is that most Christians really aren’t growing much over a lifetime. In fact, one study showed that from the time somebody accepts Christ to the time they pass from this earth, they may show perhaps six percentage points of growth. In this study they started at around 60% and grew over their life to 67 or 68%. (Michael Zigarelli, Cultivating Christian Character, Fairfax, VA: Xulon Press, 2002, p. 32)

And then in 2007, REVEAL survey results came out from the Willow Creek Association. The REVEAL study is one of the best studies that’s been done on discipleship. Perhaps you won’t be surprised that the largest group in your average church is those that are at an “adolescent” (Stage 2) place of faith. Even those who we consider mature, who have been in leadership, who have been around for a long time… when you really scratch beneath the surface you’ll find that they aren’t that far in their development.

And so, as we observed and as I listened, even in churches that are vibrant, that vibrancy is often attached to a charismatic leader. At some point that leader will be gone. And then what?

And as I asked people about leadership issues, I became aware that between 60-90% of leadership and leadership development issues were really about someone loving God more deeply and loving others better.

And so, 60-90% of the leadership issues were really issues about discipleship.

If you try to teach people leadership skills and you build that on a weak foundation of little growth in their love for God, then eventually that leadership skills training is going to implode.

Instead, if we’re doing discipleship well, then we’re moving people far in the growth of future leaders. Stronger disciples make better leaders in the future.

I wonder… why in so many staff positions in churches, is someone hired away from another church? Wouldn’t it be a more beautiful thing when you see a person who is growing as a disciple and they grow from one place to another place to another place to becoming a leader in that church?

A friend who is a lead pastor of a church of several congregations, a church that has also planted several churches—he helped plant that church 26 years ago as their youth pastor.

What if growing from being the youth pastor to being the lead pastor of a church like this, what if that was more the vibrant norm rather than an exception?

In the early years of Ascending Leaders, a pastor of a mega-church in Austin, TX, that we were working with, asked what my desire was in working with them. I told him that if in five years, I was in a meeting with their key leadership, and I saw around the table five people who had become staff who had not been recruited in from another church, but rather who had become believers there, were young believers that had been discipled and had been grown as leaders to that place of influence, and if Ascending Leaders had helped that church grow them well, then I would feel fulfilled.

Seven years later I found myself sitting with that staff. I looked around the room—there were probably 35 to 40 people there—and I saw five people on staff who had started as young Christians in discipleship groups back in 2005, in groups that were using materials from Ascending Leaders, guided through those materials to be stronger disciples.

And I felt privileged that God allowed me and other friends to write that material, to train, to help that church raise up those leaders.

  • We at Ascending Leaders succeed when we help a church when it is building and teaching and implementing a clear DisciplePath for their people.
  • We succeed when their leaders are coaching individuals in ministries to define the disciple journey and to build opportunities and repeated experiences that keep moving people forward.
  • We also succeed when the church feels that it has in Ascending Leaders a dependable friend alongside, like a Barnabas. Not a friend that simply markets a line of books, but one that keeps growing in its abilities and capacities to meet the church’s growing needs for building quality DisciplePaths for decade-plus movement.

So “discipleship”. What is it? That word discipleship is actually a made-up word. You won’t find it anywhere in Scripture. Think of it as the act of forming a disciple.

Now there’s a lot of confusion about this word. Sometimes it comes from the fact that some people see “the acts that I do because I am a disciple” as discipleship.

Such as, when I give up something I love to do in order to spend that time with my wife or to serve another person or to visit someone in prison. Some say that is discipleship.

Here’s the problem with that.

When you say that the fruit of your life is discipleship, then it becomes a situation where generally anything a Christian does is discipleship.

Rather, what if you see discipleship as simply that which forms, shapes, and grows you as a disciple?

Adding to that the results of being formed, I believe, makes the word mean so much that it really means nothing.

So that leads us to: what is the target?

What is a disciple?

When we say the word “disciple,” there are probably thought bubbles popping up over the heads of everyone hearing this, and each one is completely different.

What comes to mind when you think about the word “disciple?”

Do you think of someone who is really intense, or someone who is simply a believer in Jesus, or do you think it’s something that happened way back when, when Jesus was on this Earth—but not today?

We’ll talk more about a definition of discipleship and what makes a good definition later. For now, let me share my own definition.

The image I get is from the movie The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Remember him?

He sought to steal Christmas and steal the happiness of the people of Whoville. And there he was on Christmas morning—he had stolen all of their gifts. He thought he had ruined Christmas.

Then what he heard was people singing. In seeing their joy, even though they didn’t have the gifts or the tinsel… in seeing their joy, his tiny cold heart grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

Without Christ we are all Grinches.

I see a disciple as one whose heart is bound with Christ’s and is growing larger in love for God.

For some, this growth is very, very slow; for some, it even stops growing for a time. For some, a long time.

And yet, a disciple is one whose heart is growing larger, and larger, and larger for God—and then for others as well.

How does this disciple heart of ours grow?

Well, let’s look at the growth of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and how he relates to them. We see in the gospels that Jesus gives his disciples four invitations and one declaration.

The first invitation he gives is, “Come and see.”

In John 1:30, we see some of the twelve come to him and say, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”, and he says, “Come, and you will see.”

These people are curious. And on the outside looking in, they are not sure if he is the Messiah, if he’s the Savior and Lord. But they’re considering it.

Then Jesus gives the invitation of, “Come and follow me.”

In Matthew 4:19 we read about that, Jesus saying, “Come and follow me and I will send you out to fish for people.”

When we’re in this stage, we’re binding our heart to Christ’s heart. We’re coming and following him. We’re growing in him.

But then, there comes a time when we hit a wall. Our heart gets broken and crushed. And we wonder.

And then Jesus says to us, “You will have trouble, but overcome.”

That’s the declaration he makes.

Then there’s his third invitation, “Now that you’ve been a bruised reed and I’ve healed you, then come and be with me.” Trust me again. Trust me more deeply.

And the last invitation is, “Remain in me.” Or, abide in me.

In John 15, we hear that invitation from Jesus seven times, over and over. Remain in me, and I will remain in you.

Remain in me. That is a stage of deep sacrifice. Of acts of obedience, remaining in Jesus.

So we have those four invitations:

  1. Come and SEE.
  2. Come and FOLLOW.
  3. Come and BE.
  4. REMAIN in me.

And the one declaration, “You will have trouble. But I have overcome. Overcome with me.”

Let’s get back to that definition of disciple.

I believe that is a really good definition. Not just because it comes from Scripture, but it also fits a model of what makes a strong definition.

Think of the acronym C.O.R.E.

C – Core

O – Ours

R – Rooted

E – Encompassing

This definition is continual. It’s continually developing, just like the twelve kept developing. Like love isn’t something you turn on and off, you don’t fall in love and fall out of love. It’s like a brightener switch. It’s something that can get more and more and more intense.

The “O” is for “ours.” To use language that fits a local setting. I personally respond well to the feelings of an abiding love, that grows in me. An abiding love that’s not going to let me down.

I’ve been let down in life. At times, I’ve found it hard to gain acceptance. And so a love that’s like that fits well with me. It connects with me.



The “R” is for “rooted.” This means rooted in the context of Scripture. We can see in the first twelve that they loved God, and they loved him in a growing capacity in response to His love. This definition of disciple fits that model.

Finally, the “E” is for “Encompassing.” In other words, fitting someone in any stage they are as a follower of Jesus. From that very early, “Come and See,” to that much later, “Remain in Me.”

“Loving God more deeply” fits someone just where they’re started, because where they’re at they can love him more deeply, as well as someone who is hitting their head against a wall and wanting to trust more deeply and overcome, to someone who is remaining in a long and abiding love.

So you can see how my definition fits the criteria of a C.O.R.E. definition of discipleship.

Now, one of the aspects of growing more deeply in love with Jesus is our identity—how we see ourselves in relation to God.

I remember when I was a child, I felt very much like I was on the outside. God was out there. I didn’t feel very connected. That’s a time when Jesus was giving me the invitation, “Come and see.” Come and see if my love is deep. Come and see if I really do love you. Come and see if I’m personal.

Then there were those 10-15 years where I was in that stage of following Christ. Growing, getting my feet wet in serving, with increasing responsibility, even some early leadership tasks with others my age.

I saw myself then as a servant. In fact, I still have a wood burning in my office that really wrapped up who I saw myself as, my identity. It says, “Lead on, Lord.”

I’m a servant, wanting Him to lead me on.

And then I hit a wall. That shook my world so much that I wondered if I’d lose my family, if I’d lose my marriage, my work, my home. And that wall forced me to go much deeper with God. It knocked me on my spiritual butt and I began to ask some of the questions over again. “Lord, can I trust you? What I thought you’d provide you haven’t provided. Can I trust you?”

And that led, finally, into ten years or so of the “Be with me” stage. Where for the most part, I was about being with Jesus.

It involved grasping the identity that he loved me. No matter what I did or didn’t do. No matter if I succeeded or failed. No matter what others thought of me, whether they liked me or didn’t like me; or what they said about me. None of that affected his love for me. His desire for me. His complete forgiveness.

It also involved letting go of my ideal mental model, of becoming a well-rounded Christian active man. It meant facing up to my limitations and becoming okay with them.

It was a time of looking around at how God had been shaping my life. What he had used to shape me. And he had used often people who loved me and encouraged me, and who slowed down enough to be with me.

And I sensed a more focused calling from him. What to focus my life on.

That is, to focus my life on slowing down, to help others and encourage them in their growth.

To help them grow as followers of him.

It was out of that experience that I wrote the process we first shared with people through a retreat. Then we put it into a workbook form that people could use in threes or fours to see how God has been shaping their life. To look at their life, they actually use all kinds of sticky notes and they put them all together and they look for patterns.

We call it Charting Your Course. It’s about getting your focused identity.

What is it that God is calling of you… to be, and to do?

In recent years, I believe I’ve been moving into the fourth stage of ultimate surrender. I still have so far to go, but I do believe that more often I love God so deeply that I’d give up anything, or take up anything, in an act of obedience. Anything that he asks of me.

Far too many churches get stuck on this discipleship thing, for several reasons.

One is, they count on a fad to grow disciples. The 30 days of this, or the 40 days of that. And it lasts only a little while before they’re on to something else.

Or, they define a disciple as if they are people in only one stage or another. As if the other stages don’t matter.

Or, they have one tool. A tool that may work great in one stage but does not work best in the other stages.

Or they relate to all disciples the same. Jesus related differently to the disciples in each stage. And our discipleship needs are different in each stage. So churches can’t relate to all people the same for discipleship.

They may try to apply outmoded ideas—ideas that haven’t worked in the past and are built on incorrect assumptions.

Or they may try to mimic what another church is doing.

They may ask for too little or push for too much beyond what people in a stage are ready for.

They’ve not clarified their target. What is a disciple? So people are moving in different directions trying to grow as disciples.

Or they make it really complex.

Or they make it mechanical, or mechanistic, instead of relational as Jesus did discipleship.

I expect that the rest of this year, Ascending Leaders will find itself coaching 30 churches. My heart skips a beat when I hear stories of disciples growing more deeply in love with God, in some tangible way, because they were part of one of the churches Ascending Leaders is coaching in 2017. Or they’ve learned from us through a teaching venue or our resources or our website, and a church has started some different behavior which is better helping people move to a deeper place in love with God.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Founder and Executive Director​ of Ascending Leaders

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