Models of Discipleship Throughout Church History
There are many ways to do discipleship. In fact, I would say that there are as many ways to do discipleship as there are people. C.S. Lewis said, "Let God be as unique with others as he was with you." That means there are billions of ways to do discipleship.
When I began my journey as Pastor of Discipleship at National Community Church, I read as much as I could about different models and methods of discipleship. The Bible does not give a handy "7 Keys to a Successful Discipleship Program." But it does outline principles that can be applied. Those principles have been applied in various ways by the church throughout history.
The first model of discipleship that we see in history is the Relational model, which was the dominant approach to spiritual growth during the first few centuries of the church. It is built upon the premise that discipleship will occur naturally when Christians live in community with one another. Relational discipleship was vitally important during the early church because there was no New Testament and there were very few copies of Old Testament writings available to the common people. Spiritual truths were conveyed through the stories of the apostles and their letters to the churches.
The relational model of discipleship is reflected Biblically in Paul’s encouragement to Timothy: "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others." The relational nature of discipleship is also reflected in the description of the first church in Acts 2, where we read that they met together in homes and they devoted themselves to the fellowship of the other believers.
Within the Relational approach to discipleship, people grew in their relationship to Christ as they grew in their relationship to one another.
Modern-day expressions of this method are seen most clearly in churches that structure themselves around cell groups and neighborhood community groups and in one-on-one discipleship models such as that outlined in books such as The Master Plan of Evangelism or Discipleship By Design.
As the church became more institutionalized, the Relational mode of discipleship gave way to a more Experiential mode of discipleship. Discipleship was directed at all 5 senses. Sights, sounds, and smells were strategically chosen to point people towards Christ. This method of discipleship is best implemented by the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions, and is reflected in their architecture, incense, music, iconography, and art.
The Experiential approach to discipleship is seen Biblically in the Tabernacle during the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. Every piece of furniture, every action, and every smell was strategically designed and implemented by God to draw people closer to him. The Experiential approach is also seen in Acts 2, as we read that the early followers of Christ were in awe of the work of the Holy Spirit around them. They experienced miracles and signs.
In Experiential discipleship, people were taught about Christ and grew in their relationship to him through a full immersion into a medieval multi-media experience.
Many post-modern or emerging churches are experimenting with these ancient forms of worship in an attempt to create an experience in which people are drawn close to Christ. These forms are discussed in works such as Ancient-Future Faith , The Emerging Church, and Reimagining Spiritual Formation.
The Age of Enlightenment, Protestant Reformation, and Industrial Revolution sparked a new form of discipleship—one that was rooted in an Academic or educational model. With the invention of the printing press, Scriptures could be printed in abundance and the availability of the printed Word increased. The "common" people could own their own copy of the Bible. Great emphasis was attached to the Word—Sola Scriptura—and the emphasis on relationship and experience were diminished. New philosophies and new forms of thinking, based on logic and reason, influenced the way Scripture was read and applied.
The academic approach to discipleship can be seen Biblically in Romans 12:2, where Paul instructs his readers, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." In other words, right thinking leads to right action. We also see this model of discipleship in Acts 2, where we read that the early church was devoted to the apostle’s teaching and continued to meet in the temple courts.
In the Academic approach to discipleship, people were taught about Christ and grew in their relationship to him through a systematic, academic approach.
This form of discipleship is best modeled by Reformed churches and Sunday School or Equipping programs of many evangelical churches. The works of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Puritans reflect this approach to discipleship. It is a focus on renewing our minds and striving to have the mind of Christ.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, two new approaches to discipleship emerged: Personal and Incarnational. We will examine the Personal approach first. Theologically conservative churches tended to move towards a Personal approach to discipleship. Bibles were produced in mass. Various translations became available. And individualistic Bibles were available- for women, for men, for leaders, for teenagers, for teachers, etc. Bible study literature was distributed for people to use throughout the week. Books like Experiencing God and the Purpose Driven Life were published to be used along with Scripture in spiritual formation. Many times, this approach was combined with the Relational model (small groups) or the Academic model (Sunday School); however, the emphasis on a "personal" relationship with Christ was most emphasized.
A Biblical example of the Personal approach to discipleship is seen in 2 Timothy 2:15, where Paul exhorts Timothy, Personal approach is also seen in Acts 2, where we read that people devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
It is interesting to note that this was also the approach to spiritual formation used by the Desert Fathers.
Within the framework of the Personal approach to discipleship, the church provided people with materials and taught them how to develop a personal relationship with God, and people grew in their knowledge and relationship with God through personal pursuit.
In the 20th century, more theologically liberal churches adopted a different approach—the Incarnational approach. These churches espoused a belief that Jesus’ call to action on behalf of the poor, sick, and oppressed was the channel by which we learned about him, became more like him, and grew in our relationship with him. We become like Jesus by being his hands and feet to the world around us. The Incarnational approach is closely tied to the Relational and Experiential approaches.
The greatest Biblical mandate for the Incarnational approach is seen in the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus instructs us to take care of the hungry, thirsty, sick, poor, stranger, and prisoner. The Incarnational approach is also reflected in Acts 2: "selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need."
Within the framework of the Incarnational model, people grew in their knowledge and relationship with Christ by seeking to become like him through service out outreach to others.
All of these models are Biblically valid, historically tested, and continue to find expression in the contemporary church. Each model appeals to different types of people.
What forms will discipleship take on in the 21st century and beyond? It is difficult to tell, but history demonstrates that it will certainly be tied to the technological advances and prevailing philosophies of the day. As we harness the power of new technologies, the message of discipleship will remain constant while the methods of discipleship will evolve.
At NCC, we will strive to create discipleship experiences that draw on the best of the historical forms while teaching Scripture and spiritual formation in ways that are relevant to our generation and culture. Using the Bible as our foundation and tradition as a guide, we will experiment with historical models of discipleship and reinvent them for the post-modern era. We will strive to be a church that incorporates a model of discipleship that is Relational, Experiential, Academic, Personal, and Incarnational.
Where Are You?What is the primary method of discipleship in your church? Is it relational with small groups or cell groups? Does it occur primarily through events and experiences? Do you offer Sunday School classes, equipping classes, or other academic forums for growth to occur? Do you facilitate personal growth at home? Are you involved in social justice or outreach to give people the opportunity to become the hands and feet of Christ?