Modern Discipleship and Spiritual Formation





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Modern Discipleship and Spiritual Formation

Dr Alex Tang

There is a need to differentiate discipleship and spiritual formation. Discipleship is difficult to define. In the New Testament, the term used of Jesus’ followers was disciples (mathētēs) which was used 262 times. However the term was rare in the Old Testament and not at all in the Epistles. This implies that there is a difference in emphasis on being a disciple in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and in the epistles.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites were called to a cultic Temple worship. Hence they were covenant holder with Yahweh, not disciples. In the Gospels, the disciples are followers of Jesus Christ in his presence, and were unique because that situation will never be repeated again. In the epistles, the followers of Jesus no longer have Jesus personally so have to depend on the Word and the Holy Spirit.

Thus, while it is easy to define disciples, it is hard to define discipleship. Discipleship is sometimes described by what they, the followers of Christ (Gospel) or the followers of the Risen Christ (epistle) are. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes discipleship as “allegiance to the suffering Christ.” Others however understand discipleship in terms of what disciples do in their spiritual life, involvement in evangelism and follow-up of new converts.

 What eventually happened was that discipleship becomes a school where disciples are taught evangelism, follow-up and living a Christian life. These disciples are also trained to teach others. They become “disciplemakers”, following the principles of 2 Tim. 2:2. Discipleship became very content-centered. It also became a program where one can progress from one level to another. This is usually done in within a limited timeframe. I shall call this “modern discipleship” to distinguish it from discipleship in the Gospels, and in the epistles. Spiritual formation arises out of a reaction against the inflexible, fixed, content-centered programs of modern discipleship.

The table below compares modern discipleship and spiritual formation.


Table 1: Modern Discipleship and Spiritual Formation

Writing in Making Disciples Jesus’ Way: Wisdom We Have Missed. (Columbia, MD: Bible-in-Context Ministries), Doug Greenwold (2007) makes a comparison between discipleship in Jesus’ time and discipleship today (which he termed Western discipleship) highlights it in a table “Making Disciples THEN and NOW.” Greenwold's definition of "Western" discipleship is similar to my definition of "modern discipleship" and his concept of making disciples then is similar to my concept of spiritual formation.

World of Making Disciples (THEN)

Western Discipleship (NOW)

Hebrew way-doing, action

Hellenistic way- thinking words, ideas

More concrete

More abstract

Integrated content is understood

Most content is missing

About integrations and synthesis- keeping things together

About analysis, categorisation, and labels-breaking things apart

“Believe” is a verb

“Belief” is a creed – consenting o a series of propositions

Emphasis on consistent behaviour

Much more of an emphasis on ideas

Community more important than individual-sacrifice personal rights for the benefit of the community

Individual more important than the community – sacrifice community harmony for the sake of personal interests

Concerned about right thing

Concerned with right thinking

Willingly submissive to rabbi’s authority

Submissive to no one except myself

Submit to rabbi’s interpretation

Create my own interpretation of the text

Willing to wrestle with the text for long periods of time

Preference for quick, simplistic answers through short encounters with the text

Focus on developing discernment

Lack of critical-thinking skills

Memorising Scriptures

Widespread biblical illiteracy

Live life in community

Functional lone rangers

Live integrated, holistic lives

Live in dichotomised spheres (sacred/secular, faith/work)

Desire to be a disciple

Often content to just “believe” in Jesus

Total surrender to their rabbi’s interpretative authority for living

Partial, elective surrender to Jesus’ authority as convenient

Nothing is hidden or off-limit to rabbinic scrutiny

Much of our lives are hidden from others

Life-issue oriented

Conceptually oriented

Dialogue intensive

Information-transfer intensive

Focused on men

Seems more women are being discipled today than men

 Table 2: Comparison: Making Disciples THEN and NOW

(modified from Doug Greenwold, 2007, 36)

Greenwold assumes some generalisations in his table but the basic intent of his message is clear. Discipleship as understood during Jesus’ time is different from “modern” discipleship. Modern discipleship, as Greenwold has observed, are very individualistic, cognitive orientated and pragmatic. Not all Christians subscribe to the concept of “modern” discipleship.

There are certain aspects of modern discipleship that we must be aware of.

First, modern discipleship is not biblical in its methodology. Discipleship in the Gospels is following Jesus around in person and learning from him. Discipleship in the epistle is learning from the Holy Spirit, the Word and the community of faith. Modern discipleship is indoctrination with structured training programs for the purpose of producing disciples. In biblical models, all teachings are life events oriented and lived experiences done in community or in small groups.

 Second, modern discipleship is objective-orientated. People are seen as an object to be moulded into a disciple or a disciplemaker. People are also seen as an objective to be achieved. To be a disciple, one must attend a certain number of teaching events (done on a one-to-one basis), take part in an evangelistic event and lead somebody “to Christ”. People should be given the dignity not to be considered an object.

Third, modern discipleship is individualistic. In its disciplemaking philosophy, the intent is to produce disciples with a personal relationship with God. Unfortunately modern discipleship has a weak ecclesiology. The program tends to produce very individualistic Christians. As new disciples are made, they were encouraged to join local congregations but the emphasis will be on training or making new disciples. Many believers who come out of the modern disciplemaking programs do not join the local congregations. Some went on to form small para-church nucleus of disciplemaking groups while the majority find that they do not fit in with the local congregation. Most end up as churchless Christians.

Finally, modern discipleship is not effective. Many disciple makers find that they do not produce more than two generations of disciplemaker. The chain usually ends at the third generation. Campus ministries which once major on disciplemaking are now refocusing their attention elsewhere.

The modern discipleship model heavily influences the current literature on spiritual formation. Modern discipleship placed a heavy emphasis on theological content, behavioural modification and psychology. As noted earlier, modern discipleship produces very individualistic Christians.

soli deo gloria


|posted 12 October 2005|


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