By Ryan Rasmussen
As a pastor of a large church, I often question whether we’re discipling our people effectively.
Though large churches have more resources and staff than small churches, they are often no better equipped to help people take steps forward with Jesus. The truth is, churches of every size seem to struggle with knowing whether their discipleship processes are effective.
This might be the case because, well, it’s all a bit confusing.
Multiple discipleship models are available: house churches, Sunday school, small groups, missional communities, and many others. Discipleship in its many forms has been the subject of hundreds of books . . . and podcasts, conference breakout sessions, and blogs.
Everyone seems to have a take on the best way to grow people in their faith. So we try stuff. Some of it works well for a season, and then culture shifts or trends change and we’re back at the drawing board scratching our heads and wondering if we’ll ever get to the bottom of it.
This raises the question: What is the most effective way to disciple?
Is there a best way? An easy way? An efficient way?
Let’s table the trends for a moment to examine Scripture for a foundational answer through which we might filter future methods.
Luke 24:13-35 introduces us to two Christ followers on the road to Emmaus. The men are downtrodden because just a few days prior, Jesus—the One they were convinced was God—had been put to death. While on their journey, Jesus appears and begins to walk with them.
The text tells us “they were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16), and Jesus, in his freshly resurrected state, begins to question them about their somber attitudes.
One of the men responds, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (v. 18).
The men tell Jesus about the crucifixion and rumors of a resurrection, but it doesn’t take long for Jesus to recognize the doubt in their hearts.
In love, Jesus rebukes them: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (vv. 25, 26).
Interestingly, Jesus’ frustration seems less about the men’s lack of faith in the resurrection as with their lack of understanding and faith in Scripture (which, if they had been paying attention, foretold of Jesus defeating death).
The text elaborates: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27).
Jesus actually leads a Bible study with them as they travel down the road.
The story closes with the three men stopping to rest for the night. While reclining at a table after the long day’s journey, Jesus breaks bread and blesses it. This powerful moment prompts the travelers’ eyes to be opened and they realize who they’ve spent the day with. But then, immediately, Jesus disappears.
In excitement, the two men race to find the 11 apostles, confirming that Jesus is in fact alive!
By now, you might be wondering, What does this have to do with discipleship? Isn’t this merely a story about Jesus beating death and making it known to his followers, near and far?
Jesus teaches us a lot about discipling in these 23 verses.
Jesus walked with these men. He spent the day with them. He broke bread with them. Jesus discipled individuals this same way preresurrection as well. He wasn’t a “teacher from afar,” he was a friend and mentor.
It can be argued that meaningful relationship is built around three core principles: time, conversation, and accountability (you could argue that there are other key principles, but preachers do everything in threes, so just go with it).
Time—Jesus could have saved himself an entire day if he’d just told the travelers who he was at the beginning. But imagine how that would have changed the dynamic. The men would have been terrified . . . or shocked . . . or overwhelmed . . . and that would have hindered what Jesus wanted to accomplish. He wanted time with them. He wanted to teach them and open the Scriptures to them.
It’s almost unbelievable to think that on the day Jesus rose from the dead he mostly just walked along a dusty road with two dudes. That’s how Jesus spent his resurrection day.
Conversation—Dialogue is a powerful thing. It’s a chance to hear a person’s heart and thoughts. And Jesus allows for that while walking on the road to Emmaus. He made it impossible for the travelers to know who he was—because he wanted to hear from them in an authentic way as opposed to how they might communicate otherwise.
More often than not, life change doesn’t happen during a 30-minute sermon or a well-programmed worship service. Rather, it usually buds when people speak into each other and challenge one another with honest and open dialogue.
Accountability—It’s interesting that Jesus invested not only time and conversation with these men, but he found room for accountability as well.
Jesus was frustrated with the two men, not because they were unsure of what a group of women said about an empty tomb, but because they were unsure about what the Scriptures promised of Christ’s resurrection.
They were doubting (and ignorant to) God’s Word on the subject.
Jesus wouldn’t stand for it, and he used the journey to teach them.
For me, accountability is the most difficult aspect of discipleship. Although time is sometimes hard to come by, we make it work. And conversation often can be fun. Accountability though—that’s hard. Trying to guide another person to closeness with Jesus through sometimes difficult conversations is no walk in the park. It requires humility and gentleness and patience. It requires one to walk carefully the tension between grace and truth, as Jesus did.
Rooted in Scripture
The importance Jesus placed on God’s Word in this short story can’t be overemphasized.
Consider verse 27 once again: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
If I’m reading that correctly, Jesus walked the travelers through much of the Old Testament text. He began with Moses (the Torah) and then worked through the prophetic books. He walked through the Bible with them.
Jesus placed Scripture in a high place. Because of that, as we determine our own discipleship strategies, God’s Word has to be the anchor. Yes, relational investment is essential in helping one grow in Jesus, but if Scripture isn’t involved, is discipleship happening at all?
Our classes, small groups, and Bible studies can’t simply be social gatherings; it’s essential they are rooted in Scripture.
Discipleship isn’t easy, but Jesus clearly demonstrated it doesn’t have to be complex. Maybe Jesus was onto something when he directed us to simply love God and love people. Maybe that’s what it looks like to grow people in Jesus.
Ryan Rasmussen serves as lead pastor with First Christian Church, Canton, Ohio, and blogs at www.JesusForAllPeople.com.