Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Modern Discipleship and Spiritual Formation

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.

There are certain aspects of modern spiritual formation 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

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Blogger Sivin Kit said...

Thanks Alex for this post ... and this important "distinction": modern discipleship.

"I shall call this “modern discipleship” to distinguish it from discipleship in the Gospels, and in the epistles."

"very individualistic Christians" .. this is an area that has been on my mind as well. A good dose of “allegiance to the suffering Christ.” would be a needed medicine to "what fits me" kind of spirituality.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

It is sad. I was involved in modern discipleship for many years and I thought I could really make a difference. Though I could see "fruits", i.e. numbers of people coming to Christ, number of disciples trained, number of disciples who are discipling others, unfortunately these fruits did not last. This led me to rethink about whole area of discipleship and spiritual formation.

Spiritual formation is still in its infancy as far as the concept goes. So is the emerging/emergent church movement. In time when the movement matures, it will look for something that will have lasting benefit. I believe then that spiritual formation will come to the fore.


11:33 PM  
Blogger Stanley Wong said...

Hi Alex,

Thanks for a very insightful article ... i was led here by a commentator on a blog posting about discipleship at

i have been a Christian for more than 30 years since i was a kid, and have heard the term discipleship being bandied about many times but did not understand what it means at all. Your article has certainly cleared that up for me, thanks again.

You wrote:"Modern discipleship placed a heavy emphasis on theological content, behavioural modification and psychology."

I am attending New Creation Church (in Singapore), and our senior pastor, Pastor Joseph Prince has said many times that when we come to church, it is not to listen to the pastor preach psychology, it is to listen to the pastor preach Jesus and His finished work on the cross.

He says listening to Jesus being preached every week will result in heart transformation, not mere behavioural modification.

Thanks again for your wonderful article.


11:30 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Stanley Wong,

Welcome. I am glad you find my article useful. Discipleship is not a program, a certain set of classroom lessons to be memorised but a process of following Jesus and becoming more like him. This involve transformation (metanoia) and not behaviour modification. This transformation is into the character of Jesus.

Your pastor is right in that coming to church and beng taught about Jesus every week is transforming. Paul writes that transformation starts with our minds (Rom.12:2) which leads to our hearts and souls.

1:44 AM  

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