Relational Discipleship

Part 4: Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment
“Jesus not only told us to make disciples but also gave us a model to follow in doing so. I believe that most Christians have divorced the teachings of Jesus from the methods of Jesus, and yet they expect the results of Jesus. I believe his methods are just as divine as his teachings. He showed us that the fundamental methodology in making disciples is relationships grounded in truth and love. Jesus is the greatest disciple maker in history, and his way works. Discipleship is the emphasis. Relationships are the method. Jesus invited people into relationships with himself; he loved them and in the process showed them how to follow God. His primary method was life-on-life.” – Jim Putman, Discipleshift
My first introduction to Relational Discipleship was when I took an elective while finishing up my M.A. in theology. In that class I read Putman and Harrington’s Discipleshift, Putman’s Church is a Team Sport and Real Life Discipleship, Earley and Dempsey’s Disciple Making Is…, Hull’s Complete Book of Discipleship, and Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.
As I read Putman and Harrington’s Discipleshift, I sat in my living room and alternated between crying from broken-heartedness over the condition of the church, and laughing for joy over having finally found what I believed to be the answer for the condition of our churches. I read the rest of Putman’s books and then attended a Discipleshift conference to see if what they were proposing was possible. I was more than convinced that it was. I was also convinced that even though I was a pastor, I didn’t know how to make disciples of Jesus. So, I resigned my position as a youth pastor, moved back to my hometown, got a secular job, and began working toward an MDiv. in Discipleship Ministries.
But I wanted to do more than just study discipleship. So, my wife and I began a small group; and I began to have conversations with everyone I knew about what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. I assumed that because I lived in a Jesus-saturated culture, everyone would be as excited as I was to learn what was wrong with our churches. I was greatly mistaken.
I discovered several harsh truths. The first thing that I discovered was that Relational Discipleship can be misused to make disciples of something or someone other than Jesus. In the first century, the Pharisees made disciples of themselves, their traditions, and their theology in relational environments using Scripture just as Jesus did (Matthew 23:15, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33, Acts 22:3). Cults such as JWs and the Mormons make disciples of their errant theology in relational environments using Scripture; and they probably do a better job of making disciples than most Evangelical churches do. Even churches that generally hold to orthodox Christian theology can make disciples of something other than Jesus in relational environments using Scripture (just like my church did). Ultimately, all churches are making disciples of something or someone.
Now, you may have just said something in your head along the lines of, “Well they aren’t using Scripture, they are TWISTING Scripture!”; and you would be right. But that is my point. Before convincing churches and church leaders that they need to make disciples of Jesus in relational environments; we need to clearly establish what a disciple of Jesus actually is, and what the ultimate goal of being one is. Otherwise, we might be empowering misled church leaders with a tool to make disciples of someone or something else, under the name of making disciples of Jesus.
Discipleship, and to a lesser degree Relational Discipleship, have become buzzwords and the cool new thing to do in American Evangelicalism. Therefore, we have to be careful that when we claim to be engaging in Relational Discipleship, we are actually doing so in order to make disciples of Jesus who imitate and obey Him. I have interacted with several churches in my immediate culture and context who have read Putman’s books (or something similar) and claim to be engaging in Relational Discipleship; but after visiting their churches, I had to bite my tongue because I wanted to tell them, “I’ve been to Putman’s church, and y’all are not coming anywhere close to doing what they are doing.” Simply claiming to be engaging in Relational Discipleship does not mean that we are; and even if we are, we can still be misusing it to make disciples of someone or something other than Jesus.
What particularly occurs in my culture and context is that we employ the logical fallacy of semantics/equivocation to make the term “disciples of Jesus” mean disciples of whatever we have already been making disciples of (whether it be theology, tradition, worship style, a pastor, et cetera) and then use pet scriptures (often taken out of context) to justify doing so. However, Jesus specifically prohibited us from using logical fallacies in Matthew 5:33-37. Furthermore, all logical fallacies are lies and thus come from Satan (Matthew 5:37, John 8:44).
Every Wednesday night when I was a kid, I attended RAs at my home church (Royal Ambassadors for Christ, a church program that was like Boy Scouts before there was Awanna; I even still know the pledge). And every Wednesday, we would rush through the lesson so that we could go outside and play softball. If you asked me what we did on Wednesday nights at church, I would tell you that we played softball.
Except, we didn’t actually play softball. We normally didn’t have enough people to play a game of softball, so usually we played a game called money-ball. In money-ball you would get an imaginary dime for catching a groundball, a quarter for a one-hop, and a half-dollar for a fly-ball. Whoever got to an imaginary dollar first, got to bat next.
If you drove by the church softball field, you would think we were playing softball. And if you asked us, we would tell you we were playing softball. But we were not doing the most important thing you do when playing softball; trying to score runs. The entire point of softball is to score runs. Everything else centers around that one goal. Everything else is either done to accomplish, or prevent that one goal. If you are not trying to score runs, you are not playing softball; you are just doing something that looks like playing softball.
As churches, we are often doing the equivalent of playing money-ball. We are doing everything but the one thing we are supposed to be doing; making disciples of Jesus who know and keep all of His words, teachings, commands, and example in relational environments. We might insist we are making disciples of Jesus, and to the outside world it might look like we are making disciples of Jesus; but when you look closely at the life of those supposed disciples, they are not imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciple.
Those Wednesday night sessions were a form of Relational Discipleship; they just didn’t use them correctly in order to teach us to be disciples of Jesus. Some of those guys I played money-ball with are still some of my best friends 30 years later. We developed a lasting, meaningful relationship on those nights. If the church had wanted to use those Wednesday nights to teach us to be disciples of Jesus, we would have been there just the same, and probably eager to learn how to be disciples of Jesus. Moreover, we were usually also there for Sunday School, the Sunday morning worship service, Sunday night youth group, and then sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights for youth gatherings. We literally “did life together.” And in every one of those meetings, the Bible was taught.
But even though we “did life together” and studied the Bible while doing so, we were not being taught to be disciples of Jesus. We were being taught to be disciples of our traditions, our denomination, our culture, our worship style, et cetera. The point being, you can do Relational Discipleship and still not be making disciples of Jesus. This is why it is important to establish the other three principles of discipleship that I have argued for (or something similar) when you gather together for Relational Discipleship. Again, those principles are:
  1. The Image of God as the Basis of Discipleship. The ultimate goal of the Gospel of Jesus is that men bring glory to God by being re-conformed to the image of God that they were originally created to be.


  1. The Purpose of Imitating and Obeying Jesus as His Disciple. The goal of men being re-conformed to the image of God is accomplished by men imitating and obeying Jesus (who is the perfect image of God) as His disciple; through the supernatural empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.


  1. The First Century, Biblical Understanding of Discipleship. Imitating and obeying Jesus as His disciple begins (but does not end) with specifically learning and then keeping the words, teachings, commands, and the example that He gave during His earthly ministry. It is simply impossible to imitate and obey someone without knowing what they said and did.


These first three principles ensure that the disciples that we are making are actually disciple of Jesus who imitate and obey Him, and that they know why it is necessary to imitate and obey Him. These three principles then lead to the fourth principle of discipleship; the environment in which disciples of Jesus are to be taught to imitate and obey Him:


  1. Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment (Relational Discipleship). Being conformed to the image of Jesus by imitating and obeying Him as His disciple is not a passive process, but an active/interactive process that occurs within a relational environment; one which was established and demonstrated by Jesus during His earthly ministry


If I were to ask a member of a church in my culture and context if they are a disciple of Jesus and if their church is making disciples of Jesus in relational environments, they would probably answer “Yes!” even though the lives of those “disciples” would prove otherwise. You can play a game with a ball and a bat on a softball field and not actually play a game of softball. By the same token, you can teach Scripture in a relational environment and not make disciples of Jesus.
But at the same time, the only place you can play a real game of softball is on a softball field. And by the same token, the only place you can actually make disciples of Jesus is Biblical Discipleship within a Relational Environment. Simply because churches and cults have misused Relational Discipleship, we cannot abandon it.
As disciples of Jesus, we must not only obey Him, but also imitate Him in as much as it is possible in our particular culture and context. And if we look closely at the ministry of Jesus, He interacted with His disciples differently than He did with the crowd:
“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matthew 13:34).
“[Jesus] did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything” (Mark 4:34).
“Then [Jesus] looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:34-35).
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (Luke 10:38-39).
“When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind” (Luke 8:35).
In case you missed it, being alone with Jesus, or sitting with Jesus, or sitting at His feet is Relational Discipleship. Thus, because Jesus made disciples in relational environments, then we as His disciples who imitate Him must also make disciples in relational environments. Ultimately, Relational Discipleship is the environment in which God has ordained that spiritual development into the image of Jesus should occur. Only in extreme cases such as solitary imprisonment would it possibly occur otherwise. For the rest of us, there is no being conformed to the image of Jesus outside of Relational Discipleship. Either we engage in Relational Discipleship, or we do not follow and imitate Jesus as His disciple.
Putman and the other discipleship leaders who are currently advocating for Relational Discipleship are not the first to do so. In the mid-twentieth century, Dr. Robert Coleman quoted the late Dr. Billy Graham in The Master Plan of Evangelism:
“It is not without great significance that the leading evangelist in the world today, Billy Graham, recognizes the tremendous potential of this plan when used properly in the church. In response to the question, ‘If you were a pastor in of a large church in a principal city, what would be your plan of action?’ Mr. Graham replied: ‘I think one of the first things I would do would be to get a small group of eight or ten or twelve people around me that would meet a few hours a week and pay the price! It would cost them something in time and effort. I would share with them everything I have, over a period of years. Then I would actually have twelve ministers among the laypeople who in turn could take eight or ten or twelve more and teach them. I know one or two churches that are doing that, and it is revolutionizing the church. Christ, I thing, set the pattern. He spent most of his time with twelve men. He didn’t spend it with a great crowd. In fact, every time he had a great crowd it seems to me that there weren’t too many results. The great results, it seems to me, came in this personal interview and in the time he spent with his twelve.’ Here Mr. Graham is merely echoing the wisdom of Jesus’ method.”
Relational Discipleship can be difficult. This is why it is often avoided or misused. Even when it is adopted and practiced, the participants must constantly ensure that are actually engaging in true Relational Discipleship, and that they are actually being and making disciples of Jesus. For these reasons, before we attempt to implement making disciples of Jesus in relational environments, we need to ensure that we are clear on the ultimate purpose of discipleship, that we understand what a disciple of Jesus exactly is, and that we know how and where a disciple of Jesus is to be made. It doesn’t matter if you teach these principles of discipleship exactly as they are presented in these articles, or if you have a different resource that presents the same information in a different format; if we expect to see a disciple making movement in our modern cultures and contexts, then we need to be teaching and observing everything that Scripture teaches and commands us to observe regarding being and making disciples of Jesus.