Theology of Discipleship (Follow Me: A Personal, Communal, Intentional, and Evangelistic Call)

He knew His time was short. This carpenter from Galilee, Jesus, thought of you and me as He looked into the heart and eyes of twelve unschooled, ordinary men. He would depend on these men to carry His redeeming message of salvation to all the world from generation to generation. Compelled by his love for humankind and for them, He called them with two history-changing words: “Follow me.” No two words better sum Jesus’ call to discipleship. My theology of discipleship will begin by examining one’s personal and communal response to this call, followed by their intentional training of themselves and others to obey Jesus’ commands. I shall then tell how Jesus’ footprints lead His disciples to lost souls, teaching all disciples to follow Jesus all the way to Heaven. Finally, I shall recount my personal discipleship experiences along with my plans for discipleship for my remaining days on this earth.

Biblical Discipleship: A Personal Call and Response

Jesus does not call us to a set of rules or a discipleship program. He calls us to Himself. One’s doctrine, way of life, and participation in spiritual community flow from Jesus’ call to follow in His steps. Anything less becomes a form of religion that lacks power (2 Tim 3:5). Bruce Demarest describes this plight as he pens, “When our discipleship plans focus on gaining information (knowing) and acquiring skills (doing) rather than cultivation of the inner life (being), crucial issues of the soul are overlooked.”[1]

Discipleship begins with one’s personal decision to follow Jesus. Like Pilate, one must answer the question of what they will do with Jesus, who is called Christ (Matt 27:22). Discipleship is an “all in” call. Jesus makes this clear throughout the gospels as He teaches that unless we are ready to go give up everything for Him, we cannot be His disciples (Luke 9:23-26, 14:25-33).

One distorts the true meaning of discipleship by softening Jesus’ call to discipleship. Ogden, in his book, Transforming Discipleship, states a current dilemma. “Too often when it comes to moral values of lifestyle choices the churched and the unchurched appear almost indistinguishable.”[2] According to Jesus, we are either for Him or against Him (Matt 12:30). There is no middle ground (Rev 3:16).

While disciples will struggle and stumble, discipleship demands a wholehearted decision to follow and obey Jesus; thus, as Jesus directed in Luke 14, anyone who follows Him must count the cost of their willingness to do so. Learning to obey Jesus requires thought and understanding, which is often minimized in churches today. Charles Swindoll describes such thoughtlessness as he notes, “There are two things that are the most difficult to get people to do: to think…and to do things in the order of their importance.”[3]

When one desires to be saved they must count the cost of their willingness to follow Jesus. Too often people are added to church memberships without first becoming true disciples. Robert Coleman illuminates this missing discipleship with his words, “Indeed, it would appear that the teachings of Christ regarding self-denial and dedication have been replaced by a sort of respectable ‘do as you please’ philosophy of expediency.”[4] Dallas Willard calls this problem an accepted reality as he writes:

Non-discipleship is the elephant in the church. It is not the much-discussed moral failures, financial abuses or the amazing general similarity between Christians and non-Christians. These are only effects of the underlying problem. The fundamental negative reality among Christian believers now is their failure to be constantly learning how to live their lives in the Kingdom Among Us. And it is an accepted reality.[5]

This accepted reality can change, but change will require leadership courage. Church growth must include Jesus’ “all in” call to discipleship. Church members must first be disciples of Jesus.

In the mid-eighties, a church elder tearfully told my late husband that he would need to find another ministry job. He told him that the elders had no problem with what he preached, as it was all biblical; however, some of the members found it problematic that once he got out of the pulpit he expected the members to do what the Bible said. Anyone who makes disciples of Jesus must be willing to call others to repentance (2 Pet 3:9), to baptize them, and to teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 2:38-40). Michael Wilkin wisely opines, “All that we do in the church is somehow related to discipleship and discipling.”[6]

As the scriptures above show, all who desire to be saved must first become disciples of Jesus. Jesus’ definition of discipleship includes repentance from sin (Acts 2:37-38), embracing the Christian community (Rom 12:5), continual learning from the Word of God (2 Peter 1:3-7), and sharing Jesus’ purpose to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Thankfully, when one becomes a disciple they are given the indwelling Spirit of God and become part of a church community (Acts 2:38-40). In community, disciples use the Scriptures to help each other to become more like Jesus. Ogden pens, “In a discipling relationship, life circumstance becomes the setting for the exegetical work of God’s Word.”[7] Disciples need each other.

Biblical Discipleship: Disciples “Disciple” in Community

While discipleship begins with a personal response to Jesus, it then expands into a communal response to His call.  Jesus explains with His teaching “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). Disciples are members of each other (Rom 12:5). In community, disciples can present each other mature in Christ (Col 1:28-29). Gene Getz notes that when Paul used the “family” analogy he was illustrating relational Christianity.[8]

God knew it was not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18) and through Cain and Abel shows that we are our “brother’s keeper” (Gen 4:9). The New Testament writers, particularly Paul, repeatedly instruct disciples in ways to interact with “one another.” Early church fathers continued this theme, as John of the Cross taught, “The person who is alone without a spiritual guide…is like a glowing ember that is alone. It will become more frigid than hotter.”[9] A disciple of Jesus cannot function in isolation from other Christians any more than one’s leg can function without its brain, nerves, or muscles. Michael Wilkin writes that “All that we do in the church is somehow related to discipleship and discipling.”[10]

True disciples will open wide their hearts to other disciples, as Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13. Ogden notes that relational vulnerability, the centrality of truth, and mutual accountability are necessary ingredients for producing maturity in Christ.[11] Opening one’s heart to another can be a frightening thought which requires trust in the goodness of God and obedience to His plan. Aelred of Rievaulx spoke to this fear centuries ago as he penned, “What happiness, what confidence, what joy to have a person to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self. You need no fear to confess your failings to this person.” This also fits with “there is no fear in love”[12]

 Contemporary author David Kinneman notes that cross-generational building of the spiritual community helps prevent alienation as he writes:

The Christian community is one of the few places on earth where those who represent the full scope of human life, literally from the cradle to the grave, come together with a singular motive and mission.” He continues, “…many churches and parishes segment by age group and in doing so, unintentionally contribute to the rising tide of alienation that defines our times.”[13]

For disciples to grow and to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), church leadership must expect the members of the church to disciple each other. Leaders must then follow Jesus’ example of intentional discipleship in order to carry on His mission. Jesus preached to the masses, but He intentionally trained twelve men.[14]

Biblical Discipleship: Disciples “Disciple” Intentionally

Jesus knew that His ministry on earth was short; thus, He devoted His teaching and training specifically to twelve men, and even more intimately to Peter, James, and John. While leaders today are certainly not Jesus, they would do well to practice His training philosophy of discipling. Paul instructed Timothy to entrust the message to reliable people who would be able to pass it on (2 Tim 2:2), and he instructed those he taught to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 4:15-17). Christian leaders must invest their time and energy into training others.

Training does not happen by accident. It must be intentional and reproducible. Jim Putnam notes “Most of the time when discipleship is intentional, spiritual growth happens quickly.”[15] Mark Noll gives a powerful example of this principle by telling the story of an eighteenth-century preacher named Mark Witherspoon, who ran a tiny poor and rural school of unruly ill-prepared teenaged boys. He transferred his walk with Christ to these young men, mentoring and training them. From this school of unruly, teenaged boys emerged Princeton University. Of the 450 students he trained during his twenty-six years as the college president: 114 became ministers; 49 became US Representatives; 28 became state judges; 12 became members of the Continental Congress; 3 became US Supreme Court justices; 2 became foreign ministers; 1 became Secretary of State; 1 became Vice-President, and 1 became President of the United States.[16]

As churches practice discipling relationships, sometimes terminology is misleading. We use words to describe our relationships with someone, but the word means something different to them than it does to us. When expectations for a relationship are different, feelings get hurt. Ronald Rolheiser offers definitions to  discipling relationships:

I would define a discipling relationship as a “whole-life approach of involvement, transparency, and input between two disciples of Jesus. A discipling relationship between people in leadership may include a supervisory responsibility, or it might involve a mutually shared desire between leaders with similar maturity, to help one another to do and be our best for God.[17]

Discipling relationships, in order to be effective, must have clear expectations that allow for transition. Sam Laing writes, “Life changes. We change. Other people change too. As changes occur, allow your relationships to grow and adjust accordingly. Let’s remember God’s perfect plan: one imperfect person helping another imperfect person.”[18] Discipleship must be intentional, with consistent times of training, mentoring, teaching, and friendship building.

Biblical Discipleship: Disciples Make Disciples

Nothing was more important to Jesus than calling others to the Kingdom of God. Everything He did and said was about redeeming the world for God.[19] His desire was that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). A disciple of Jesus will have this same heart and mission.

Disciples need not be eloquent to make disciples, but they must be willing to sacrifice their time and comfort. Coleman notes, “There is a lot of talk in the church about evangelism and Christian nurture, but little concern for personal association when it becomes evident that such work involves the sacrifice of personal indulgence.[20] God works through all people to get His message out, as long as we are willing ambassadors (2 Cor 5:18-20). The Spirit of God enables disciples to carry on the redemptive mission of evangelism.[21] God supplies the power. Disciples supply the willingness. Discipleship always involves sharing one’s faith in Jesus with the world.

My Discipleship Journey

My discipleship journey began when I was a child. My dad took seriously the call to raise me in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). My mother was much like Eunice (2 Tim 1:5) as she taught me the Scriptures from an early age. As a family, we read the Bible together and prayed around the dinner table. My parents were hospitable and generous and taught me to be so. Whenever I received any money my dad would ask, “How will you honor God with your money?” He trained me to realize that everything really belongs to God. My parents shared their faith and had a learner’s spirit to become more effective in reaching the lost. The Kingdom of God came first for us. Church life was prioritized over extra-curricular activities. I saw discipleship lived out in practice and am deeply grateful for this training.

My parents could not make me become a disciple of Jesus. I had to make my own decision about following Him. During my preteen years, I became somewhat rebellious and my oldest sister became a “discipler” to me. She was my preteen Bible class teacher and knew I needed to change the direction of my life. She made the Bible real and practical to me and addressed the sin she saw in my life (Matt 18:15). She also sought to build closeness and family within our little preteen group.

As a young teen, I prayed and thought through the cost before becoming a Christian, understanding the need for repentance and that this was a forever decision that would completely change my purpose in life. In June of 1967, I was baptized and then looked mainly to my older sisters for questions I had about ways to live as a Christian. There was no organized plan for helping new Christians mature and grow (Col 1:28-29). Such a plan would have helped me greatly.

A year after I was baptized I began babysitting the children of our minister and his wife. I wanted to change the world for Christ, and she was the first woman I had known who studied the Bible with neighbors, taught evangelistic classes, and had a deep impact on other women. I wanted to be like this, and she must have seen this desire in me. She asked me over one day to talk about the Bible, about life, and to pray. After that one day, she asked me if I would like to continue this regularly. I was thrilled, and she was my mentor (discipler) until I graduated from college and married. (She recently lost her husband after caring for him for six years and has come back into my life as one who has gone ahead of me in experiences.)

My husband and I moved to various places while serving in the ministry and for several years I lacked someone involved in my daily life. My husband and I helped each other grow, as did some of the older men and women. Two women took me under their wings in a motherly way, but I did more training of them in how to reach out and study the Bible with other women. Since we were campus ministers, I focused on a few young women leaders, training them to make disciples and to train those new disciples in the ways of Jesus (Matt 28:18-20).

In 1987, we moved to Boston to be part of the ministry staff of a church that was growing quickly and planting churches around the world. We desired to learn more and to serve on the mission field. I learned how to more effectively disciple others during my first years in Boston and grew in many ways. During this time and ever since then I have had someone in my life with whom I open wide my heart (2 Cor 6:13), confess sins, and pray (James 5:16). I currently have several peers involved in my life as we help and encourage each other (1 Thess 5:11; Heb 3:13), share each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2), and serve one another (Gal 5:13). I am so grateful for these women and men.

My first priority in discipling has been with our children, who are now adults with families of their own. Throughout their childhood, we kept regular “set and kept” discipling times and also trained them through daily life (Deut 6:6-9). We still pray together, share the Bible with each other, and our lives are wide open with each other. Our relationships are deep, loving, and close. They are strong disciples who serve in ministry and disciple others. I feel about them like Paul did as he described the Corinthians (2 Cor 3:3).

As an older Christian woman I must strive to make it easy for women to feel comfortable within a discipling relationship by taking the initiative to be vulnerable and open. I am greatly blessed to have numerous women and several brothers in Christ in my life who meet different needs and with whom I function as fellow workers (Rom 16:3) and dear friends (Php 4:1). 


For the world to be won for Christ, one must first personally answer the call to follow Him, unite in love with other disciples in a spiritual community, and to train others and be trained by others to obey Jesus’ teachings. A disciple must also follow Jesus as He seeks to save the lost. A disciple’s goal is not only to one day be with Jesus, but to also help as many as possible find the eternal life He offers. To walk in any other direction does not follow Jesus’ path, and any other path is not worthy of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.

A disciple must continue to throw off anything that hinders the race before them (Hebrews 12:1) and must continue to learn and to teach as long as they live. Jesus has no other plans for spreading the Gospel except us as his ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20). Not only does our salvation depend on this Gospel, but so does the salvation of the world today and in generations to come. We cannot ease up, let up, or give up. In all future plans, my goal is to live in a way that pleases God and helps as many as possible get to Heaven.

When my husband and I were dating I gave him a plaque which read: “The world has yet to see what God will do with and for and by and through the one who is wholly consecrated to Him; I will try my utmost to be that person.”  This must remain the lifelong goal of any disciple of Jesus as they willingly go anywhere, do anything, and give up everything for Him.   


 Aelred of Rievaulx, as quoted by Jerome M. Neufelder and Mary C. Coelho, eds, in Writings on   Spiritual Direction, New York: Seabury, 1982.

 Coleman, Robert, The Master Plan of Evangelism Second Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 1993.

 Demarest, Bruce, Satisfy Your Soul, Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1999.

Getz, Gene, Building Up One Another, Wheaton, Il: Victor Books, 1976.

John of the Cross, Spiritual Maxims and Sentences, as quoted by Neufelder and Coelho, eds, in Writings on   Spiritual Direction, New York: Seabury, 1982. 

Kinneman, David, You Lost Me, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

Laing, Sam, The 7 People Who Help You to Heaven: Relationships that Change Our Lives, Spring, TX: Illumination Publishers, 2017.                                                                                                                

Noll, Mark A., Princeton and the Republic 1768-1822, Vancouver, BC: Regent College Press, 1989, 28 as referenced in Jeff Meyers, Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring, Dayton, TN: Passing the Baton, International, 2010.

Ogden, Greg, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time, Revised and Expanded, Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Putnam, Jim, Real-Life Discipleship, Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010.

Rolheiser, Ronald, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity, New York: Crown Publishing, 2014.

Swindoll, Charles, Hand Me Another Brick, Nashville: Nelson Books, 1978.

Wilkins, Michael, Following the Master: Discipleship in the Steps of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Willard, Dallas, The Divine Conspiracy, San Francisco: Harper, 1998.

[1] Bruce Demarest, Satisfy Your Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1999), 190.

[2] Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time, Revised and Expanded (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 31.

[3] Charles Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick (Nashville: Nelson Books, 1978), 157.

[4] Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism Second Edition (Grand Rapids: MI: Revell, 1993), 46-47.

[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), 330.

[6] Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: Discipleship in the Steps of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 279.

[7] Ogden, 87.

[8] Gene Getz, Building Up One Another (Wheaton, Il: Victor Books, 1976), 22.

[9] John of the Cross, Spiritual Maxims and Sentences, as quoted by Neufelder and Coelho, 5.

[10] Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: Discipleship in the Steps of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 279.

[11] Ogden, 21.

[12] Aelred of Rievaulx, as quoted by Jerome M. Neufelder and Mary C. Coelho, eds, in Writings on Spiritual Direction (New York: Seabury, 1982), 33.

[13] David Kinneman, You Lost Me (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 203.

[14] Coleman, 24.

[15] Jim Putnam, Real-Life Disicpleship (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010), 35.

[16] Mark A. Noll, Princeton and the Republic 1768-1822, (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Press, 1989), 28 as referenced in Jeff Meyers, Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring, (Dayton, TN: Passing the Baton, International, 2010), 26.

[17] Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (New York: Crown Publishing, 2014), 205-206.

[18] Sam Laing, The 7 People Who Help You to Heaven: Relationships that Change Our Lives (Spring, TX: Illumination Publishers, 2017), 139.

[19] Coleman, 18.

[20] Coleman, 46-47.

[21] Coleman, 66.

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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