Limited DiscipleshipBy Nathan Mates
[Author's note: this was inspired by some comments by my friend, John Skidmore, who reminded me that there's more to this process than bean counting.]
During his ministry on Earth, Jesus called twelve men [Matthew 4:18-22, others] to be his disciples to be with him in his roughly three years of ministry. In the 'great commission,' he called on those disciples (and us by extension) to repeat the process: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." [Matthew 28:19-20a]
To those eleven disciples (Judas Iscariot was gone by that point), they understood this command to follow in Jesus's steps. They'd gone through a process quite similar to that of other disciples at the time-- contemporary Rabbis as well as John the Baptist had disciples [Mark 2:18]. And so, it is instructive to examine exactly what they had done in the discipleship process.
For these disciples, the most obvious thing to their discipleship process was that it was a full time occupation: ""Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him." [Mark 1:17-18] Granted, this was not to apply to everyone throughout the ages: there are plenty of people who have served God without making that their occupation. But, for these first disciples, their time invested meant they could learn more.
Next, Jesus's discipleship differed little from contemporary disciplers' training. Jesus's disciples ate, lived, worked, slept, and prayed with Jesus. In doing all of these things, they fulfilled the role of being a disciple down to its definition; the word 'disciple' comes from a Latin root, meaning, quite simply, 'pupil'. [see http://www.m-w.com/ ] Jesus's disciples were, quite simply, students at the heavenly university.
In modern terms, we would characterize this training more as an apprenticeship. Even after Jesus's ascension to heaven, and there were fewer full-time disciples, the concept of being a pupil or student of Jesus didn't change. Even if one had a day job, one could be a pupil (disciple) during the time one spent with other Christians. To the early church, that time was not insignificant: "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts," [Acts 2:46]
As long as we are around others, they are watching our behavior. And so, whether or not we're conscious of it, others are learning from us. Now, that does that sound like? Discipleship, whether we were conscious of it or not.
Unfortunately, in our modern society, we've allowed our definitions to change from discipleship as the first disciples would have known. Instead of focusing first and foremost in bringing people alongside our lives (the pupil/apprenticeship aspect), some would rather replace that with regularly scheduled meetings-- an hour every week or few. To some, in our busy world, that's the only way that they can manage to find time to meet. But, when those meetings become the focus, and the way of counting discipleships, rather than counting pupils (at whatever level), that is a sadly limited view of discipleship that ignores the definition of the word, and how it's been practiced over time.