What Is a (Mature) Disciple?

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"Unless we are making disciples, we are not really evangelizing." This poignant statement was made in a pastoral letter on evangelization recently issued by Bishope Paul Loverde in the Arlington Diocese where I live.  It effectively cuts right to the heart of the matter - the goal of evangelization is to make disciples.  If we want to learn how to evangelize, we need to learn how to make disciples.  And for that to happen, we need to answer the question: what is a disciple?

This really is the question of the day, and perhaps just as some have tired of the overused expression "new evangelization," we may be on the verge of growing weary of talking about disciples, and discipleship, and disciple-making.  As such, let me back into this question from another direction.

SIMPLE CHURCH

How should we go about structuring our evangelizing activities and ministries in our churches so that they support this mission of making disciples?  The authors of the book Simple Church looked to the growing churches today and discovered that they share a common denominator - they are simple.  They began with identifying the process that they wanted to bring people through, and then they structured their programs to support this process.  When people come to these churches, they are given a clear picture of what moving from Point A to Point B looks like and what steps to take to get there.  (For a much more thorough introduction to Simple Church, see Fr. Charles Klamut's article at Pastoral Quotient.)

So Simple Church says we need to define our process first, but before we define our process we need to understand the goal of that process.  We need to be clear on our answer the question: what is a disciple?

Various answers could be given to this question, all with validity and truth, but are all definitions created equal?  The way we answer this question is going to shape our process, programs, and our whole approach to evangelization.  Let me state the question another way: why would someone want to be a disciple?  The best definition for "disciple" is going to contain the answer to this question as well.  The appeal of being a disciple will be clear from the definition we use for it.

OLYMPIC CHALLENGE

If I were to ask you to describe an Olympic athlete, what would you say?  Perhaps you would say things like:

  • Exercises regularly
  • Driven
  • Observes a strict diet
  • Determined
  • Focused
  • Wakes up early
  • Sets clear goals
  • Strong
  • Willingly endures hardships
  • Resilient
  • Confident

Now let's take this list and separate it into two categories.  First, let's identify the actions that characterize an Olympic athlete:

  • Exercises regularly
  • Observes a strict diet
  • Wakes up early
  • Sets clear goals
  • Willingly endures hardships

So if I were to tell you that this is what it means to be an Olympic athlete, would you find that very appealing?  I don't think many of us would.  Now let's look at the qualities of an Olympic athlete:

  • Driven
  • Determined
  • Focused
  • Strong
  • Resilient
  • Confident

If this was the picture you had in mind when someone asked you if you'd like to be an Olympic athlete, it becomes much more appealing, right?  To be sure, the cause-and-effect relationship between the qualities and the actions varies.  For instance, drivenness seems to be a quality that leads to disciplined actions, while regular exercise is what makes the athlete strong.  But it is the qualities of an athlete that have universal appeal.

In a similar way, it's important that we start with the end in mind when it comes to evangelization, that we start with a clear picture of what a mature disciple looks like. The more our definition gravitates towards the qualities of a mature disciple rather than the actions of a mature disciple, the better it will serve as our North Star for steering the process.

THE MATURE DISCIPLE

So what are the qualities of a mature disciple?  What is the "payoff" of being a committed disciple?

There are still various ways we could go about answering this question, different phrasings that work better in different circumstances, but targeting qualities over mere actions in our definition will be key to proposing a life of discipleship to non-believers.

Here is one of my favorite expressions of discipleship: a disciple knows whose they are, who they are, and their mission in life.  Knowing whose you are means belonging to God in a personal way, and being confident and secure in one's standing as a child of the Father, forgiven and free through the Cross.  Knowing who you are means being comfortable in the skin God gave you, understanding the unique blend of strengths God has given you, and overcoming the comparison trap by valuing others in their gifts and identity as well.  Finally, knowing your mission in life means believing that there is a unique God-given calling and anointing on your life to impact the world and establish His kingdom.

What would it look like to let this kind of definition determine your process and guide all of your program decision-making?