What does discipleship really mean?
It’s been a question Stephen Johnson has been on a journey to answer for years. “Whatever discipleship means,” he says, “it must be relevant to everyone, everywhere, at all times, or it isn’t real discipleship.”
The model of whole-life discipleship has offered this all-inclusive vision of life to Fellowship Bible Church, where Stephen has pastored for the last eleven years. It has also made discipleship very relational and situational, inviting everyone to ask what the Lord has for them in each moment, as they “wrestle with their situation and the Holy Spirit everywhere they go.” This is a discipleship that speaks to everyone, regardless of whether they are a CEO or a car-pooling mom.
Stephen’s church community has embraced whole-life discipleship, not as a program, but as a way of being and thinking and living, as something that permeates everything they are doing. “People got excited” when they first began emphasizing it, he remembers. “The greatest joy about promoting whole-life discipleship is when people realize that they’re already doing it, but they didn’t have language for it or didn’t realize it was God-honoring, that He was pleased with it, and that it was making a difference. It’s empowering.”
A crucial part of this outlook has been commissioning people to their work places. “If someone is out of work, we pray for them,” Stephen shared with me, “remembering that they have not lost their calling or vocation, but rather are entering a new one, for example to their home or neighborhood, until they are employed again.” The church also commissions individuals every time they get a new job.
One older gentleman at Stephen’s church had to quit his job because of health concerns, and when he got a new job gathering and bagging online grocery orders, the church commissioned him to his new workplace. This commissioning moment—specifically for him—was meaningful. Stephen says, “It nearly brought him to tears to have all of us agreeing with him that his job mattered, and that God was agreeing with him that his job mattered. He knew it was true, but we were saying it out loud and putting a focus on it.”
For a long time, Stephen weekly visited people on their frontlines. He asked them about the opportunities and challenges they faced on their frontline, how they served God and his purposes there, and for ways the church could be praying for them. He shared these stories in weekly church emails and invited the church to pray for them. These frontline visits and reports provided a constant reminder of the importance of their work—and gave context and practical examples of how God is at work outside of the church walls in the lives of scattered Christians.
As a full-time pastor, Stephen is called to equip and empower his fellow disciples in his church to live out their discipleship in everyday life—and to remind them that he is just one person making disciples. They are called to disciple-making as well.
“We have the opportunity every day to help people take one step closer to following Jesus, whether they are believers or unbelievers,” he says. “Not every conversation is an evangelistic conversation, but they can all be gospel-rich, gospel-saturated, and gospel-honoring conversations, as we understand that the gospel has implications not just for salvation but for all of life.” Sometimes these discipleship-oriented conversations are simply a matter of being a little more honest than we’re used to.
When Stephen reflects on his role, he says, “Quite frankly, what you’re doing on Sunday morning is not supposed to be the thing the people in your church are focused on most during the week. The old model has been ‘We need to get people to think about church when they’re not at church.’ But whole-life discipleship turns it on its head. It says ‘No, we need to get you at church to be thinking about when you’re not at church.’ I’m not concerned about if people are thinking about my sermon on a Tuesday. What I’m concerned about is whether they’re thinking about Jesus on Tuesday.”
Diana Gruver (MA, Gordon-Conwell) writes about discipleship and spiritual formation in the every day. She is the author of Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints who Struggled with Depression and Doubt. You can find her online at www.dianagruver.com or on Facebook or Twitter. Diana originally published this work with the Vere Institute (Oct 2014 – May 2021), which was founded to empower Christians to integrate their faith into everyday life. The Vere Institute’s legacy lives on through our Vere Library.