Four Reasons To Stop Using the Word 'Discipleship'

OK, but what exactly is 'discipleship'? That's the problem, it means everything and nothing at the same time. Churches use it to mean anything from attending a worship service to small group involvement to preparing coffee on Sundays.

Language matters. Words are the tools we use to communicate ideas. Like most tools, when uncared for, they rust. There's rust all over 'discipleship'. When a word gets rusty it can no longer do the job. What was once a useful tool has become a source of confusion and frustration. In American churches from Dayton, Ohio to Tempe, Arizona ‘discipleship’ has become the Swiss Army Knife of Christian words. It wasn’t always that way.

Historians trace the modern discipleship movement to The Navigators founder Dawson Trotman, of whom I am a direct spiritual descendent. Daws popularized the term 'discipleship' and was the first to use ‘disciple’ as a verb. He taught that every believer should grow in the context of a discipleship relationship. The fruit of that maturity was reproduction. Mature believers bring others to faith, disciple them to maturity, and then the process repeats itself.

In Trotman’s 25 years of ministry, his influence was immense. At the time of his death in 1956, Billy Graham eulogized Trotman by saying, “Daws has personally touched more lives than anybody I have ever known.” In Trotman’s view, the focus of discipleship wasn’t the individual’s growth, but that each disciple would disciple another.

Today ‘discipleship’ is consumed with rust and dead in the water. To recover what rust has destroyed, we must replace 'discipleship' with something else. That replacement should be ‘disciplemaking’.

The Navigators Founder, Dawson Trotman


Here are four specific ways the term ‘disciplemaking’ can reclaim what’s been lost in the term ‘discipleship’.

1. Discipleship is self-focused. In most churches, discipleship is anything that might help you grow spiritually. Your growth is the goal. Though participation often requires being among others, it doesn’t require heart connection to others.

Disciplemaking is others-focused. The purpose of becoming a mature disciple is to glorify God by making more disciples. A disciple can’t be made without relationally and intentionally connecting to another. The incarnational relationship is the context that yields transformation.

2. Discipleship is knowledge centered. If information brought about transformation then our churches would be filled with Christ-like reproducers!

Disciplemaking is application centered. Since more is caught than taught, disciplemaking focuses on application. The disciple maker knows we reproduce who we are, not what we know.

3. Discipleship is focused on sanctification. In some cases, the discipleship is used as a synonym for sanctification or our growth in holiness and godliness.

Disciplemaking is focused on reproduction. The fruit of sanctification is Christ-likeness which helps us make disciples. The end isn't our own maturity, but our ability (by the Spirit working in us) to bring infant Christ-followers into the world. 

4. Discipleship is unmeasurable. Most pastors and church leaders point to the fruit of the Spirit as the fruit of discipleship. Since love, joy, peace, patience, etc., can’t be measured, it’s easy to deceive ourselves into believing we’re maturing. Unfortunately, the state of the American church tells a different story. 

Disciplemaking is measureable. In the same way that parents know who their children are, disciple makers know who they've spiritually parented. They know the disciples they’ve made. Here again the spiritual mirrors the physical. Parents and disciple makers know the maturity and health of their offspring.

In short, 'discipleship' is worn out from overuse. 'Disciplemaking' is a major upgrade! Believed to have first been used by Dawson Trotman's right hand man, Lorne Sanny, it draws our attention away from the busyness of fruitless activity and production, and towards reproduction. As Daws used to say, “Activity is no substitute for production. Production is no substitute for reproduction.”

So will you join me in tossing old, rusty ‘discipleship’ in favor of 'disciplemaking'?