Taking time to define discipleship serves as an essential exercise for any ministry leader. Going anywhere requires two components: a destination and a pathway. You must know where you are going, because that determines what route must be taken to arrive there. Without a destination or a pathway, someone could work diligently and travel a great distance but never arrive at the right place.

This principle rings true not only in travel but also in discipleship ministry. In our churches every week, we meet for discipleship in groups some way. Some meet for Sunday School; some meet for small groups, and some use both. As we meet in these groups, we must be careful to gather with a pathway in mind, or else we run the risk of doing a great deal of work but never really going anywhere.

In developing a pathway for your church, we must answer the questions: “What is a disciple?” and “What is discipleship?” Defining these important terms will help us see our destination and how we are going to get there.

What is a disciple?

Reading through the four Gospels and Acts, you will see the word “disciple” several times. We also use that word in church and ministry quite often—so often, in fact, that we can take it for granted. When we wrestle with the question of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, the Holy Spirit works in our hearts to give us vision for where He is working in our churches and communities.

To find an answer to this question, search the Scripture for biblical principles that are always true of disciples. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you what Jesus said about following Him. For instance, look at what He said about the marks of disciples in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20): salvation and baptism, learning and obeying, trusting and going. This is a great starting place, but take time to dive deep in the Word. Also, find a few great books on discipleship to help encourage you—see what some others who have wrestled with this same question have said.

What is discipleship?

As you are looking for answers to the definition of a disciple, your context helps guide the principles you discover to define “discipleship.” I always like that “ship” makes up part of this word. We can think of it as a type of vessel that we can use to help people on their journey in following and being more like Jesus. You are determining what it means to follow Jesus in your community and culture. You are finding your discipleship pathway. This gives you a focus to decide on what ministry methods to use, as well as the purpose for them.

Using Sunday School? Now, you can be equipped to recruit and train Sunday School leaders with a vision on why you meet each week and what goals you want to accomplish together. Trying to decide on using other small groups in your church? Would home groups be effective in your community? What about short-term groups on Wednesday nights? See how they fit in the discipleship pathway for your church.

The Lord will lead you through this process, and He will give you vision for your church in a way that the people will understand it and follow it. A focused pathway helps guide decisions, and it also serves in communicating to church members the importance of belonging to a group.

As you work through this exercise, bring others to the table. Sit down as a church staff and talk about this in staff meeting each week. If you are the only staff member, gather with your key leaders throughout the year to wrestle with these questions. This will give others ownership in making disciples and unify vision for discipleship in your church.